Throughout the day, Grub Street will post its predictions for tonight’s James Beard Awards. Congratulations and good luck to all the nominees.
Best Chefs in America: Great Lakes (IL, IN, MI, OH)
“Chefs who have set new or consistent standards of excellence in their respective regions. Each candidate may be employed by any kind of dining establishment and must have been a working chef for at least the past 5 years. The 3 most recent years must have been spent in the region where the chef is presently working.” Previous winners include Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia, Carrie Nahabedian of Naha, Grant Achatz of Alinea.
Michael Carlson (Schwa), Chicago
For It: On its own merits, Schwa helped establish Chicago as the molecular gastronomy capital of the country. Carlson’s personal story of burnout and subsequent return to form is heartwarming; Alan Richman chronicled it in GQ, to much attention and acclaim.
Against It: It’s the first time Carlson has been nominated, and his erratic personal history (not to mention Schwa’s notoriously tough reservation policy) might have alienated voters.
Koren Grieveson (Avec), Chicago
For It: Grieveson has contributed indelibly to the Chicago culinary landscape — Avec’s gimmick of high quality food in a casual atmosphere primed the city’s palate for places like The Publican and The Bristol. Grieveson has been a media darling throughout the past year, tying with Cat Cora on the Iron Chef America episode Battle Butter, and appearing as a special guest of Michelle Obama at the White House Healthy Kids Fair.
Against It: Almost nothing. She may be the one to beat.
Arun Sampanthavivat (Arun’s), Chicago
For It: Sampanthavivat’s Thai menu is a refreshing break from the other nominees’ various renditions of “modern American.” He has seven previous nominations in this category with no wins, so maybe it’s his time to shine.
Against It: He has seven previous nominations in this category with no wins, so maybe voters are bored by him (or maybe he’s cursed?). He’s received virtually no media coverage in the last year, so there isn’t a clear case for this year being his.
Bruce Sherman (North Pond), Chicago
For It: Sherman’s one of the granddaddies of Chicago’s haute-locavore movement, which has hit critical mass lately. He’s been in the news for his involvement with the Chefs Collaborative, the group that wrote to the Obamas to express approval for their commitment to supporting sustainable food politics. He was also targeted as part of a bizarre state agency raid on restaurants with locally-sourced ingredients, which may have raised goodwill with voters.
Against It: For all his news coverage, his restaurant hasn’t done too much exciting lately. Three previous nominations without a win don’t bode well.
Alex Young (Zingerman’s Roadhouse), Ann Arbor, MI
For It: It’s the only restaurant not in Chicago, which has historically been a good stragey for nominees in this category (Cleveland’s Michael Symon won last year).
Against It: His restaurant’s casual food may be overshadowed by the fine-dining angles of its fellow nominees.
Grub Street Predicts: Koren Grieveson
Michael Carlson probably needs some more time to prove his consistency; Young might have the fine dining chops, but hasn’t necessarily proven them; Sampanthavivat and Sherman need to get some more exposure for their food. Bruce Sherman’s activism could certainly put him in a position to pull out a win this year, but we’re going with Koren Grieveson: Avec has never won an award, even though it remains one of the top players in Chicago’s restaurant scene, and has the most national recognition of all the nominees.