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The 2024 MenuMasters winners

Nancy Silverton, Meherwan Irani, and Sam ‘the cooking guy’ Zien honored at MenuMasters Awards gala

Winners from Del Taco, McDonald’s, Fogo de Chão, Cava, and Tender Greens were also celebrated

“To be recognized at this level is the top level,” said Nancy Silverton, chef and co-owner of Mozza Restaurant Group in Los Angeles and the 2024 inductee into the MenuMasters Hall of Fame Saturday. She was speaking to a packed room of celebrators at Morgan Manufacturing in Chicago, a new location for the 27-year-old awards that recognize culinary innovation across the foodservice industry.

Silverton joined a list of legendary honorees including Jacques Pépin, Paul Prudhomme, Thomas Keller, Lidia Bastianich and many other members of the Hall of Fame, as well as that evening’s honorees in other categories.

“I’ve been around for a long time and I’ve won a lot of awards,” she said.” “But I’ve got to say something about this award and why it matters to me so much. … I think I’m being awarded because of the way that I’ve influenced the industry.” She added that the awards, presented by Nation’s Restaurant News and sponsored by Ventura Foods, are special because they represent the diversity of the industry.

And the awardees on Saturday did indeed spread across the gamut of the industry, from the world’s largest burger chain to a Brazilian churrascaria to an influencer who has taught millions of American how to cook on YouTube.

That influencer, Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien, was named Digital Innovator, and he took to the stage with his smart phone, FaceTiming with his son Max, who encouraged him to get on YouTube, as well as his cameraman and assistant.

“As everyone in this room knows, none of this happens by yourself,”  he explained.

He said he was happy whenever someone would tell him that he taught them that it’s okay to make mistakes in the kitchen, “but what’s better than that is when the industry recognizes you, and that’s tonight.”

Meherwan Irani, chef of Chai Pani Restaurant Group based in Asheville, N.C., was named Innovator of the year for spreading the influence of Indian cuisine in the United States and fostering the talent of others. He spoke about an inspiring video in which a man is dancing solo on a beach, and after a while he is joined by one other person, and then a second, and then a third, a fourth, and a fifth, “and suddenly the dam breaks the entire beach is dancing wildly, flailing their arms, having the time of their lives. … and while we as leaders think that we’re the innovators … the truly brave ones are those who decide to jump up and follow us.”

He dedicated the award to “the crazy ones, the first employees, the first investors, our spouses, our first managers, our first customers, because without them we’re just some crazy guy dancing on the beach.”

The award for best menu revamp went to McDonald’s for reworking their burgers. “This is like a dream come true,” said Chad Schafer, McDonald’s Sr. Director of U.S. Menu Strategy, who accepted the award with his colleague Wayne Kuhl.

Schafer said that as they were rolling out the new burgers they’d watch their customers’ responses. “We don’t even ask what they think. We just watch the nods and the smiles and that’s what this really is all about.”

Best New Item went to Cava for its Market Spice Bowl with a new spicy falafel broccoli, plus tomato & cucumber salad, roasted corn, pickled onions, hummus, tzatziki, romaine lettuce, and rice, topped with garlic dressing and the trending spicy and herbaceous Yemeni-Israeli condiment skhug.

He said the bowl was “a big cross-functional effort to get it across the line … and really embodied what Cava’s about, celebrating hearth, health and humanity in the food industry.”

The Healthful Innovation Award went to Tender Greens for its Longevity Bowl made with slow-cooked black lentils, fennel, dried pears, roasted rainbow cauliflower, which were also in the original bowl, plus purple potatoes, arugula salad with pecorino cheese, and labneh with smoked paprika.

Vice president of culinary innovation Pete Ballistreri and corporate executive chef Oliver Plust accepted the award. Ballistreri said the bowl and the Blue Zones — communities with an unusually large number of people who live to be over 100 years old — that inspired it “really coincides with the California cuisine philosophy that chef Oliver and I were raised in. To be recognized for something like that is very special to us and we’re thankful to be in the presence of such awesome people in this beautiful space.”

Fogo de Chão won for Best Menu Line Extension for the crispy pork belly that it added to its Churrasco Experience menu.

Antonio Iocchi, Senior vice president of food & beverage global innovation, brought his entire crew on stage. “The reason we are here today is because of our incredibly talented team. This award is for you guys.”

Best Limited-Time Offer went to Del Taco for the birria ramen that it launched last year and brought back to the menu last week (attendees from the chain said it’s selling very well once again).

Jeremias Aguayo, senior director of culinary research & development, said “thanks to my Del Taco family. We’re small, but we get a lot of things done.”

The broth used for the ramen was also used for  birria stuffed wontons that were developed for the MenuMasters party along with a harissa-spiked seafood Louie, spring pea fritters, a lime curd cream puff with green papaya salad, sumac-spiced blue corn tacos with carnitas and guacamole-tomatillo salsa, and wagyu beef bites with dashi beurre blanc.

Those items were developed at a special collaborative session at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, by the chefs from Del Taco, McDonald’s, Fogo de Chão, Cava, and Tender Greens.

Sam Zien served rare tuna with Cap’n Crunch dust, and Nancy Silverton served grissini wrapped in truffle butter and prosciutto.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

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