By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Jun 13, 2022 at 7:51 PM

This evening the annual James Beard Restaurant and Chefs Awards ceremony took place at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. 

A JBF first

The ceremony was the first in two years (following the cancellation of the awards in 2020 and 2021). It was also the first to take place following a sobering audit of the James Beard Foundation, which prompted the organization to take measures to move forward with increased self-awareness, transparency and diversity. Among the changes put into effect was a commitment to retool its awards criteria, basing decisions on whether candidates have shown a “demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, environmental sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive.”

It’s also the first awards ceremony to have taken place since the restaurant world was shaken to its core by the global COVID-19 pandemic, marking what will likely go down in history as the most challenging period experienced by the hospitality industry on the whole.

As a result, the tenor of the ceremony was visibly more inclusive. It was also increasingly celebratory, as it marked the return of an annual celebration of the culinary arts during a time when hope and optimism are still daily drivers for chefs, restaurant owners and restaurant staff across the nation and beyond.

Best Chef Midwest

During the awards ceremony, Chef Dane Baldwin of The Diplomat was honored with the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef Midwest, marking Milwaukee's first JBF win for Best Chef Midwest since 2014.

Baldwin was visibly surprised to hear his name called out. During his acceptance speech, he admitted that he did not attend the awards with the expectation of bringing home a win. But his gratitude was evident as he expressed genuine thanks to those closes to him:  his supportive wife Anna, his daughters Stella and Eloise, and "everyone who's ever taken a chance on me."

Baldwin has been working in the food industry since the age of 15. He is a field-trained chef with experience at restaurants ranging from Bacchus, Barossa, the Milwaukee Art Museum and Mr. B's Steakhouse, where he served as executive chef before opening his own restaurant, The Diplomat, in 2017.

At the Diplomat, Baldwin has made his mark with an eateery that's inclusive, welcoming and delightfully flexible. Comfortable enough for a weeknight, but entirely worthy of a special occasion, The Diplomat stands out for its menu of craveable dishes, which are simultaneously new yet comfortingly familiar.

Lentil salad
Lentil salad from The Diplomat
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You’ll find inventive takes like hushpuppies made from eggplant; a bacon lentil salad visually presented like a bowl of ramen; and deceptively straightforward offerings (like roasted chicken) which showcase Baldwin's talent for consistency, simplicity and the uncanny – yet magical – ability to conjure beloved food memories with every bite.

Roasted Chicken
Roasted Chicken from The Diplomat
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Baldwin's award was especially sweet as he stood against a slew of equally talented chefs including Karen Bell of Bavette La Boucherie (Milwaukee), Jorge Guzmán of Petite León (Minneapolis), Gregory León of Amilinda (Milwaukee),  Sean Sherman of Owamni (Minneapolis) and Yia Vang of Union Hmong Kitchen (Minneapolis).

The complete list of James Beard winners in all categories will be posted at jamesbeard.org.

Wisconsin’s rich James Beard history

Baldwin stands among numerous other Wisconsin chefs who have made the journey from the James Beard semifinals into the finals.

Sanford D'Amato, founder of Sanford, blazed new territory when he broke into the New York scene and made a name for himself in New York, a city largely ruled by French-born chefs in the 1970's. Years later, after moving back to Milwaukee, he also made his mark as the first chef in Wisconsin to win the prestigious James Beard Award, which he did in 1996, earning the title of Best Chef in the Midwest.

Justin Aprahamian, who purchased Sanford from D'Amato in 2012, is Milwaukee's most recent Best Chef Midwest Award winner. He was nominated four times before achieving his win in 2014. His win was preceded by Adam Siegel's 2008 honor as Best Chef Midwest for his work at Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro.

Other winners have hailed from Madison. Chef Tory Miller was the 2012 winner for his work at L'Etoile. His award was the second for a L'Etoile chef, with founder, Odessa Piper, taking home the award in 2001.

Wisconsin natives who have been recipients of James Beard Awards include Paul Bartolotta, who was the first chef to win a James Beard in two regions. The first was in 1994 when he headed up the kitchen at Spiaggia in Chicago; the other was in 2009 for his work at Ristorante di Mare in Las Vegas. Kenosha native Tony Mantuano also won the award for best chef Great Lakes for his work at Spiaggia in 2005.

In addition to chef-based awards, restaurants including the now-shuttered Milwaukee classic, Watts Tea Shop, the Cream City's serbian gem, Three Brothers and the home of the butter burger, Solly’s Grille, have all brought home the prize for American Classics. Bryant's Cocktail Lounge also has the distinction of being a 2013 semifinalist in the category of Outstanding Bar Program.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.