One of the most important nights of the year for professional culinary recognition is upon us. Tonight, for the first time ever in Chicago, chefs, sommeliers, restaurant operators and bartenders will gather at the Lyric Opera of Chicago to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the James Beard Foundation Awards.
The evolution of the chef
The idea of what it means to be a chef has evolved tremendously over the past 25 years. The catalyst for most of these changes is rooted in increased transparency — from traditional media, which has brought professional culinarians into our homes and aided the “chefs as celebrities” shift, to the Digital Age, which opened the door of accessibility even further to direct chef-to-guest interactions.
But perhaps one of the most important chef shifts over the past few decades hasn’t been chef-driven at all — at least, not initially. As Dan Barber said of chefs in Episode 2 of Chef’s Table, “We have this power now we never had. We can introduce change for the good.”
Through personal ethics and consumer demand, driven by more sophisticated palates and a deeper education of food (and where it comes from), chefs have an even greater responsibility to modern-day diners. No matter the title — sous chef, chef de cuisine, executive chef, pastry chef, etc. — chefs, great ones, serve more than just a plate of food; they serve an experience. And the best chefs base these experiences on a foundation of greater good. Their artistically plated cuisine stands for something bigger than what can be produced in a kitchen.
Wes Jackson, the founder & president of The Land Institute, once said, “If you’re thinking about an idea that you can solve in your lifetime, you’re thinking too small.”
The mind of a great chef — no matter how credible or acclaimed — is always seeking improvement. The secret sauce of culinary success cannot be found in one particular ingredient, and it’s not in one specific menu design. Ultimate success is a chef’s driving force to always be better, to always improve on quality consistency, to continue finding and strengthening their purpose to the people they serve (and to themselves), and to always seek new flavors — even in the same ingredient.
Chefs have publicly become artists, politicians and environmentalists in their own right. But it is in the privacy of their dining rooms that their intimate take on the experience of eating can truly be explored.
And tonight, we celebrate these vanguards who are pushing the industry — and envelope — further.
Get to know some of the JBFA “Rising Star Chef of the Year” semi-finalists here.
Also, make sure to check out the livestream of the Awards tonight at 6 p.m. CST here.