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Expressions like “chance of a lifetime” and “best time ever” get tossed around too freely in today’s superlative-driven world.

But for a longtime foodie like me, being invited to attend last week’s prestigious national James Beard Awards Gala at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago really was way up there on the epic scale.

Known as the Oscars of the culinary world, the event had all the makings of Hollywood’s biggest night.

Star-studded celebrities walking the red carpet. Paparazzi photographing attendees in tuxes and gowns. A glitzy awards ceremony with teary-eyed acceptance speeches. An “In Memoriam” montage honoring stars the food world lost this past year. And, of course, a post-gala reception with restaurants and bars across the country serving up luxe bites of food and fancy cocktails that were simply beyond compare.

And there I was, taking it all in.

Meeting chefs I’ve admired from afar. Trading war stories with fellow restaurant critics. Talking to Justin Sutherland, a recent finalist on Bravo’s “Top Chef: Kentucky.” Seeing (and in some cases, standing alongside) celebrity chefs and food personalities like Tom Collicchio, Andrew Zimmern, Gail Simmons, Daniel freakin’ Boulud — and Hollywood stars like host Jessie Tyler Ferguson of “Modern Family” and presenter Zoey Deschanel of “New Girl.”

It was definitely a night full of pinch me moments. But it wasn’t the gala that changed me most.

A West Virginia winner

Honoring the best restaurants, chefs, designers and service in the country the ceremony was full of inspiring rags-to-riches success stories.

The restaurant-owning father who solemnly apologized to his kids for missing so much of their youth, but hoped the example he set for hard work and dedication would rub off on them. The chef who tearfully thanked her immigrant parents for sacrificing everything so she could both follow her passion and have a better life.

And a laugh-and-cry speech by Lifetime Achievement Award winner (and five-time Beard winner) chef Patrick O’Connell that is finally prompting me to book a long-awaited visit to The Inn at Little Washington. Because I simply must try the food of a man who has built a culinary mecca from an electric skillet purchased at a yard sale decades ago.

I was moved by all of the winners’ stories, but got especially choked up when one of our own from right here in West Virginia was honored.

The foundation’s namesake Beard was known for his taste for elegance, but he was just as enamored with humble food as he was highfalutin.

“I believe we have a rich and fascinating food heritage,” he once said, so every year the James Beard Foundation honors a handful of restaurants across the nation as “America’s Classics,” based on their beloved following and timeless appeal serving quality food that reflects the character of their communities.

This year’s celebrated group included Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti House, a family-owned institution in Huntington for more than 80 years.

After a video montage during which she shared her family’s love for their customers and dedication to providing them good food and service, Jimmie Tweel Carder (Jim’s daughter and current restaurant general manager) was invited on stage to rousing applause.

And it was West Virginia’s first win in the category, which is as sweet as the famous strawberry pie Jim’s is known for.

An after party extravaganzaAfter all of the honorees received their medals, made their speeches and pledged to — as one winner described — “drink aggressively tonight,” that’s when the real party began.

As the doors opened back up into the Lyric Opera’s grand hall, guests were treated to dozens of food and drink stations serving up delicious bites and sips that were award-worthy themselves.

I tried them all.

There was a big line for Beard-winning chef Jeremiah Langhorne’s Autumn Olive Farms coppa with onion soubise, spring herbs and Batch 13 cheese on toasted brioche from The Dabney restaurant in Washington, DC. I’d never even heard of soubise, but I now know it’s an onion-butter sauce — and I now call it amazing.

Georgia’s “Resident Gourmet” Jennifer Hill Booker brought a taste of the South with her rich and creamy pimiento cheese grits with smoky tomato-okra gravy that was every bit as incredible as it sounds. In case you missed that: Pimiento. Cheese. Grits.

Chef Jeffrey Steelman of Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi Bar in the host town of Chicago prepared gorgeous fluke ceviche with lemongrass green curry, marinated green papaya, crispy shallots, Thai chiles, citrus and cilantro.

Dutch-Spanish chef Sandra Cordero from Gasolina Café in Woodland Hills, CA, served up the daintiest discs of herbed cheese flan with piquillo crema and Jamon, while past Beard-winning chef Karen Akunowicz from Boston’s Fox & The Knife prepared individual rosemary semolina cakes topped with whipped ricotta and black truffles.

And remember that “Top Chef: Kentucky” finalist I may or may not have stalked?

Justin Southerland’s miso-cured Skuna Bay salmon crudo with yuzu-avocado puree, daikon kimchi, salmon skin togarashi and smoked salmon roe so skillfully showed why he came so close to winning this past season.

That’s only about a third of the food I savored, but we can’t forget the cocktails, which were every bit as fancy.

