Jean Banchet Awards to become nonprofit, skip 2023 awards

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First, the bad news: There will be no Jean Banchet Awards in 2023.

But that’s because Michael Muser, best known as the co-owner of Ever, hopes to transform the event into one that can better benefit the Chicago hospitality industry. Over the next year, he’ll turn it into an independent nonprofit before he relaunches the awards program in 2024.

Started in 2002, the award program is named for chef Jean Banchet, the influential chef of Le Francais, which was considered one of the finest French restaurants in the country during the 1980s and ’90s.

At first, winners were announced during the Grand Chefs Gala, a fundraiser organized by the Greater Illinois chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Unlike the James Beard Awards, which look at the national restaurant scene, these awards are only available for Chicago-area chefs and hospitality workers.

Chef Jean Banchet, pictured here in 1999 outside his Wheeling restaurant Le Francais, which was named America's Best Restaurant by Bon Appetit magazine in 1980.

While chefs appreciated recognition from the start, the award program was just one small part of the busy gala, and it was sometimes hard to hear from winning chefs, Muser said.

“I started hosting because I knew I could talk louder than everyone in the room,” he said. He eventually convinced the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to host the awards as a standalone event in 2016.

“That’s when we started to put more effort into it,” Muser said. “Since then, it’s gotten bigger and better every year.”

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Muser said that the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation has been an incredible supporter for years.

Alisha Elenz (left) winner of the 2019 Rising Chef of the Year accepted the award from Evie Murphy, an aspiring chef, during the Jean Banchet awards in January 2019.

“As it grew, the foundation said, ‘You guys are doing a good job. You should do your own thing,’” Muser said.

Muser decided to not have an event in 2023 so he could have enough time to hire an executive director and line up enough sponsors for the event. “In my brain, this is an easy sell,” Muser said. “One night a year, the best of the best will come together. Surely sponsors will want to be in the room with us.”

Though Muser co-owns Ever, he said you won’t have to worry about him handing out awards to himself.

“Not one piece of mine will be in the pool of nominations,” Muser said. “It’s my honor to organize it for everybody.”

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