Lula Cafe the lone Chicago winner at the 2024 James Beard Awards

A who’s who of the nation’s culinary world gathered at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House on Monday night as the James Beard Awards for outstanding restaurants and chefs from across the country were presented in a gala ceremony. The awards, affectionately called “the Oscars of the culinary world,” are considered the among highest accolades in the industry.

For Chicago’s dining community, a lone winner would emerge on this night, from among four nominees across various categories.

The much beloved Lula Cafe, helmed by chef/owner Jason Hammel, won in the category of Outstanding Hospitality. Started 25 years ago, the restaurant at 2537 N. Kedzie Ave. in Logan Square, celebrates fresh, seasonal, market-to-table fare.

In his acceptance speech, Hammel thanked his wife, his kids and his team for being part of his restaurant journey.

“Hospitality is a team award. … The hard work of emotional labor is not about how we treat guests, necessarily, but about how we treat each other. … We truly believe at Lula that hospitality is love with conditions, and we believe the conditions can be fair, just and kind. And I hope that everyone here and in the world and especially those with power will enact policies that protect and ensure that these conditions can be met and maintained for everyone. We will certainly hold ourselves to that goal.”

Backstage after the presentation, Hammel added “We have so many restaurants doing this kind of work. it’s great to be recognized, but right now there’s a hundred restaurants doing the hard and emotional work of hospitality. And I believe in them all. But not everybody gets recognized. I definitely realize it’s a privilege.”

Chef Jason Hammel of Chicago’s Lula Cafe accepts the 2024 James Beard Award for outstanding hospitality at the gala ceremony Monday night at Lyric Opera House.

Screenshot from video

In the category of best chefs Great Lakes Region, Chicago’s Michelin-starred Indienne, helmed by Sujan Sarkar, and the Michelin-starred Esmé, helmed by Jenner Tomaska, were shut out by Hajime Sato of Sozai restaurant in Clawson, Michigan, the first sushi chef to win a regional James Beard Award.

Nominated in the category of outstanding pastry chef or baker, Chicago’s Anna Posey of the Michelin-starred Elske lost to Atsuko Fujimoto of Norimoto Bakery in Portland, Maine.

Hosts for the evening included “Next Level Chef” co-hosts/chefs Nyesha Arrington and James Beard nominee Richard Blais; Food Network star and chef Amanda Freitag; and celebrity chef/James Beard Award winner Marcus Samuelsson.

James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach (center) joins chefs and gala co-hosts Richard Blais (from left), Nyesha Arrington, Amanda Freitag and Marcus Samuelsson on the red carpet at the James Beard Awards on Monday evening at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

In his welcoming remarks, Mayor Brandon Johnson said, “I want to first thank the James Beard Foundation for continuing to bring this wonderful weekend of events to the greatest freaking city in the world.”

In noting that Chicago is home to more than 50 James Beard Award-winning chefs and restaurants, Johnson added: “One of the reasons visitors [come back to Chicago over and over again] is its incredible culinary scene. The soul of Chicago and the diversity of our communities are reflected in our world-renown culinary scene, from casual dining to some of the most celebrated fine dining establishments in the entire world.”

The James Beard Awards ceremony, first presented in 1991, moved to Chicago from New York in 2015. The awards are scheduled to take place here through 2027.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson delivers welcoming remarks during the 2024 James Beard Awards ceremony on Monday night at Lyric Opera House.

Screenshot from video

Outstanding restaurant honors went to the Thai eatery Langbaan in Portland, Oregon.

Outstanding chef honors went to Michael Rafidi who helms the Palestinian restaurant Albi in Washington, D.C.

Best new restaurant honors went to the Senegalese Dakar NOLA in New Orleans, helmed by Chef Serigne Mbaye.

Erika Whitaker and Kelly Whitaker, of Id EST Hospitality Group of Boulder, Colorado, were named outstanding restaurateur.

Chef Michael Rafidi of Albi in Washington, D.C., arrives on the red carpet before the James Beard Awards ceremony Monday. Rafidi won the award for outstanding chef later in the evening.

