The James Beard Awards' 2023 Emerging Chef Is Damarr Brown

Damarr Brown, Chef de Cuisine at Chicago's Virtue restaurant, was named the Emerging Chef of the Year at the 2023 James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards on Monday, June 5. Often called the Oscars of the culinary world, the annual James Beard Awards recognize top American chefs, writers, and restaurateurs. The award is Brown's latest addition to a growing collection. In 2022, he was named Food & Wine's Best New Chef in America and voted Fan Favorite after a stint on "Top Chef" that placed him among the final four contestants.

A graduate of the Cooking and Hospitality Institute in Chicago, Brown worked at mk The Restaurant and Roister before opening Virtue with his mentor, fellow James Beard Award winner Erick Williams, in 2018. Launched with the goal of bringing Black Southern cuisine to fine dining, the restaurant proved a success, earning accolades including the Michelin Guide's Bib Gourmand award.

While James Beard's 2023 award season has been marred with controversy, scandal can't distract from the significance of Brown's win. He had fierce competition, too. Fellow nominees for the category included Serigne Mbaye, chef and owner of Dakar NOLA, a Senegalese restaurant in New Orleans; chef, restaurateur, and former Tasting Table intern Amanda Shulman; and Charlie Mitchell, New York City's first Black Michilin-starred chef.

What are Damarr Brown's influences?

Damarr Brown credits his mother and grandmother for introducing him to food. His grandmother, a Mississippi native, taught him how to cook collard greens and chicken livers. As Brown told the Chicago Sun-Times, "I'm doing things that I saw my grandmother did. People are very excited about it and we're winning awards for things that literally my grandmother did." His mother encouraged his love of cooking, too. He explained to Block Club Chicago that she'd challenge him by giving him random selections of ingredients and asking him to combine them into a final dish. While the results weren't always stellar, they helped hone his skills.

Brown knew that he wanted to work under a Black chef, so he sought out Williams after graduating from culinary school. As Williams would later note to the Sun-Times, the 18-year-old "didn't have all the skills." Nevertheless, Brown thrived under his tutelage. Williams not only taught him about French and Italian cuisine but also to appreciate his [Brown's] own culinary heritage. 

"I've always thought that it was extremely difficult to see yourself doing something if you don't see someone who looks like you doing it," Brown said in his acceptance speech. "So I'd like to thank chef Erick Williams. For the last 13 years, you have been an example for me. I stand because you stood."