Maybe it was the name.
Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.
How else do you account for its Chicago founder, Rich Melman, being nominated six consecutive times for the James Beard Foundation's outstanding restaurateur of the year award and never winning? Puns and prestige don't mix.
Not usually. Monday night, though, at the Beard Foundation's awards gala in New York City, Melman finally took outstanding restaurateur honors.
And he wasn't there.
Melman — who owns more than 40 restaurants in Chicago, an empire that spans lunch (Wow Bao, Big Bowl), longtime haunts (Shaw's Crab House, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!) and acclaimed white-cloth establishments (L20, Tru) — was here, in Chicago.
We called and told him. He hadn't heard.
"Are you serious?" he asked. "I'm shocked. Somebody pointed out to me … that nobody outside of New York ever wins that award … I didn't even realize that today were the Beard awards until you called. I am truly susprised."
The James Beard awards, among the culinary world's most prestigious honors, annually recognize the best restaurants and chefs and food professionals in the country. The only other Chicago winners were the Chicago Reader's Michael Gebert and Julia Thiel, who took best multimedia food feature for their "Key Ingredient" series, which asks chefs to create a dish around an exotic ingredient — geraniums, Asian kluwak nuts, etc. (Their award was presented Friday, during the Beard's Book, Broadcast and Journalism Awards.)
This means, for the fifth consecutive year, Mindy Segal of Bucktown's HotChocolate lost outstanding pastry chef. North Pond chef Bruce Sherman can relate.
He's also been nominated five times, for best chef in the Great Lakes region. Again, no dice. Segal (along with Blackbird's Patrick Fahy) lost to Angela Pinkerton at New York's Eleven Madison Park, which also took outstanding restaurant honors.
More painful for Chicago, perhaps, was that Great Lakes loss: Sherman was nominated alongside three other Illinois chefs, all from high-end restaurants — Schwa's Michael Carlson, Avenues' Curtis Duffy, Vie's Paul Virant — only to lose to Alex Young, of the casual Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Mich.
What else did Chicago lose?
Well, Blackbird's Paul Kahan lost outstanding chef honors to Jose Andres of minibar in Washington, D.C.; Girl & the Goat's Stephanie Izard lost the best new restaurant award to New York City's ABC Kitchen; and Topolobampo's Rick Bayless lost outstanding service to Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York.
As for Melman, his award comes a month shy of the 40th anniversary of R.J. Grunts, Lettuce Entertain You's first restaurant, which opened June 10, 1971 (and is still found at its original Lincoln Park location). In fact, he wasn't at the Beard awards, he said, because he was on a "thank you tour," visiting his many restaurants around the country and meeting the people who work there.
"I've gone to a couple of the (Beard award shows) in the past and it's fun, but most of the time I'm on vacation at that time, and this time I cut vacation short because so much is going on with the restaurants. Awards are nice. I don't know if it defines me in any way. But hey, it is nice. I'm appreciative. Sure."
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