James Beard Awards Reflections

20080609-beards.jpgI am just home from the James Beard Awards and the various after-parties. Here are some not-so-random thoughts on the evening:

The Beard Awards are never going to become the Oscars of the food world, as they are sometimes described. Why? Because unlike the Oscars, the general public really doesn't care who wins the Best Chef Southeast Award. That said, winning a Beard Award is profoundly meaningful for the chefs and restaurateurs who earn them for the simple reason that they are being recognized in an awards ceremony attended by many of their peers across the country.

The Beard Awards are never going to be particularly entertaining. They are essentially trade awards with a slight veneer of entertainment thrown in for good measure.

There is something very cool about the Beard Awards. Unlike the Oscars and the Emmys, the public can buy tickets and rub shoulders with the Bobby Flays, Thomas Kellers, and Tom Colicchios of the world. I remember the first time I bought a ticket to the Beards ten years ago I couldn't believe my food fortune.

The food this year, built around an artisanal producer theme, was actually better than it has been in recent years. Simple dishes like scrapple with a poached egg on toast, fried stuffed squash blossoms, and, my favorite, biscuits with country ham and homemade preserves, abounded. The dishes were cooked by great chefs from around the country.

As for the winners themselves, there was a little more emotion and realness emanating from the stage at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall this year. It was really heartening and moving to see Alinea's Grant Achatz, who has been battling tongue cancer, speak when he accepted the award as Best Chef in America. I certainly would not have known it by the clear way he spoke. I thought to myself, if winning a Beard Award is going to help Grant in his ongoing battle, the various committees that the Beards comprise should just take turns giving him awards. Serious eaters need you, Grant.

The America's Classics were awarded to Bagaduce Lunch in Brooksville, Maine, Jumbo's in Miami, Maneki in Seattle, Irma's in Houston, and Tufano's Vernon Park Tap in Chicago. These are the most emotionally resonant awards given out because the winners are working cooks and restaurateurs and not fancy-pants chefs, and they have usually been doing their thing for a long time without getting much recognition. I remember giving Willie Mae Seaton an America's Classic Award a few years ago, and when the septugenerian Seaton tottered to the stage and began to cry as she accepted the award, I started to cry as well. Who wouldn't have? It was an incredibly emotional moment for all concerned.

It is with great sadness that I report that Gina DePalma, our brilliant Rome bureau chief and the pastry chef at Babbo, lost for the eighth time in her bid to win the Best Pastry Chef award. Gina has become the Susan Lucci of the Beards, and it's a damn shame because she can make pastries as well as she can write.

How Did I Fare in My Predictions?

  • David Chang won Best New York Chef, as I predicted
  • Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali triumphed in the Best Restaurateur category, again as I predicted, and Joe gave a surprisingly moving speech describing how he learned to be a restaurateur by cleaning the sidewalks in front of his parents' restaurant as a boy
  • I correctly guessed that Gramercy Tavern would win for Best Restaurant
  • I thought Mozza Osteria was going to win Best New Restaurant, but Michel Richard's new restaurant in D.C. did. Richard did a jig across the stage as he accepted the award
  • I forgot to pick a winner in the Best Chef category, but anybody who was not rooting for Grant Achatz has no heart or soul

So until next year, when all of you should consider going to the Beards. You'll eat well and hobnob wth chef TV stars.

The complete list of winners on the Beard site ยป