Inside the James Beard Awards: The Real Deal
Ahh, yes, it's that time again. Last night was the one night a year I put on my
monkey suit, tux, and go to the James Beard Awards. I have a long history with the Awards, having sat on the Restaurant and Chefs Committee for many years, and later covering them right here on Serious Eats. (Which at one point involved e-mailing the names of the winners on my Treo from my seat to my CTO at the time, David Karp (yes, that David Karp, the founder of Tumblr), who would then convert my e-mails into a post.)
Things have changed, an inevitable result of the growth of the Awards and interest in restaurant culture. Now there's a press room with internet access that the winning chefs are escorted to, where they're swarmed by a barrage of reporters and bloggers vying for just a few minutes of a winner's time. They used to give journalists a choice between an actual ticket and a place to stand in a crowded backstage area where you could munch on cheese and have a cocktail. Now there's the press room. I'm not complaining here, just reporting.
This year there was the usual array of surprising winners, unexplainable losers, and first-time nominees who were genuinely thrilled to get their name on the ballot. The big story of the night was that finally it was the year of the woman at the James Beard Awards. And it was about time that women cleaned up. Nancy Silverton, who's been cooking in restaurant kitchens for over 30 years, won Chef of the year; Barbara Lynch, who's been cooking and owning restaurants for more than 20 years, won restaurateur of the year; April Bloomfield won for Best Chef NYC, Naomi Pomeroy won for best chef Northwest, and Ashley Christensen won for Best Chef Southeast. Restaurant kitchens have traditionally been bastions of sexism (except for the pastry area, which was the first place in US restaurant kitchens that women were found), so this year's awards were a testament to the talented, focused women who've persevered to greatness, and finally, recognition.
So how did this all come to happen? The committee (full disclosure —many of whom I know) is constantly challenging itself to make the nominating and voting process as democratic and well-informed as possible.
You can see the official guide to the process here, but let me fill you in on some more details. The balloting starts with any serious eater sending in the name of a chef they think should be nominated. This year they started with more than 38,000 names. Then by a combination of tallying that raw data (which will in all probability includes some ballot-stuffing, which is usually obvious and accounted for) and getting input from the 25 regional judges in each of 10 regions, the committee forms the 20-odd semifinalists for each region.
At that point, all eligible voters (including over 300 past winners, the 250 regional judges, and the 17 current Restaurant and Chef committee members) vote for the five or six people they think should be the finalists. For geographic and logistical reasons, it's virtually impossible for anyone to have eaten at all of the 250 semifinalists' restaurants, so voters are required to sign on each page they cast a vote on an affidavit swearing that they are only voting for restaurants they have been to. Since there's no way to check the veracity of the people signing the ballot, it's an imperfect system, but it's the best the committee has been able to come up with, short of flying hundreds of people around the country at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. One unfortunate by-product of the system is that it gives an unavoidable advantage to chefs in bigger cities, because more judges will have eaten in those restaurants.
So what's a serious eater to make of all this? It's fun to see who wins, but it's even more fun and seriously useful to take the list of semifinalists (which is where you will find the most geographic diversity), and note the names of the restaurants you should try in the city you live in or are traveling to.
So what does everyone involved get out of the awards and the awards process? The Award winners and finalists get to be acknowledged by their peers, which is of course incredibly gratifying to them, considering how hard most chefs work and how many thousands of hours they have spent in hot kitchens cooking for serious eaters everywhere.
But for serious eaters who aren't chefs, you can root your hometown heroes on but even more importantly you can use the semifinalist's list to eat seriously no matter where you are. And head over the JBF site to see the full list of last night's winners.