The Real Emotions Behind the 2009 James Beard Foundation Awards
"It's this rooting, I realized, that supplies the real emotion in the James Beard Awards."
This year I watched the entire James Beard Foundation Awards ceremony from the ridiculously crowded and cramped press room, located in the bowels of Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan. Before I ended up there I had hung out in the hall's lobby greeting chefs, food writers, and food business friends and colleagues from both New York and around the country who for whatever reason (mostly we're all insanely busy) I don't get to see otherwise.
When I saw Tom Colicchio and his wife, Lori, Tom introduced me to his teenaged son Dante, who of course looked completely grown-up in his elegant tux. I said to Dante, "I've known your dad for a long time." And then Tom interjected, "So long, it was before Dante was around." Meeting people you have known for a long time and watching their kids grow up is one of my favorite ways to mark time. Tom asked me about my son, who is graduating from college in two weeks, and I realized that what transpires at events like the James Beard Awards is a passing of the guard, from old friends to new friends, from old friends to their children, and from one generation of chefs and food industry professionals to the next.
Down in the press room we all watched the video monitors as the awards unfolded. Each time a presenter came up to the stage and announced the nominees for a given category and then opened the envelope, anyone who actually cared for various and sundry reasons about one particular award or nominee would start yelling at the screen, the way longtime offtrack betting habitues yell at the television when a race is on.
It's this rooting, I realized, that supplies the real emotion in the James Beard Awards. Southerners root for Southerners, people root for their friends and acquaintances, and still others root because they really do genuinely love the restaurant or the chef that's been nominated. Nobody cares about every category and every nomination, but everybody cares about at least one award.
So where was the real emotion in this year's awards?
Let's start with Serious Eats Italian Food bureau chief Gina DePalma. This year Gina was nominated for the fifth or sixth time for Best Pastry Chef in America for her fine, fine work at Babbo. Gina has been battling some really serious health problems over the last year, but even before the onset of her illness, Gina really wanted to win this award. At one point, I think it was two years ago, she fell off the nominee list.
So this year, when I saw that she was up for the Best Pastry Chef award, I found myself praying for her to win the damn thing (for obvious reasons). Down in the press room, when her award was about to be announced, I shushed everybody so that I could hear the audio on the video monitor.
"C'mon, Gina," I found myself yelling at the screen, like she was a horse coming from behind in the stretch. "C'mon, Gina," I said to anyone who had the misfortune to be in close proximity to me. "If there is justice in the world, Gina DePalma will win this damn thing," I said to my friend John T. Edge.
And then it happened. "And the winner of the Outstanding Pastry Chef Award for 2009 is Gina DePalma."
"All right, Gina DePalma!" And then I just kept screaming her name over and over again. Justice, as least in the Pastry Chef category, had been served. And for one night, at least, Gina DePalma could be comforted knowing her peers had done the right thing and properly recognized her talents.
Gina was not the only bit of real emotion on display at the James Beard Awards. Stanley Tucci, in a remarkable display of courage and grace, co-hosted the awards a mere five days after his wife had passed away. To see him up there on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall, nobody would have or could have possibly known. In fact, I wouldn't have known if Tom Colicchio hadn't told me in the press room.
I had interviewed Tucci at least ten years ago, and met him very briefly at a Mario Batali party a few months ago, so we are not exactly close friends. But I was so moved by his display of courage that when I found myself in line for D'Artagnan's duck hot dogs with Tucci and we struck up a friendly conversation, I felt I had to say something. "I hope you don't mind me saying this, but I heard about your wife passing away and I have to tell you how sorry I am, and also how courageous it is that you are even here tonight."
He smiled and replied, "Well, my wife loved food and I loved her, so it just felt right to come. Thank you for saying something, Ed."
So, serious eaters, let's raise a glass to Gina DePalma and to Stanley Tucci. L'Chaim, Gina and Stanley.