Inside the 2015 James Beard Chefs' Pre-Party

Coordinating a party for the world’s greatest chefs the night before the Oscars of the food world, the James Beard Foundation Awards, could be one of the most thrilling—or intimidating—jobs an event planner could take on. Add to the pot a new location (this year marks the first time the awards have been held outside New York City in its 25-year history), an international guest list and a bevy of high-profile beverage sponsors to handle, and you have a recipe that could potentially go up in flames. Not so for planner Lynette Velez, director of sales and private events for Chicago-based Gibsons Restaurant Group, whose premiere venue The Montgomery Club served as home base for the exclusive 2015 James Beard Foundation Chef’s Night Out pre-party on May 3. Sounding cool, calm and (mostly) collected two days before the 1,200-person event Velez says the pre-party was intended to be a “fun, casual event where chefs could relax and have a good time before the big awards night.” Playing up The Montgomery Club’s already gorgeous art deco interiors, Velez and her Gibsons team kept the decor minimal, going with a gold-and-black theme. They enlisted Chicago design firm Event Creative to craft custom-made, reclaimed-wood buffets and tables. The structures were used throughout the interior space and outdoor tent, which also featured custom chandelier installations, says Leslie Zaksas with Event Creative (who, when we spoke to her today, was at Lyric Opera of Chicago setting up for the JBF Awards tonight). Custom bars for each of the beverage sponsors were branded with company logos adjusted to gold, gray and black for a uniform look. Of course, a prestigious party demands an exclusive guest list. Any chef who has cooked at The Beard House within the last year was invited, as were all award nominees, who were allowed one guest, and top toques from the Chicago area as well as international chefs. Developing the perfect menu would prove challenging, due to both the 9:30 p.m. start time of the event as well as it’s daunting cooking for the world’s best chefs. “It’s definitely an intimidating thing, but we’re focusing on what we do well,” said Velez. “The last thing we’re going to do is try to recreate someone else’s dish who does it amazing.” Known around Chicago for its robust meat program, Gibsons (which also owns Gibsons Bar, Hugo’s Frog Bar, Quartino Ristorante and Luxbar) set up several carving stations, including New York strip, prime rib and rack of lamb. Raw offerings served on an ice bar included oysters and Sea of Cortez (read: giant) shrimp. Philly cheesesteak sliders, mini burgers, lobster BLTs, classic Chicago hot dogs, and bite-size chicken and waffles were passed hors d'oeuvres. “The idea was to keep it the kind of food you want to eat at night,” says Velez. It was also full of things people like to drink later in the evening, thanks to sponsors. Groupon sponsored a rum julep welcome cocktail (fitting the day after the Kentucky Derby), a Bacardi bar served Old Cubans and several Tanqueray 10 bars poured French 75s. Local brewery Goose Island also provided mini sips of beer to accompany the passed sliders. And at midnight, proving even the country’s top toques love street food (especially after a night of mingling and dancing to tunes spun by DJ White Shadow), a fleet of food trucks pulled up. Beavers Donuts, known for its mini donuts; The Fat Shallot, famous for its caramelized-onion-and-Muenster grilled cheese; 5411, serving bacon, date and goat-cheese pastries; and Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, a Chicago icon, rounded out the offerings. Velez’s advice for other planners? Stay as organized as you possibly can—and wear comfortable shoes. “Read through the information about 20 times until you feel completely comfortable,” she says. As to her footwear choice for the party? “I will not be wearing heels until about 9:30!” she said before the event.