Erin Hooley/AP

Midway through the evening, co-host Richard Blais opted for a moment of playfulness when he announced from the podium that one lucky member in the audience was the recipient of a whole black truffle, sealed inside a Tupperware container taped to the bottom of their seat. “This is not a joke!,” Blais said smiling from ear to ear. “You might not have won your category, but you get a whole black truffle.” (A quick check of notes that said truffle could go for $300 to $800 per pound.)

Dr. Afua “Effie” Richardson (left) and chef Serigne Mbaye pose on the red carpet before the James Beard Awards ceremony Monday night. Their restaurant Dakar NOLA, based in New Orleans, won the James Beard award for best new restaurant.

Erin Hooley/AP

2024 James Beard Awards: Restaurant and Chef Awards winners

Outstanding Restaurant: Langbaan, Portland, OregonOutstanding Chef: Michael Rafidi, Albi, Washington, D.C.Best New Restaurant: Dakar NOLA, New OrleansOustanding Hospitality: Lula Cafe, ChicagoEmerging Chef: Masako Morishita, Perry’s, Washington, D.C.Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker: Atsuko Fujimoto, Norimoto Bakery, Portland, MaineOutstanding Restaurateur: Erika Whitaker and Kelly Whitaker, of Id EST Hospitality Group, Boulder, Colorado Outstanding Bakery: ZU Bakery, Portland, MaineOutstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program: Lula Drake Wine Parlour, Columbia, South CarolinaOutstanding Bar: Jewel of the South, New OrleansBest Chef New York State: Charlie Mitchell, Cloverhill, Brooklyn, New YorkBest Chef Mid-Atlantic: (DC, DE, MD, NJ, PA, VA): Harley Peet, Bas Rouge, Easton, MarylandBest Chef South: (AL, AR, FL, LA, MS, PR): Valerie Chang, Maty’s, MiamiBest Chef Northwest and Pacific: (AK, HI, OR, WA): Gregory Gourdet, Kann, Portland, OregonBest Chef Northeast: (CT, MA, ME, NH, RI, VT): David Standridge, The Shipwright’s Daughter, Mystic, ConnecticutBest Chef Midwest: (IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD, WI): Christina Nguyen, Hai Hai, MinneapolisBest Chef California: Lord Maynard Llera, Kuya Lord, Los AngelesBest Chef Mountain: (CO, ID, MT, UT, WY): Matt Vawter, Rootstalk, Breckenridge, ColoradoBest Chef Southwest: (AZ, NM, NV, OK): Rene Andrade, Bacanora, PhoenixBest Chef Southeast: (GA, KY, NC, SC, TN, WV): Paul Smith, 1010 Bridge, Charleston, West VirginiaBest Chef Great Lakes: (IL, IN, MI, OH): Hajime Sato, Sozai, Clawson, MichiganBest Chef Texas: Ana Liz Pulido, Ana Liz Taqueria, Mission, Texas

From the Red Carpet Arrivals:

Earlier in the night, the Sun-Times chatted with chefs and other notables as they arrived for the awards ceremony, about what the event means to them and to Chicago.

“Though it’s Best Chef Great Lakes, it’s always about team effort. I represent the bunch of people who are not only in Chicago. I have restaurants all over, but my restaurant is a little different. We are doing sustainable Indian fine dining which is exciting, and that’s why it’s amazing to be part of this,” Sujan Sarkar said of his nomination as he chatted on the red carpet.

Sujan Sarkar, chef at Indienne in River North and nominee for best chef Great Lakes region, arrives on the red carpet at the James Beard Awards on Monday night.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Jenner Tomaska of Lincoln Park’s Esmé restaurant gave a shout-out on the red carpet to his wife and business partner and the whole team at the restaurant.

“Tonight’s my third time being recognized — twice [before] at Next. So to branch off and do this on my own, I, well, I shouldn’t say my own because this is always a team effort with my wife [Katrina Bravo] and, and our lovely team at Esme. It hits a little bit different. I’m very honored and humbled and a win tonight would most certainly be for them.”

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