Top U.S. food prize highlights American diversity

Chefs in American restaurants come from around the world. Some of these chefs who honed their culinary skills in Israel, Mexico and Tunisia are among winners of the 2017 James Beard Awards for excellence in U.S. cuisine.

The U.S. has more than 1 million restaurants, and each year, only 21 of them (or their chefs) win one of the coveted Beard Awards, often called the “Oscars of the food world.” Meet some of the 2017 winners, and learn about the food that inspires them.


Headshot of Rick Bayless (Galdones Photography)
Rick Bayless. (Galdones Photography)

The winner of the “Outstanding Restaurant” of the year is Topolobampo in Chicago, which specializes in modern Mexican cuisine. American chef Rick Bayless, who owns the restaurant, spent more than six years living in Mexico doing culinary research.

The government of Mexico has awarded Bayless the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest decoration bestowed on foreigners. Bayless also hosts a U.S. television series called Mexico — One Plate at a Time.

Colorful food in white bowl (Julie Soefer)
Wood-roasted octopus is a favorite at Hugo Ortega’s restaurant Hugo’s in Houston. (Julie Soefer)

Headshot of Hugo Ortega (Galdones Photography)
Hugo Ortega (Galdones Photography)

Hugo Ortega learned to cook Mexican cuisine as a boy growing up in Mexico City. He started out as a dishwasher and busboy when he came to the United States in 1984 before rising all the way to executive chef. He won the 2017 “Best Chef: Southwest” James Beard Award for his family of restaurants in Houston.

Ortega dedicated his award “to the great city of Houston.” He added: “What can I say? America is beautiful, and I’m living the dream.”


Skewered meat and colorful garnishes on a blue plate (CookNSoloRestaurants)
Lamb merguez is one of many Israeli dishes that Michael Solomonov is making popular at Zahav. (CookNSoloRestaurants)

Headshot of Michael Solomonov (Galdones Photography)
Michael Solomonov (Galdones Photography)

Michael Solomonov, the chef and owner of Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia, won the “Outstanding Chef” award for his modern Israeli cuisine. Originally from G’nei Yehuda, south of Tel Aviv, Solomonov grew up in the United States before returning to Israel when he was 18 and starting his career as a baker.

The name Zahav means “gold” in Hebrew. The design of the restaurant echoes the hidden courtyards of Jerusalem, with golden limestone floors and walls and hand-carved tables.

Food in a bowl on a table (© AP Images)
Shakshouka, eggs poached in tomato sauce, is a staple at Shaya Restaurant in New Orleans, where Zachary Engel is chef de cuisine. (© AP Images)

Headshot of Zachary Engel (Galdones Photography)
Zachary Engel (Galdones Photography)

Solomonov’s friend and former colleague Zachary Engel won the “Rising Star Chef of the Year” award for his work as the chef de cuisine at the Israeli restaurant Shaya in New Orleans. Engel worked for Solomonov for nearly four years before moving to New Orleans.

Engel was raised in Florida, where his father was a rabbi. He learned about Israeli food when he traveled to Israel.

The award honors the nation’s top chef younger than 30 years old.


Headshot of Ghaya Oliveira (Galdones Photography)
Ghaya Oliveira (Galdones Photography)

Ghaya Oliveira won “Outstanding Pastry Chef.” Oliveira’s first career was not in the kitchen, but as a stock trader in Tunisia. “Ghaya, she’s from Tunisia, so I think she has the sensibility for the flavor of the Middle Eastern cuisine,” said chef Daniel Boulud, who owns the New York City restaurant Daniel, where Oliveira is executive pastry chef.

Watch in the video below as Oliveira makes her signature dessert, called grapefruit givré, composed of a frozen grapefruit. “It is not a Tunisian dessert,” Boulud said, but he said the dessert “embraces the flavor of [her] homeland as well.”

Even as American chefs and restaurants are recognized internationally, their roots and inspiration come from around the world.

Silver medal with picture of James Beard (James Beard Foundation)
(James Beard Foundation)

Who is James Beard?

James Beard was an iconic American chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and mentor to generations of professional chefs. The James Beard Foundation was established in 1986, a year after his death, to celebrate and promote food in America.

Since their creation, the foundation’s annual James Beard Awards have become some of America’s most prestigious food prizes and are often known as the “Oscars of the food world.” The awards cover all aspects of the industry: chefs and restaurateurs, cookbook authors, food journalists, restaurant designers and architects.

The mission of the James Beard Awards is to “celebrate, nurture and honor chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse and sustainable for everyone.”