Beard Award Recap
It is now noon, and though my stomach and fingers haven’t recovered from the food I consumed and the liveblogging I did on my Treo at the James Beard Awards last night, I have now had a few hours of sleep and a moment to reflect on what was overall a typically long and delicious night. Hannah Storm was an adequate host, lending a sort of interminably annoying perkiness and no real feeling for what she was up there for. I will say she is stunning and knows how to make love to a teleprompter.
Overall there were no surprises and therefore no genuinely tense moments. Thomas Keller won for Restaurateur of the Year, which prompted fellow nominee Drew Nieporent (Nobu, Tribeca Grill) to explain afterward, "It's hard going up against Babe Ruth." Michel Richard of Michel Richard Citronelle in Washington, D.C., won the Best Chef award, another victory for the old guard of French chefs who have conquered America in the last 20 years. Frontera Grill, which is Rick and Deanna Bayless's terrific standard-setting, seminally authentic Mexican restaurant in Chicago, won for Outstanding Restaurant. I hated seeing L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon win as best new restaurant, as it is merely a clone of a restaurant he created in Paris five or so years ago.
David Chang of Momofuku and Momfuku Ssam Bar fame looked typically uncomfortable when he came on stage to accept the Rising Star Chef award. Michael Laskonis of Le Bernardin in New York City won the Best Pastry Chef award, and although I like my desserts a little simpler and homier than his, he is certainly an enormously talented guy. Tru, Gale Gand and Rich Tramonto’s restaurant in Chicago, won Best Restaurant Service. I’ve never eaten there, but restaurant service guru Danny Meyer told me last night that he was in awe of the service when he ate at Tru, and Danny Meyer is not easily awed.
The Regional Chef Awards were notable for the inclusion of two woman chefs,Traci Des Jardins of Jardinère in San Francisco, and Celina Tio of The American Restaurant in Kansas City. Women are still woefully underrepresented in terms of both total numbers of chefs and Beard winners. Grant Achatz, of Alinea in Chicago—in what was the Beard equivalent of a gimme—won for Best Chef, Great Lakes. There was an outcry last year when Alinea didn’t win for Best New Restaurant, as most observers think it is one of the most exciting restaurants to open in America in the last decade.
I’m always struck by how little real emotion there is on stage at the Beards. In fact, as far as I am concerned, and I have been going to the Beard Awards for 15 years now, the best, most real, and most openly emotional aspect of the awards are the America’s Classics. These are given to everything from pizzerias to hamburger joints to taquerias that have been anchors in their respective communities forever. When these folks come up to accept their awards, you can see the pleasure on their faces for being acknowledged for their years of hard work providing delicious food and familiar sanctuary to their customers.
This year’s America’s Classics were a wonderfully diverse group. First up there was Primanti Brothers of Pittsburgh, where I have had many killer bologna sandwiches with fries in the sandwich. Now that’s my idea of a condiment. The Brookville Hotel in Abilene, Kansas, was the next America’s Classic to be honored, and though I regard my never having gone there as one of the holes in my game, my friend Michael Bauer, restaurant critic and food editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and a native Kansan, assures me it is as good as ever. Ditto for the Pickwick Restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota, another America’s Classic honoree, according to my friend Rick Nelson, restaurant critic of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Weaver D’s, a soul food restaurant in Athens, Georgia, immortalized in via the title of R.E.M.’s record Automatic for the People, was another America’s Classic, and the short film on the restaurant was terrifically evocative. The final America’s Classic award was given to Aunt Carrie’s, a seafood hall in Naragansett, Rhode Island. I’ve never been, but my friend and Rhode Island native Pete Wells of the New York Times food section assures me I would love it.
The food at the post-awards ceremony feed, prepared by previous Rising Star Chef winners, was pretty unremarkablenot surprising given the fact that there were no cooking facilities where the awards were held, Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. The highlights for me were Todd (Olives of Boston and now many other cities) English’s Free-Form Morel Lasagna with Maine Crab, Fava Beans, and Parmesan. And Charles Phan's (Slanted Door; San Francisco) Carmaelized Shrimp with Lemongrass and Thai Chile. I must admit I didn’t get to many of the tables I’m sure I would have liked, including that of Melissa Perello (Fifth Floor; San Francisco), who made Green Garlic Custards with Bacon, Morels, and Spring Vegetable Ragout; or the table of Fabio Trabocchi (Maestro; McLean, Virginia), who prepared Slow-Raised Veal Cheeks with Osso Bucco Jus and Alba Hazelnuts.
The "After-Party Shuffle" at the Beard Awards is always interesting to witness. There is always the official after party, this time at the Hawaian Tropics Restaurant (ugh). And then there’s the impromptu, whispered about parties put together by winning chefs with New York restaurants. This year there was an after party at Café Des Artistes, conveniently located a couple of blocks from the ceremony. But it was pooh-poohed by everyone I talked to as being too old school and low key. Rising Star Chef winner Chang had rented a bus for the occasion that was loaded with beer, frat-boy style.
I wandered into an after party at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, also located a five-minute walk from Avery Fisher Hall. The array of food was dazzling and incredibly delicious. It featured everything from perfect mini-lobster rolls, to absolutely ripe cheese plates, to salted caramel truffles, to peanut brittle, a perfect, representative mix of Keller’s high-low approach. When I walked in I spotted Keller sitting alone in the corner surveying the scene with a slight smile on his face. When he accepted his award, he dedicated it to his dad, who was in California recovering from a serious accident. I wandered over to the table and gave him a hug, whispering to him that although Keller has won a zillion Beard awards, this one must have been special, given his father’s health. He nodded appreciatively and thanked me for acknowledging what he was feeling. Finally, some real emotion at the James Beard Awards.