Tony Messina is a James Beard award winner. The chef of Uni in the Back Bay took home the 2019 Best Chef: Northeast medal at Monday night’s ceremony in Chicago, celebrating the country’s top chefs and restaurants. Messina was previously a nominee for the award in 2018, and a semifinalist the year before that. He beat out fellow nominees Tiffani Faison of Tiger Mama, James Mark of North in Providence, Cassie Piuma of Sarma, and Benjamin Sukle of Oberlin in Providence.
Boss Ken Oringer — who is behind Uni as well as Little Donkey, Toro, and others — didn’t fare as well. He was nominated for Outstanding Restaurateur for the third year in a row, but Boka Restaurant Group’s Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz took home the medal. He celebrated Messina’s win instead, posting on Instagram: “I know exactly why you won. You earned this! So Proud!!”
Maura Kilpatrick, creator of delicious baked goods at Sofra and Oleana in Cambridge, has been either a nominee or a semifinalist for her work every year since 2008. She’ll likely be back in 2020: This year’s Outstanding Baker award went to Greg Wade of Publican Quality Bread in Chicago.
On the bright side for New England, Rob Tod of Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, Maine, won the award for Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer. And the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, based in Northampton, won a Leadership Award for its work to improve conditions for low-wage and immigrant workers in the Western Massachusetts food system.
Last year, the slate of winners was more diverse than it had been in the past, and in 2019 it was even more so, reflecting expanding notions of who and what deserves recognition, both on the part of the James Beard Foundation and the food world as a whole.
This year’s awards ceremony emphasized themes of diversity, inclusivity, and community over and over, and many speeches celebrated the immigrant experience.
When Kwame Onwuachi of D.C.’s Kith and Kin accepted the Rising Star Chef of the Year award, he called for the food community to include everyone in the conversation. Referencing Jim Crow and the integration of restaurants, he saluted the ancestors who cooked before him, often without a choice. “Here I am, my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” he said.
When Mashama Bailey of Savannah’s The Grey won the Best Chef: Southeast award, she talked about the industry moving the country in the right direction. Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford, Miss., spoke of sitting at an expanding table: Let us not exclude people, he said.
Okan Yazici of Philadelphia’s Zahav, which won the Outstanding Restaurant award, spoke of finding a home and a family at the restaurant after immigrating from Turkey; he began as a busboy at Zahav and worked his way up to general manager. And presenter Tom Colicchio talked about knocking down doors, declaring that future generations won’t just accept the status quo.
It was a gut punch to see Anthony Bourdain’s face among many others under the heading “In Memoriam.” After winning the Humanitarian of the Year award, the Giving Kitchen — a nonprofit providing emergency assistance to food-service workers — announced that it is offering free suicide-prevention training for every restaurant in the United States.
Speeches this year kept it real, with winners talking about how uncomfortable their Spanx were, making mother-in-law jokes, reading off of iPhones, and thanking everyone from dishwashers to business partners, then promising to be back in the kitchen tomorrow. NPR’s Peter Sagal showed up onstage and shocked everyone by just how very Peter Sagal-y he sounded in person. And host Jesse Tyler Ferguson was funny whether he was wearing pants or not.