Foodie Fight: Emanuel Steals James Beard Awards From New York

It's a coup for Chicago, but can the mayor transform the city into a cultural capital?

It's hard to picture Rahm Emanuel as anything but tightly wound and stone-faced these days, but on Tuesday morning, Chicago's mayor -- whose approval ratings are in the tank -- seemed halfway relaxed as he sipped a glass of champagne while basking in the glory of a major culinary coup: attracting the James Beard Foundation Awards from New York to the Second City.

The prestigious ceremony is no longer an inside-baseball event for slick restaurateurs, ambitious chefs and the editors of Food & Wine Magazine. Over the past few years, the James Beards -- a career-maker for talents such as the late Charlie Trotter, one of Chicago's own -- has been earnestly watched by a legion of self-styled foodies who gorge on "Top Chef," seek out the trendiest grub and Instagram everything they eat.

A breeding ground for kitchen all-stars including Frontera's Rick Bayless and molecular gastronomist Grant Achatz, Chicago attracts food lovers who embrace the experimental side of cuisine; the city's chefs regularly set trends without following them. Here, in the middle of the country, there's more room to be creative, more freedom to fail. Now it's time for this recent New York refugee to come clean: the food in Chicago is just better. (One concession: Shake Shack.)

In a press conference Tuesday at Pritzker Pavilion, Emanuel said he was proud that he worked "so hard" to lure the Manhattan-based foundation to the Midwest for its annual awards gala, to be held May 5, 2015, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The mayor also emphasized that its relocation is based on the city's well-earned "merit" as a culinary talent incubator and recipient of more than 40 James Beard trophies.

"This is a fitting moment for the city of Chicago," he said. "A lot has been mentioned of the fact that I've set a goal of 55 million tourists to the city of Chicago by 2020. And the reason is because it's such a big driver for economic growth and job creation in the city of Chicago."

Rambling on, Emanuel -- who must have repeated "city of Chicago" a gazillion times during his speech -- seized his moment at the mic to pitch a proposal to offer prime lakeshore real estate to "Star Wars" mogul George Lucas for the construction of an "interactive museum" that would produce an estimated $2.5 billion in tourism dollars over 10 years. The Windy City is up against a bid from San Francisco, the filmmaker's home. (Lucas' wife of one year, Chicago native Mellody Hobson, will no doubt have some pull in the decision.)

"It's a win-win for the city of Chicago, for our neighborhood and for George and Melody Lucas to see the city of Chicago as their home for this great museum," quoth Hizzoner.

It's also a win for Emanuel. His three-year anniversary at City Hall has coincided with a barrage of bad press as well as brewing backlash over a controversial agenda that includes a $250 million property tax hike to shore up two city pensions. He runs for re-election next February, and although no serious challenger has stepped up to enter the race, there's a tough battle ahead -- even with a giant pile of money to pour into a campaign.

While his political future hangs in the balance, Emanuel's James Beard/George Lucas announcements were a brief distraction from all the gloomy news out there and also cast the "Rahmfather" as an arts-and-culture-promoting urban sophisticate with the vision to transform provincial Chicago into a cosmopolitan tourist trap.

It's all part of a grand plan [insert maniacal laugh here] to grab the world's attention and entice visitors who would otherwise purchase round-trip tickets to New York, LA or Disney World. Among the travel-bait: the recently greenlit Great Chicago Fire Festival, wherein floating fiberglass sculptures will be released onto the Chicago River, circa October. Emanuel is also working to snag the 2015 NFL Draft for Soldier Field, in an effort to round out the Windy City's makeover as a serious destination for high-profile happenings.

Love him or hate him, we can all toast to that.

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