By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Jun 05, 2023 at 8:36 PM

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

During the awards ceremony, which honors the talents of intrepid chefs who approach their work with creativity and contribute to their respective communities, two Wisconsin chefs were honored with the title Best Chef Midwest.

Best Chef Midwest

The award for Best Chef Midwest was bestowed upon not one, but two chefs, Itaru Nagano and Andrew Kroeger, of Fairchild in Madison.

Nagano and Kroeger joined forces with partner Patrick Sierra to open their restaurant, Fairchild just over two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down restaurants across the nation. That means, most diners’ first experience with the restaurant was experienced as take-out, rather than dine-in. And yet, the restaurant persisted. They not only persisted, but they quickly developed a reputation for their thoughtful, locally focused cuisine.

Named for Madison’s first mayor, Jairus C. Fairchild, the restaurant was meant to function both as a neighborhood restaurant as well as a destination (fine dining, but more casual). It’s the sort of place where servers remember guests’ names. It’s also a place where the menu has little chance of becoming dull, as offerings vary daily.

It’s also a modern eatery, which has gotten back to basics, focusing on what’s fresh, what’s delicious and what’s local. Few dishes come with bells and whistles, rather they showcase the quality and nature of great ingredients while communicating the joy – and often playfulness – of the talented chefs in the kitchen.

Their win is a testament – not only to their collective talents – but their resilience in overcoming the challenges of an opening during one of the most challenging times in restaurant history.

A rich James Beard history

While Milwaukee nominees, including Chef Gregory Leon of Amilinda (nominee for Best Chef Midwest) and Lupi & Iris (nominee for Best New Restaurant), did not bring home an award in 2023, Milwaukeeans should still feel a sense of pride.

We have countless chefs in our city and state who deserve acknowledgment for their resilience, leadership, innovation and creativity. That includes hundreds of semi-finalists and finalists over the past 35+ years. It also includes an impressive number of wins for our city and state.

Among those award winners is Sanford D'Amato, founder of Sanford, who 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.

The list also includes Adam Siegel, who took home 2008 honors as Best Chef Midwest for his work at Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro. Siegel has since gone on to open Lupi & Iris, a restaurant which was nominated nationally for Best New Restaurant in 2023.

Justin Aprahamian, who purchased Sanford from D'Amato in 2012 and aptly carries on the restaurant's legacy to this day, was nominated four times before achieving his win in 2014. 

Most recently, the honor of Best Chef Midwest was bestowed upon Dane Baldwin of The Diplomat, who brought home the first post-pandemic Beard award in 2022. 

Other local Beard 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 Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

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.