Tito’s was mixing its infused vodka with strawberry puree and mint, another bar was shaking up smoky mescal cocktails and then there was the refreshing Summertime Swing.

Each gorgeous tall glass of Hendricks Midsummer Solstice Gin with IPA honey, melon and honeydew-infused sake, Meyer lemon, fennel and hop powder was topped with brightly colored fresh spring flower blossoms that were edible as well.

Now that’s fancy.

Dining through Chicago

As life-changing as the James Beard Awards Gala was, I wasn’t about to spend a few days in Chicago and not explore one of the country’s top culinary cities. Great food is being made in Chicago, y’all — and the appeal goes far beyond deep-dish pizza.

I first made tracks to Eataly Chicago, a bustling two-story Italian marketplace with several restaurants and a host of shops selling wine, cheese, pasta, produce, meats, seafood, crepes, olive oils and all manner of Italian products.

You can sample different wines and get a glass as soon as you walk in the door, then sip, stroll and shop around at your own pace. (Imagine Charleston’s Capitol Market as a “sip and shop” place and you’ll get a sense of the experience here.)

I grabbed a lovely ruby-red Super Tuscan and browsed my way up to one of the second floor restaurants situated right in the open-concept market with no walls separating them from the shops that fill the building.

Fully embracing a “when in Italy” mindset, I sipped an Aperol Spritz — the official bitter-meets-bubbly orange cocktail of Northern Ital – while enjoying a simple plate of fresh mozzarella drizzled with olive oil and sea salt, followed by a fresh octopus salad that, well, you just don’t see much back home.

After dinner, I walked further down Michigan Avenue to the city’s landmark Signature Room at the 95th atop the former John Hancock Center to cap off the night with my favorite dusty martini while soaking up breathtaking views of the city’s dramatic nighttime skyline.

The next day for lunch I stumbled upon The Dearborn., and fell madly in love.

This popular tavern in the city’s Loop/Theater District not only features inventive craft cocktails and a seasonal market-fresh menu of ultra-creative dishes, but does so in a super-chic environment that seamlessly blends Old World charm with modern style. With warm colors, lots of wood, soft ambient light and striking design, I was just as taken with the décor as I was with the art on my plates.

That culinary art came in the form of an earthy roasted heirloom carrot salad (with frisée, endive, radicchio, arugula, dandelion greens, warm dijonnaise vinaigrette, apples, unsmoked bacon, oranges, Irish blue cheese and candied walnuts) and fresh Alaskan halibut atop a warm salad of blue crab, fennel, dill, fingerling potato, lemon-caper beurre blanc, crispy shallots and shaved radish.

Enjoyed with a buttery Chardonnay, it was a lunch I could eat every day.

A chance life-changing experience

But of all the good food I ate, it was an unexpected meal that affected me most.

As part of the James Beard Awards Gala festivities, there was a week long celebration of special dinners, receptions, pop-up restaurants and more. I popped into a few of them, but also wanted to leave free time to explore a city the way I like to. And that’s by walking it, from neighborhood to neighborhood, from one end to the other, just to see what I can see.

Chicago is a stunning city offering an enviable blend of modern and preserved architecture, a dramatic skyline, a lakeside setting, creative public spaces, a lively cultural scene, and world-class shopping and dining.

After enjoying a leisurely stroll through downtown, Millennium Park, Navy Pier and the “Magnificent Mile” along North Michigan Avenue, I was starting to crave a bite to eat and — let’s be honest — a cocktail to quench my thirst from all that walking.

Enter The Purple Pig.

I had decided to stop into the first “cool-looking” restaurant I found, which ended up being this lively spot serving adventurous small plates, extensive wines and views of the city just a few blocks off the Chicago Riverwalk.

With lots of folks sipping cocktails outside waiting for tables, I didn’t think I had a prayer of getting in. But I just needed a seat for one, surely they could squeeze me in at the bar?

“I’m sorry, sir, the restaurant and bar are both full,” the hostess told me. “The only seat we have left is one at the chef’s counter overlooking the kitchen.”

Say what now? She laughed.

“Sir, it’s pretty intense. It’s not the relaxing, fine-dining experience you’re probably looking for. It’s more for people who want to see what it’s really like in the kitchen — and it’s not always pretty.”

She clearly didn’t know me. I’ll take it.

Over the next two hours, I enjoyed a couple of incredible wines and devoured one of the best dishes of my life — a simple, salted-beet salad with almond butter, toasted pistachios and whipped goat cheese.

Those who have followed my columns for years know how much I detest beets. But in the spirit of the Beards, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and try things I don’t usually get to.

There were crazy items like smoked pork tongue, neck bone gravy, crispy pig ears and peanut-butter-and-jelly foie gras on the menu, but I’m so glad I took a chance on those beets. That dish was extraordinary — a mouthwatering symphony of contrasting flavors and textures that surprised me with every bite. I simply cannot stop thinking about it.

