Chef Grant Achatz presents Wetzel with his second James Beard Award.

This year the James Beard Awards, the nation's highest culinary honors, moved its medal-dispensing gala to Chicago, after a quarter century in New York City.

It was a bummer to not see any Seattle names in contention for national awards, but Blaine Wetzel of Willows Inn on Lummi Island took home the medal for Best Chef Northwest.

He's no stranger to the Beards; last year Wetzel, 29, won the national rising star chef award. (In an unusual technicality he shared it with Chicago chef Jimmy Bannos Jr.)

As Wetzel made his way to the stage, the posh-sounding announcer lady intoned, "You may find him celebrating with a dance party." A delightful visual indeed. Though Wetzel was in a serious mood as he gave his acceptance speech.

After thanking his fellow nominees ("I've been to all those restaurants; they're awesome") Wetzel unleashed a flood of thank yous for all the support the restaurant community showed after his fiance Raquel Ruiz Diaz was involved in an accident in Paraguay earlier this year.

"I was totally surprised by the way you all came together like a family to support us in our time of need," said Wetzel, thanking names close to home (Matt Dillon, Ethan Stowell, Jason Franey, Canlis) and a host of chefs farther afield (Alinea chef Grant Achatz, Meadowood's Christopher Kostow, Saison's Josh Skenes).

Wetzel beat out some pretty impressive contenders: Renee Erickson, Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, and chefs from two Portland restaurants: Castagna's Justin Woodward and Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton of Ox.

Oh! Here's another win with Seattle ties: If you happen to be at RN74 in the near future, congratulate them on Michael Mina wine guru Rajat Parr winning a James Beard for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional.

Alton Brown hosted the night's ceremonies, and while it wasn't exactly Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes, he did take the obligatory Ellen-style selfie and the James Beard Foundation president introduced him as the Billy Crystal of the culinary world. Yes, there was a musical number, wherein Brown crooned a version of Sonny and Cher's "The Beat Goes On," with lyrics about meat. Let us say no more about that.

The book, broadcast, and journalism awards happened April 24 in New York; it was a most excellent night for Seattle: ChefSteps netted two Beard awards for webcasting and visual and technical excellence, while Molly Wizenberg's Orangette won for best blog. I got to take this photo (and this one), and be in a room full of food writing rock stars. 

 

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