Friday, April 20, 2007

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April 20

Great news about the Beard Awards ceremony this year! If you attended the gala last year, you’ll recall that the ceremony went on pretty much forever. Well, I was talking to Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro last night who said they’ve worked to shorten the program.
Last year, quite a few winners didn’t show up, but their representatives nonetheless stood at the podium and gave acceptance speeches on their behalf. Susan said that won’t be happening this year. Also, the broadcast awards will be presented on the night before the big gala at what were until this year called the James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards, but will now be called the Media Awards.
Also, the reception will be spread out on two floors instead of one.
Some noise has been made here in cyberspace about the fact that since the awards will be in Avery Fisher Hall this year rather than at the Marriott Marquis, the chefs serving up food during the reception will not be able to use open flames, just induction burners. Anthony Bourdain used this — and the fact that Avery Fisher Hall does not have anything like the excellent kitchen facilties of the Marriott Marquis where the chefs could prepare their food — as an illustration of the Beard Foundation’s lack of knowledge of, or even interest in, the way restaurants and food actually function.
Okay, but this is, after all, an award ceremony followed by a reception. Receptions are never places where chefs can show their best work. They’re constrained by space, the fact that they can only serve one or two dishes, and, usually, by hungry, unruly reception attendees (nowhere is this more true than at the Beard Awards, where amateur foodies spend hundreds of dollars to attend the event and then become quite aggressive in trying to sample all of the food; I tend not to eat much there).
Besides, from what I’ve seen, chefs tend to thrive when presented with challenges. Chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto in San Francisco claims to have an adrenalin addiction, and that strikes a chord with many chefs I mention it to. Chefs thrive on adversity, and Tony Bourdain knows that. When I interviewed him back in March 2000, shortly before his book Kitchen Confidential was published, he called professional cooking an endurance sport.
Just for fun, here’s an excerpt of that interview:

[Me:] I’ve often thought that writing and cooking are opposite art forms, in that cooking is the only art that utilizes all five senses and writing is really not dependent on any sense.

“[Bourdain:] At a certain level that is absolutely true. If you’re Nabokov or James Joyce, I would say that’s definitely true. You live the life of the mind entirely and produce brilliant works that set the world on fire. That’s not me. For me they’re very similar. They’re both endurance sports. I do them both for love, and they’re both about who’s standing at the end of the day. I hear a lot of guys: “I always wanted to write a book, got some great ideas.” But it’s all about sitting down and cranking it out every day.

Here’s some more, starting with Bourdain:

“Why I got into the business was for the pleasures of the flesh, initially. I got into it because of the lifestyle, because cooks were pirates: They got to do whatever the hell they wanted to, and chefs were pirate kings.

“[Me:] What was piratelike about life in the kitchen in the ’70s?

“[Bourdain:] What we did we did behind closed doors, and we ruled absolutely. Everyone had a personal style to the way they dressed — ripped blue jeans, smoking in the kitchen, headbands, giant doorknocker earrings, all sorts of ’70s leftover type of jewelry, tattoos. The kitchen had its own slang, its own perverse world view of everything outside.
“We lived with a sort of friendly contempt for everybody else. Everybody in the kitchens had idiosyncrasies, whether they stole everything in sight, drank like crazy, did lots of drugs, gambled all night, were screwing their way through the floor staff, the customers, everybody in sight. And we were paid relatively well, spending no money on food and surrounded by criminal masterminds. These were attractive qualities in 1973, ’74 and even up to the early ’80s.
“Also it was a rigid hierarchy. So we lived chaotic, messy lives, but we were still able to survive in an extremely rigid, Byzantine, demanding world, where it’s put up or shut-up: If you can’t cook, you can’t cook. They’ll forgive you your idiosyncrasies if you can show up on time and do your job. If you can’t, you’re out.

I think they’ll be able to handle induction burners.

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