Proposal to Plate: James Beard Foundation Award-Winning Leadership Strategies

Photo Credit - James Beard Foundation Awards.


Called the “Oscars of the Food World,” the annual James Beard Foundation Awards Gala held in Chicago honors leading chefs and restauranteurs, food journalists, designers and architects with the highest prized awards in America’s food and beverage industry. We talked with two hospitality leaders about their James Beard Foundation Award success stories.

Choose Chicago Executive Vice President of Sales Marc Anderson shared how Choose Chicago worked in concert with the Illinois Restaurant Association to craft a strategic partnership proposal to book the prestigious event through 2021. Anderson says, “We researched the James Beard Foundation in-depth to develop a proposal that went beyond a once a year event to align Chicago with the Foundation’s culture. We created ways to help the Foundation achieve their long-range goals, including activating Foundation membership in areas of the United States where they are not ingrained presently.”

Choose Chicago supported establishing a James Beard Foundation Greens club in Chicago for “foodies under 40” hosting members-only dining and culinary events city-wide. Chicago has the only Greens chapter outside New York. To generate awareness leading up to the awards gala, Choose Chicago and the Illinois Restaurant Association produce James Beard Eats Week, an 11-day culinary celebration with 130 participating local restaurants. In 2018, Chicago’s fourth year as the gala’s host city, more than 1,200 patrons attended the Chefs Night Out event and 1,600 people purchased tickets to the gala which is streamed live world-wide.

Anderson says, “The media value of our partnership is priceless.”

For the entire 2018 awards season, the James Beard Foundation Awards reported 5,246,312,367 total media impressions and 986 media hits in top-tier outlets. Additionally, Choose Chicago hosted prominent international journalists to experience the culinary celebrations and the city’s vibrant dining scene.

Chicago is home to more than 40 James Beard Award winners. Some of the city’s decorated chefs cut their culinary teeth in hotel kitchens. Two-time award winner Chef Sarah Stegner worked 20 years for Ritz-Carlton, Chicago. She ascended to Executive Chef of the four-star Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton-Chicago. In 1994 she received the James Beard Foundation Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year and in 1998 won Best Chef: Midwest. In 2004, Stegner left the hotel to become Co-Executive Chef/Owner of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, Illinois with her colleague Chef George Bumbaris.

Stegner credits her hotel experience for mastering food artistry, restaurant kitchen craft, banquet management and human resources skills that help make Prairie Grass Cafe successful today. Stegner says, “The hotel taught you how to interview so you established a good quality connection with the person you were considering hiring.” She adds, “The hotel kitchen was the training ground for developing chefs through cross-training to make sure there were other chefs coming up the ranks so you could grow.”

Hotel tenure also schooled her in public relations. She says, “Chefs were media trained to articulate what the hotel was doing to stay current and deliver an excellent guest experience. It’s so important that hotels support their chefs so they can be visible leaders in the community.”

A founding member of Chicago’s nationally renowned Green City Market, Stegner says that hotels can help their communities by purchasing regionally grown and produced food products, working with local charities and supporting environmental initiatives such as serving sustainable seafood and eliminating plastic straws, as did Prairie Grass Cafe.

Whether running a restaurant or sales division, taking both a grass-roots and visionary global approach to food and beverage operations are the makings of success.

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