Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Beard ’07

May 8

“When is it going to be over?”
“Another 45 minutes.”
“But you said that like 20 minutes ago.”
“I know, I’m sorry. You know what? It’s going to be a long time before it’s over. I honestly can’t say how long.”
Oh wait, that was a conversation I had with my seven-year-old nephew, Harrison Thorn, last weekend at the Bat Mitzvah of cousin Yael Kornfeld (it was long, but really quite excellent; her speech made me cry).
But I could have had it at this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards.
Both the Bat Mitzvah and the awards were just a bit longer than three hours — an hour shorter than last year’s Beard Awards, which is a good start.
This was my ninth year covering the awards and I think I’ve had about enough.
The venue was moved this year from the Marriott Marquis to Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Members of the press were given actual seats instead of herded into a roped off section in the back as used to be the case. But they were all up in tier two. I went up to my seat. It was seat #13 in box #13, but I decided not to take that personally.
The ceremony started at 6:50, 20 minutes late, and I was all alone in my box, although I was soon joined by Ben Leventhal.
“May I crash your box?” he asked, which sounds dirty but it’s not. He sneaked a couple of photos and made notes with some sort of electronic device while the ceremony got underway with a speech from Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro and a video celebrating the Beard Foundation, which is 20 years old.
Much of the video was shot during a recent dinner by Denver-based chef Troy Guard, which I attended (Beard Award attendees who paid attention might have noticed my profile in the background for about a second).
I stayed in my obstructed-view seat while David Chang was named Rising Star chef, and then when the year’s first America’s Classics award was being presented Laren Spirer from Gothamist — who was in the next box over — and I slipped down to the press room, where I spent the rest of the ceremony.
There, for the first time in my life, I felt the need to use the word “scrum.”
Honestly, it wasn’t that bad, as long as you didn’t want to hear the acceptance speeches (most of which were appropriately short and innocuous anyway) or see any of the videos, which they seemed uninterested in showing to the only people even remotely likely to write about them.
It was a very polite and congenial scrum, and the sausages and cheese provided by a high-end restaurant supplier were terrific, although I wonder if it’s really a good idea at the fine-dining world’s biggest shmoozefest to serve the biggest chatterboxes — the media — things that are going to have such a deleterious affect on their breath.
Sometimes you have to cover events just to cover them, and that’s what I do at the Beard Awards. It’s unlikely that anything will happen that you can’t read about in a press release, but you never know. And you have to gauge the mood of the crowd, listen to the chatter afterwards, reconnect with people. It might be tedious, but it’s also important.
This year the bloggers were in attendance in fuller force, so that was interesting, and I got to catch up with my friend Andrew Knowlton from Bon Appétit, whom I never see because he doesn’t go out anymore (he said as much: “I don’t go out anymore,” he said).
I also got to hang with James Oliver Cury, formerly of Time Out New York and now of Epicurious, which is always a treat (he loves loves loves his new job, by the way).
And the award ceremony does come to an end eventually. It has to.
It is followed by a reception.
I whipped out my camera for the picture page that we would likely run in Nation’s Restaurant News and mostly left the food to the paying guests, although I did gratefully accept the foie gras handed to me by former Aureole chef Dante Bocuzzi, who’s in the process of setting up his own restaurant in Cleveland. And when Thomas Keller hands you one of his salmon cornets you can’t leave him hanging. It would be rude. Besides, I wanted to take a picture of him with his chef at French Laundry, Corey Lee.
I chatted with the folks at Gilt, including sommelier Jason Ferris who gushed about how great it was working with chef Christopher Lee — how chefs and sommeliers so often say that they click and get along famously, but that it’s rarely true.
He didn’t say he was glad to see former chef Paul Liebrandt gone, perhaps because I wasn’t indelicate enough to ask.
David Carmichael, Gilt’s new pastry chef, similarly raved about the Palace Hotel’s facilities, so of course I ate his berry sorbet, and so it would have been improper not to eat Chris Lee’s Kobe beef.
I reminded Robert and Mimi Del Grande about the night we dined together some years ago at the Bon Appétit Food & Entertaining awards (it was surreal: there in Daniel’s private dining room were the Del Grande’s, Julia Child, Alice Waters, Jacques and Claudine Pépin, Charlie Trotter, David Bouley, Drew Nieporent — who actually spoke to Bouley for the first time in 16 years — Wolfgang Puck, Anna Wintour to introduce Jeffrey Steingarten, Dean Fearing, other really important food luminaries … and me).
Then it was time for the afterparties, so I stopped by the Parker Meridien, where the only person I knew was a freelance photographer for the Beard Foundation. So I rehydrated with some sparkling water, sipped a glass of wine and then wandered off to Hawaiian Tropic Zone, where I met Sam Hazen of Tao and became reacquainted with his co-executive chef, John Villa, whom you might remember from Pico, Patroon, or a photo spread in Playgirl in which he was called something like the world’s sexiest chef.
David Burke was hosting the party, and I congratulated him on the $88 fried rice at davidburke & donatella, which apparently is selling like hotcakes, or maybe like $4 fried rice.
He immediately leapt to the dish’s defense, although I hadn’t attacked it. Hey, if people want to buy an $88 fried rice, sell it to them.
Then I settled into a conversation with Lee Jones and David Varley. Lee is the marketing guy at Chef’s Garden, which supplies many of the fine dining restaurants in the eastern half of the United States (and apparently Las Vegas) with super-expensive micro greens and baby vegetables. He was in his trademark outfit (literally, he trademarked it) of white dress shirt, red bow tie and denim overalls.
David’s the chef de cuisine of restaurant Bradley Ogden in Las Vegas.

Here’s Lee with Celina Tio, who won the award for best chef in the Midwest.
Lee, David and I headed down to Olives, where the last time I went to a Beard Award afterparty it was awful — third-tier publicists and other hangers on — but it had its groove back this year, and it was a lot of fun. I introduced myself to Jean-Georges pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, because I’d never met him and I thought it was high time I did.
I hate doing that — introducing yourself to someone at a party as if they’re going to remember you the next day.
But he was nice about it and I kept it brief and let him continue the conversation he was having with the pretty woman. I think she might have been Todd English’s girlfriend, but that’s none of my business.

But who won besides David Chang and Celina Tio, you ask?

By the way, this is David Chang, whom I introduced to Ivy Stark, the executive chef of Amalia in New York, so I could take a picture of them together.

One more thing: You might remember that I made some predictions about who would win the Beard Awards. I got seven right, 12 wrong, which, okay, is a failing grade, but it's nearly twice as good as a monkey throwing darts at random would do.

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