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The MenuMasters celebration is hosted by Nation’s Restaurant News and sponsored by Ventura Foods

Lidia Bastianich, Erick Williams, and other MenuMasters Award winners are honored at Chicago Gala

The winners from Arby’s, Friendly’s, Hopdoddy Burger Bar, Twin Peaks Restaurants, and Virtual Dining Concepts collaborated on a one-of-a-kind celebratory meal

The restaurant industry gathered to celebrate culinary excellence Saturday at the 26th annual MenuMasters celebration, which honors culinary innovation over the past year.

The event is hosted by Nation’s Restaurant News and sponsored by Ventura Foods, whose executive vice president Luis Andrade thanked the NRN editorial team for its efforts

“You have put together a wonderful program that recognizes and supports food innovators and chefs for their creativity, expression, and passion,” he said.

In past years the winners served items that they were being honored for to guests at the Gold Coast Ballroom at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, but this year many of the winners had gathered previously at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., to develop a unique menu that was only to be served at the awards gala.

That included oysters Casino — oysters topped with peppers, onions, garlic, butter, cream linguiça sausage, parsley, Parmesan cheese and panko breadcrumbs — which were served as passed hors d’oeuvres along with shrimp ceviche cocktail and bao buns filled with smoked pork belly, creamy gochujang and green apple kimchi. Served at stations at the event were tacos in dragon-fruit shells paired with a dragon fruit agua fresca Margarita, tataki duck al pastor on crispy rice paired with a Meomi Pinot Noir, and jackfruit dumplings in tikka masala sauce paired with Decoy Chardonnay.

Dessert, called Elvis Has Left the Building, was a pistachio peanut butter hand pie with bourbon marshmallows and a soprassata honey glaze. 

Additionally, Erick Williams, chef of Virtue restaurant in Chicago, who was being honored as innovator of the year, served a spring salad of shaved asparagus, pickled beets, spiced sunflower seeds and crispy ham that was paired with a Sazerac cocktail.

“You know our industry took a beating over the past couple of years about what our industry wasn’t doing right, but the reality is we’ve done a lot right. We see chefs like the chefs who go into foreign countries and feed people … we saw chefs stand up day after day and feed first responders, hospital workers, and everybody under the sun, and so I just want to say thank you all for being a community that we can be proud of.”

Lidia Bastianich, who served the tiramisu from Eataly, the Italian food hall and retail center in which she is a partner, paired with a chocolate Martini, and shushed the crowd before speaking, explaining that’s who you thrive in the restaurant industry. “You’ve got to be firm, you’ve got to be straight, you’ve got to be prepared, you’ve got to demand, nicely, and then you’ve got to give back,” she said as she reflected on the more than 50 years she has spent working in restaurants.

She said that chain restaurants “feed most of the American population, and you have a great responsibility. ... Seeing all of this innovation gives me a lot of happiness.”

Friendly’s was honored for best menu revamp, and chief experience officer Roberto de Angelis thanked the audience on behalf of everyone who works at the family-dining chain “the people in the kitchen who do the work, the people in the offices, and everyone here tonight,” particularly the field training manager who implemented the new menu, Scott Brenneman, who joined him on the stage and also worked on the MenuMasters menu at Johnson & Wales.

The award for healthful innovation went to The Habit Burger Grill for its roasted garlic cauliflower.

The Yum Brands subsidiary’s chief quality officer, Peter Whitwell, thanked the thousands of cooks, as well as the managers at Habit, all of whom are trained to work in the kitchen, as well as corporate chef Adam Baird, who developed the item although he has since left the company, and founder Russ Bendel.

Arby’s was honored with the award for best new menu item for its Wagyu Steakhouse Burger, which was developed for the restaurant that don’t have a grill or griddle, and executive corporate chef Michael Israel thanked his development team. “We’re all grateful that we work for a brand that’s always looking for how can we break the rules. That’s exactly what we did with this, and it means a lot to actually be recognized for that.”

The award for best line extension went to Twin Peaks Restaurants for its flatbreads, and director of culinary, beverage, and menu innovation Alex Sadowsky thanked the employees and franchisees who supported the launch that required new equipment. “Everyone got behind it, including all the day-to-day front-line cooks,” he said.

In the new category of digital innovation, Virtual Dining Concepts was honored for its creation of virtual brands that give easy, low-cost access to customers, including MrBeast Burger, which is now in 1,800 locations around the country.

President and co-founder Robbie Earl accepted the award on behalf of what he called his “extremely talented team,” which has contributed $250 million in sales to the restaurant industry.

The award for best limited time offer went to Hopdoddy Burger Bar for its Lambda Lambda Burger. Senior director and vice president of culinary Matthew Schweitzer said “this award means so much to our company and all of our team members” and he thanked CEO Jeff Chandler and the operators who executed it. He pointed out that the lamb in the burger was sourced from regenerative producers. “We really think that we can replace what we think is a broken food system … and replace a vicious cycle with a virtuous one,” he said.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

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