Tuesday, June 10, 2008

James Beard Awards ’08

Denver, June 10, 1:12 a.m. Mountain Daylight time,

I hope I haven't kept you waiting with bated breath to see what I did during the Beard Awards this year. I hope your life is more interesting than that. I’m afraid I had stories about the Beard Awards to write up, and a column to write, and a plane to catch as I try to squeeze in family time and some R&R before the lalapalooza that is the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen, which starts on Friday, but really on Thursday.
But first, the lalapalooza that is the James Beard Foundation Awards:
I was tense when I got to Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday, and kind of irritable. It might have been because I was wearing a wool tuxedo (as tuxedos tend to be) and it was 95° out, and I'd had to walk all the way around the building because the car service I took from my home in Brooklyn specifically because it’s uncouth to show up at black tie events drenched in your own sweat (or anyone’s sweat, come to think of it) had dropped me off at the back door. I don't know why.
I nodded to people I knew as I walked down the red carpet, past paparazzi who did not snap my picture. Both Bobby Flay and I were wearing straight silver ties with our tuxes, but apparently the photographers had no trouble distinguishing between us anyway.
This was the second year of a red-carpet entry to the Beard Awards. Seems a bit much to me, but maybe I'm missing something.
Dave Wondrich was there, and he had the good sense to bring a hip flask of whisky with him. He offered me a swig, which I took, and gradually made my way to the concert hall, where the awards were to be presented.
I had a pretty good seat — Row Z, which sounds bad, but it's about the middle of the hall. I sat next to a young food writer from Minneapolis, who was a judge for her region. These were her first Beard Awards. They were my 10th, so I hope I wasn't too snide when commenting on the proceedings.
I actually stayed in my seat for the first half of the awards — at which the Rising Star Chef (Gavin Kaysen), regional chef awards and some others were given out — along with the showing of some thematic videos, honoring of America's Classic restaurant etc.
This year the broadcast awards were moved to the previous Friday night, combining with the journalism awards to be the Media Awards. so apart from the restaurant awards only book awards were handed out during the gala (mostly cookbooks, but Dave Wondrich's booze book, Imbibe, also won an award). I slipped out once the book awards were being given to see what was afoot in the press room.
It wasn’t the scrum that it had been last year. The photographers had been moved to a separate room, where they could scramble to take pictures of the winners as they came offstage, and we didn’t have to feel the tension of it all. It made it all less crowded, although one did have to be wary of people walking around, one hand balancing a laptop, the other typing into it, because quite a few people were blogging live, which I guess is cool.
I knew a bunch of the people in the room, but others I didn’t, and some of them were so very young, and made facile observations, like that there were a lot of nominees from Chicago.
Not that I'm one to talk. At my first Beard Awards I was captioning as my colleague Milford took pictures and I had to ask Danny Meyer who he was. He looked stunned, possibly insulted, which, honestly, is fair.
Then again, I had just asked Johnny Apple who he was.
Ah memories.
I think the press room has changed over the past four years in that, before then, people sat in the press room, sipped Champagne or espresso or both, and watched the awards, or at least sat quietly while others watched it, pausing to interview winners as they rotated in.
But now it's really just a social scene, and if you want to see what's going on you really have to hover near the video screen.
During the post-awards reception I started taking pictures and the company camera promptly broke, making impotent, panicky whirring noises, lens fully extended but useless. It wouldn't fit in its camera case, so I stuck it awkwardly in my pocket, that lens rudely protruding.
It was a drag that the camera broke, but it also meant I didn’t have to take any more pictures. It’s possible that my photo of Gavin and his family, and of Bobby Flay and his famous wife Stephanie March, among others, are lost to the ether, but life goes on.
Beverage sponsors were on the veranda, so I drank with them and chatted with Jim Meehan among others as I sipped a perfect Manhattan (made with both sweet and dry vermouth).
I closed out that reception catching up with Ivy Stark and then we all sort of walked across the street to Bar Boulud.
Award winner Carrie Nahabedian was sitting at a table upstairs, having a celebratory meal with her entourage. I was going to introduce myself and say hello, but I was politely but firmly ushered downstairs, where the party was, after the host informed me that this was a restaurant and that people were dining.
Oh, my.
But good for them that people were dining there at 11:30 on a Sunday night. The place looked full.
Downstairs was full, too, and the air conditioning was not up to the task. It's a tribute to Daniel Boulud, and probably to Gavin, that the place was so full — and with powerful restaurant movers and shakers — when climate control could easily have been had somewhere else.
Like at PJ Clarke's just a few steps away, which is where I soon went.
There, I found myself with cocktail people again. Dave Wondrich was talking to Dale DeGroff. Dave said they’d just stopped by to grab a quick, low-key drink and only then realized that they had stumbled onto one of the official after-parties. Dale was wearing the bow-tie he’d worn for 13 years while bartender at The Rainbow Room. Dave and other’s insisted that it should be given to a museum, and I agreed. I mean, it was a nice tie, still suitable for wearing, but it also was a part of cocktail history.
Dave is a historian of many things, and in fact his education is in the classics. And so I learned from him how to say “je ne sais quoi” in Latin: Nescio quid.
Someday that will come in handy.
Honestly, I was tired and knew that I had a busy day ahead of me, but I was cajoled into one last stop: Eleven Madison Park.
Many of the party hoppers seemed to have funneled to that particular restaurant, and as I exchanged philosophies with Michael Psilakis, edged my way past shouting women at the bar who didn’t know how to hold their alcohol with dignity (someone's groupies I guess, because industry people know better) and drank rosé with Sean Brock, I was reminded why I liked the Beard Awards and that I shouldn’t find all that red carpet and paparazzi crap (or even the uncouth groupies) so troubling. Many of the greatest chefs in the country get together and they celebrate. That’s all. The future great chefs come too (and some who are great already even if no one has noticed yet) along with other people in the food world — owners, authors, beverage masters, even journalists like me — and we’re all very glad about it. We’re all part of a dynamic, exciting world during an era of gastronomic renaissance.
What, really, is there to complain about?

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