Ginjan x James Beard Awards 2018 Chicago

We experience the #OscarsofFood. The James Beards Awards has been officially #ginjaned. by Ruen Ellis

I’ve personally wanted to go to the James Beard Awards for several years now.  The #oscars of food, I mean, it’s the best of ALL worlds, and the whole 2018 experience really didn’t disappoint.  We were very fortunate that we got to experience more than just the Gala night.  With tickets (and conviction) in hand we called the biggest mofo Uber car on offer (sadly, Uber Copter is not yet available in Chicago) and headed to #chefsnightout on Sunday, May 6 at Theater on the Lake – with views of the Chicago skyline that inspired awe, and an appetite rather quickly.  Fortunately, with about 15 or so spirit and food tables peppered throughout the event, we were set.


After months of preparation, we made it, so at the very least deserved a heavy handed and stiff drink.  At least so I thought, the idea of having a nice drink, yummy bite and kicking back a bit sounded like a warmly welcoming concept.  Personally, I could have happily died on Chef’s Night Out, if only having learned the magic of duck champagne.  (I’ll tell you the story privately, feel free to email 🙈) It was a night of beautiful views, gracious people and stupendous food. In retrospect, it was the perfect primer for the next day (and the hard work it will require) of the Gala Night at the Lyric Opera – perhaps the jewel in the James Beard Crown, as it were.


We Gala, They Gala, One must Gala.

Officially, we were a sponsor in the spirit and beverage category, but were the only non-alcoholic drink there (other than water) and with tongue firmly wedged in cheek, the only one of our kind.  We served Ginjan as itself, but also we’re offered an opportunity to collaborate with Hendrick’s Gin and we took it since Rahim and I both have long been fans of this high quality spirit.  Their generosity and willingness to work with us are both notable.  #WeLoveHendricks.



  • So we made a cocktail called the African Spy (you see that #OfficialDrinkofWakanda and Wakanda WarDogs mood completely unable to leave us???) with Hendricks, Ginjan, shaken and infused with fresh Rosemary.   In case you still haven’t heard, Ginjan brings life to cocktails unlike anything else and works with almost every spirit, including wines and champagnes.  Recipe starved?  Check out our cocktail recipes here.

Food is the new Fashion.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone as this has been on track since at least 2010.  The explosion of food shows, festivals and special tasting events are notable and set against a backdrop of a wilderness of food celebrities.  James Beard, however – even as prestigious as it is – reminds you of why you are really there: to take a breath and appreciate the recognition of the people working unimaginably hard in bringing art to food, rather than jumping on the glamor train so often found [and annoyingly so] in clickbait backstreet food blogs and instagram stories.


It wasn’t hard to see that James Beard is about enduring excellence.  However fast, loose and messy things are in the kitchen, food is a vocation, not a fad and The James Beard Foundation seem convincingly devoted to this.  Beyond the awards and reverie, their community outreach and industry engagement programs are all inspirational, and important.

While the gala reception had great food and drinks throughout the gilded halls of the Lyric Opera, during the Gala Awards however, a more exalted, tempered and respectul tone encouraged focus on the progress and achievements of the creators crafting in cavernous kitchens throughout the land.

And I liked this, because to me, it makes it clear that the James Beard tradition won’t succumb to flash in the pan trends.  In many ways, it is the trend. The Gala Night also taught me a thing or two about presentation.  #AddedtoEvernote


“Special mention should go to our meeting of perhaps the whitest boy alive (other than possibly, myself), incidentally the owner of HeavenSake – another sponsor on the night – who came over to declare his love for, and his experiences in Conakry and drinking Ginjan the vintage way, from a bag.  Stunned, but inspired we handed him a Ginjan.  He wasted no time in declaring that ours was a superior version to what he had experienced in Guinea. We’ll take it from the white boy.”


Check out our James Beard Awards Supercut video below:


In being a James Beards Awards Sponsor

Being a sponsor was a special, and memorable experience.  Not just for the superbly efficient, helpful and professional treatment we got from the entire production crew, but also the reverie amongst the sponsors at large.  Many came over to our table and we in turn, visited theirs.  A spirit of ‘were in this together’ was refreshing and the interactions were largely devoid of ego.


When needed, I got sparkling water from San Pellegrino, cookies from another stand and when my salt urge/vice kicked it, an amazing Chef lovingly fed me because she said I looked like I was going to faint/looked thin. I didn’t want to point out that I was indeed on the 45 year fasting diet (see:#whiteguilt), but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.  I’m also really glad that I hadn’t, because her venison (sous vide to perfection) with fennel aioli whatever it was, was surely one of the better things I had tasted in over a decade.  Naturally, it took little imagination to see why she was there.  She was peculiar, notable, and talented.  I regret not taking her card; all that I could remember was a first name of Veronica.  Wherever she may be now, she is to be endlessly thanked for saving me.


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The great thing about being a sponsor on the Gala Night is that the over 700 guests approach the tasting reception with a keen openness.  It also doesn’t hurt that a large portion of them work in the epicurean world, so their receptivity should perhaps not be such a big surprise.  But I mention this because in our overly advertising saturated world, we have quite often found it hard to overcome people’s cynicism and apprehension in tasting something “African”, which, let’s face it is truly the most foreign thing to most people and understandably so, since there is so little US market exposure of African products*.


Conversely, at the James Beard Awards, people were mobbing just about every table they visited.  The enthusiasm and curiosity was rather seductive, but very welcoming after all the hard work we put into the preparation for the event. It was also, admittedly, somewhat of a relief, as we – a small fish swimming amongst the food world sharks on their turf – had no idea how we may have been received or perceived.  It’s perhaps a good thing that our drink tastes so fucking amazing, considering.  If you’re in the food world and can spring the funds (it’s not as much as you may fear, and less than you may hope) to go to the James Beard Awards, we highly recommend it.  The gain is commensurate to the investment.  You’ll make many friends (and notable business contacts if you’re prepared) and you’ll have the time of your life.


The James Beard Awards humbled/inspired us, but it affirmed so many other things for us, also. Mostly, that we continue to draw immense joy in every Ginjan event we do – no matter how short the sleep nights or long the toiling days – but more importantly, that we’re doing the right thing, a good thing, a new thing, an inspiring thing, a real thing.


*Besides making superior and high quality, organic beverages of an African inspiration, the Ginjan Bros (see: Mohamed and Rahim) are actually on a diabolical & fanatical journey to make superb quality and authentically African products as commonplace, as, say, sesame chicken on a rainy tuesday night. 


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