Belinda Chang | The second Chicago winner at the Beard Awards
There's been a lot of chatter today about last night's James Beard Awards being bad for Chicago. The consensus seems to be that we only won one award—Restaurateur of the Year, which went to Lettuce Entertain You chief Rich Melman. But I'd argue that Chicago won two awards last night. Or at least one and a half. Belinda Chang, the sommelier (and Chicago native) who put in time at , and Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand's , accepted last night's Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service for the work she does as the Wine Director at The Modern. I caught up with her on the phone to chat about purses, Twitter and why she couldn't have won without Chicago.
How excited are you?
Oh my God, it was the craziest thing ever. I woke up this morning to make sure that the medal was still there. I thought maybe I had dreamt it and none of it happened.
Is this something you’ve wanted for a while?
Very much so. I was teling Danny [Meyer] and some of the partners in my company: When I was in Chicago I was having lunch at , so this was many years ago, and talking to . And she's like "You should totally make a list of your goals, so you're not just floundering around. And then you can make good decisions about how to move forward in your career." So I had in the back of my Franklin Planner this blue-lined piece of paper that had a list of what, to me, success in a sommelier's career looks like. There were some things on there that now seem trite and silly, things like being asked to be a presenter at Aspen Food and Wine classic, or getting to taste with the wine writer from the New York Times. So all these things. And I’m pretty stoked to say that after these four years, I’ve crossed off every single one. And the very last one—which I was like, I don’t even know if it's possible, or if this could ever happen—was a James Beard award. So I’m thrilled.
Was this the first time you were nominated?
No, I was also nominated in 2004, in San Francisco.
For Fifth Floor.
Yeah, though this experience was worlds apart from that one. Although I did have the moment when I was trying to decide what purse to bring with me, and I almost brought the same purse that I brought in 2004. And I thought: No, that would be bad luck, I definitely shouldn't do that. Because I don’t want the same outcome.
What kind of phone calls have you received since you won?
Well, listen to this—you know I’m a mad Facebooker and Twitterer. And my phone exploded moments before the award was about to be announced, that’s why there was nothing. It was like air silence. People were kind of freaking out a little bit...I didn’t get to check my phone at all. And then we get to our party at the Modern, and I was busy pouring the 12 liter, pouring the nine liter and pouring the three liter. And I finally checked my email past midnight, and there were like 375 messages! So I’m still trying to get through them now so I can thank people for the well wishes.
There’s a lot of talk in Chicago today that it was a really bad night for Chicago, since Rich Melman was the only Chicagoan to get an award. But I consider you to be an honorary Chicagoan.
Thank you! I definitely feel like that. Absotulety. said that to me as we were walking out. I felt so awesome about that. I was like, absolutely. It’s my hometown. Those are my people. I was the one screaming every time I heard a Chicago nom’s name, for sure.
And yet it sounds as if your Beard couldn’t have happened if you hadn't gone to New York.
I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Because this is a nomination specifically for the Modern, I’m really proud of that affiliation. But I think James Beard awards are very much a culmination of a career. I wouldn't have been good at running the Modern’s wine program without all the experience I’ve had in the past. So for me it feels like a lifetime achievement award. Which hopefully doesn’t mean I’m going to die soon…
So is anything different about today, next week…
The world definitely seems shinier...I don’t know, I’m just really excited to have my team. You know, right now I’m at my desk downtstairs, but one of the food runners is wearing the medal. What’s cool about this particular [award] is that a wine program doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It can only be great if the kitchen is great and the entire front of the house team is great and super excited.
So what's next?
It’s always great to have something like this happen, because its fun to wine an award. But I’m probably going to take a few hours today to talk to our general manager to figure out what this means as far as resetting the goals. For me, it’s re-writing that Franklin Planner page. Because I am a very Type-A, get-the-checklist-done kind of gal.
Well then put “Come back to Chicago” on that list.
David! Thank you. I do always love to hear that.
Belinda Chang is still, despite the pleading of a certain Chicago food writer, the wine director at The Modern in New York.