Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Beard Awards

May 9

I should be over the James Beard Foundation Awards. This was my eighth consecutive year attending them, and they don't change much from year to year. Even the nominees don't change much: Last year's winner is replaced by a newcomer, but often the other nominees are the same (this year that was literally true for two categories, and just about every category had at least two chefs who also were nominated last year — out of five). And that's for the chef awards, the only ones I write about. The same cookbook authors, journalists and broadcasters win awards in their category year after year. Chicago TV personality Steve Dolinsky won his 12th award this year, and the awards are only 16 years old. Steve's a good guy, but come on: This is the most dynamic era of food — scholarship, cooking, reporting — in living memory in the United States. Surely there are more players out there.
Most years I hunker down in the pressroom, where we can watch the ceremony on a TV monitor and photograph and interview chefs after they win.
That was a mistake this year. The theme of the 16th annual awards was a tribute to the culinary legacy of New Orleans (New Orleans native Cokie Robers was the MC), and there were several video presentations along those lines that I heard were just terrific. But in the pressroom, the monitors stayed focused on the podium from which the presenters introduced the videos. Mysteriously, this was a problem that no one seemed able to solve during the four-hour ceremony.
So as I said, I shouldn't be interested in going any more, and there are certainly plenty of other very capable journalists at NRN who could cover it. In fact, two of us went this year — me and my boss, executive food editor Pamela Parseghian, who took pictures while I took notes. I could have stayed home.
But there's something about the awards that I think are just great. I think part of it is simply that it's the only truly grand, black-tie occasion I get to attend. There's a certain grandeur that I like about the way the United States' fine dining world chooses to honor itself.
Part of it is also that the chefs and other restaurant folks who attend (and cookbook authors and journalists) are psyched to be there. My job is to write objectively about what restaurant chefs are cooking, so it's unprofessional of me to admit this: but I really like these people. I admire what they do, I benefit from it, and most of them have a warmth that I think comes from the same place as their cooking: A genuine desire to make people happy.
This year the awards were more moving than usual, of course: New Orleans holds a very special place in the hearts of food-focused Americans.
Cokie Roberts said that New Orleans' culture was distinctive. "Without it, America is not the same country," she said, and in no area is that more true than food (except, some people would argue, music, which is fair enough).
People were griping this year about the interminable length of the awards, which were about an hour longer than usual for some reason. In part it was due to the extra presentations regarding New Orleans. In part it was due to the fact that eight restaurants instead of four were named American Classics, and those presentations involve videos and acceptance speeches.
But part of it was that people accepting their awards wouldn't shut up.
Remember, next time you get an award and are expected to make an acceptance speech: Brevity is the soul of wit. In fact, I'll write your speech for you right now. Here it is: "Thank you very much."
Take your loved ones and friends out to dinner, give bonuses to your staff members, or e-mail your thanks to them, but if you don't have anything really profound to say, just accept your award graciously and sit down.
My favorite part of the whole Beard weekend is the afterparties. There are several each year, but the best one I know of this year was at The Lounge at The Hotel on Rivington, hosted by chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, of Wallsé and Blaue Gans.
Chefs work hard, and they know how to party. To get a bunch of them together in one room with dancing and Champagne — especially after sitting for four hours but then getting prestigious awards — is a sight to behold.
I ended up chatting with Thai chefs for awhile, again, including Tyson Wong Ophaso of the soon-to-open Chinatown Brasserie and David Banks (his mother's Thai and he was raised in Thailand) of Land, on New York's Upper West Side. I also talked to some visiting Chicagoans and New Orleanians, including Melvin Rodrigue, who manages Galatoire's. We met at the Beard Awards last year, when his restaurant won the award for Outstanding Restaurant. They've opened a restaurant in Baton Rouge, and I met their chef there, young Brian Landry.
A highlight of the evening came when I was chatting with an editor from Boston Magazine who, like me, is a Tufts alumn. Daniel Boulud — having just been named Outstanding Restaurateur ("I thought I was only a chef," he said in his acceptance speech), climbed onto the bar, danced a bit, and then, no lie, grabbed a Champagne bottle, shook it up and sprayed everyone in the room with it. Andrew Carmellini, who was executive chef at Cafe Boulud before he left to open A Voce, made a half-hearted attempt to spray him back, but Daniel, after giving the crowd another spray, scampered off the bar just as a bouncer was getting ready to take him out.
Good times.

The restaurant award winners:

Outstanding restaurant: The French Laundry, Yountville, Calif.
Outstanding chef: Alfred Portale
Outstanding restaurateur: Daniel Boulud, New York (and Vegas and Palm Beach, Fla.)
Best new restaurant: The Modern, New York City
Outstanding pastry chef: Johnny Iuzzini, Jean Georges, New York City
Rising Star Chef: Corey Lee, The French Laundry
Outstanding Service: Gary Danko, San Francisco
Outstanding wine service: Aureole, Las Vegas
Outstanding wine and spirits professional: Daniel Johnnes, wine director of the Dinex Group (Daniel Boulud's restaurants)
Outstanding restaurant design: Bentel & Bentel Architects/Planners, for The Modern
Outstanding restaurant graphics: Mucca Design Corporation for Sant Ambroeus in New York City.
Best chef in California: Suzanne Goin of Lucques in West Hollywood, Calif.
Best chef in the Mid-Atlantic: Fabio Trabocchi of Maestro at The Ritz-Carlton in Tyson’s Corner, Va.
Best chef in the Midwest: Shawn McClain of Spring and Green Zebra in Chicago
Best chef in New York City: Dan Barber of Blue Hill
Best chef in the Northeast: Jean-Louis Gerin of Jean-Louis in Greenwich, Conn.
Best chef in the Northwest and Hawaii: Scott Carsberg of Lampreia in Seattle
Best chef in the Southeast: John Besh of Restaurant August in New Orleans
Best chef in the Southwest: Bradford Thompson of Mary Elaine’s at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz., for the Southwest.

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