I followed it with The Purple Pig’s popular milk-braised (and fork-tender) Berkshire pork shoulder with mashed potatoes and crispy lentils covered in a rich brown gravy.

But even better than the food, I left with a new appreciation of the hardworking people who darn near kill themselves every night to put out exceptional food at the country’s finest restaurants.

There were 10 to 12 cooks and assorted staff working the line right in front of me in a space that was half the size of my hallway — and no wider. Didn’t matter. They were still receiving dozens of tickets at lightning speed and turning out show-stopping food at a dizzying pace.

It was truly a sight to see and I soon realized I wasn’t merely watching chefs cook food.

I was watching a brigade at work. An army of kitchen workers — many battle-scarred with cuts, bruises and burns — who repeated every order as it was called, kept smiling as the tickets backed up and had each other’s backs in a way I’ve never witnessed in my life.

And all of this chaos was skillfully managed by a 20-something lad who was young enough to be my son. His blend of calmness and leadership was admirable and I found myself staring, mouth gaping, at his team all night.

Given their cramped and busy kitchen quarters, it would’ve been easy for these folks to complain or cuss or cut corners. But they thrived under the circumstances, even teasing they might break out into a little Beyonce if things slowed down, all the while putting out dish after stunning dish.

From my chance seat that night — the seat right next to the pass where every dish went out to the dining room — I got to see every single plate the kitchen made for two hours. Not only were they stunning and seemingly delicious, but every dish had so much love and passion put into it.

I saw it with my own eyes.

I left The Purple Pig that night with a new admiration for good food, great restaurants and the workers who make them that way. And a new determination to stop phoning it in when it comes to eating and cooking, which we all do from time to time because we think it’s just easier.

But even simple, quick, unfussy food can be great, just as James Beard believed, so why in the world should we settle for anything less?

And the winners are …

Here’s the complete list of winners from the 2019 James Beard Foundation Awards.

  • Outstanding Restaurant: Zahav, Philadelphia
  • Best New Restaurant: Frenchette, New York City
  • Outstanding Chef: Ashley Christensen from Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Outstanding Pastry Chef: Kelly Fields from Willa Jean, New Orleans
  • Outstanding Baker: Greg Wade from Publican Quality Bread, Chicago
  • Outstanding Restaurateur: Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, Boka Restaurant Group (Boka, Girl & the Goat, Momotaro and others) in Chicago
  • Outstanding Service: Frasca Food and Wine, Boulder, CO
  • Outstanding Bar Program: Bar Agricole, San Francisco
  • Outstanding Wine Program: Benu, San Francisco
  • Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer: Rob Tod from Allagash Brewing Company, Portland, ME
  • Best Chef Great Lakes: Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark from Parachute, Chicago
  • Best Chef Mid-Atlantic: Tom Cunanan from Bad Saint in Washington, D.C.
  • Best Chef Midwest: Ann Kim from Young Joni, Minneapolis
  • Best Chef New York City: Jody Williams and Rita Sodi, Via Carota
  • Best Chef: Northeast: Tony Messina from Uni, Boston
  • Best Chef Northwest: Brady Williams from Canlis, Seattle
  • Best Chef South: Vishwesh Bhatt from Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi
  • Best Chef Southeast: Mashama Bailey from The Grey, Savannah, Georgia
  • Best Chef Southwest: Charleen Badman from FnB, Scottsdale, Arizona
  • Best Chef West: Michael
  • Cimarusti from Providence, Los Angeles
  • Rising Star Chef of the Year: Kwame Onwuachi from Kith and Kin, Washington, D.C.
  • Best Restaurant Design, 75 Seats and Under: Studio Writers for Atomix, New York City
  • Best Restaurant Design, 76 Seats and Over: Parts and Labor Design for Pacific Standard Time, Chicago
  • Best Design for Other Eating and Drinking Places: Schwartz and Architecture for El Pípila, San Francisco
  • Design Icon Award: Canlis, Seattle
  • Humanitarian of the Year: The Giving Kitchen
  • Lifetime Achievement Award: Patrick O’Connell – five-time James Beard Award winner, 3-star Michelin chef, autho, and owner of The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia

America’s Classics Honorees:

  • Pho 79, Garden Grove, California
  • Jim’s Steak & Spaghetti House, Huntington, West Virginia
  • A&A Bake & Double Roti Shop, Brooklyn, New York
  • Sehnert’s Bakery & Bieroc Café, McCook, New England
  • Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse, Washington, D.C.

Steven Keith writes a weekly food column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or by email at wvfoodguy@aol.com. You can also follow him on Facebook as “WV Food Guy” and on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest as “WVFoodGuy.”