Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Beard 2012

May 8

Well, I did slightly better in predicting the winners of the Beard Awards this year than last year. I got five out of 20 right instead of four out of 19, which is still terrible.

I correctly guessed that Next would win for best new restaurant, PDT for outstanding bar program, Boulevard for outstanding restaurant, Michael Anthony for best chef in New York City and Chris Hastings for best chef in the South.

I got everything else wrong.

But no matter. It’s not whether you win or lose a Beard Award, it’s how you work it. Getting nominated year after year means you get free press year after year. Once you win, you get a medal and a burst of free press, but then you have to find new ways to draw attention to yourself.

I chose a different strategy in covering the awards this year. Rather than spend the night in the press room, which is always a fun party, but completely unrelated to the actual awards, I decided to go ahead and sit in Avery Fisher Hall and take notes.

I was worried that I’d fall asleep. I'd awakened in Chicago at 6 a.m. to write this trend piece on what was on display at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago, then I took a 15-minute nap, packed, headed to the airport, landed in New York, took a taxi to NRN's office, changed into my tuxedo and took the 1 train to Avery Fisher Hall for the Beard Awards.

But I guess the double-espresso I had before the awards started did the trick, and I sat through the three-and-a-half-hour ceremony wide awake, only getting antsy after two hours because I'd been sitting for two hours.

It had been years since I'd sat in that hall, and I realized that the best part of the awards was missed in the press room. It was the stuff that seemed like filler — the America's Classics awards given to old-time diners and similar places, the humanitarian and lifetime achievement awards, given to Charlie Trotter and Wolfgang Puck, respectively, this year — that was really entertaining.

Even the odd and maybe kind of out-of-place 20-minute performance by actor Robert Neal of part of the play “I Love to Eat,” was entertaining.

The play by James Still is being performed in Indianapolis and seemed to be added to the beginning of the award ceremonies expressly to make people sit longer. It was as if the James Beard Foundation had rented out Avery Fisher Hall and was determined to get its money’s worth.

But it was good.

The awards themselves, well, the winners' names are read, they come on stage, thank their spouses, staff and business partners, occasionally make an amusing quip — Tory Miller, chef of l'Etoile in Madison, Wis., and winner of the award for best chef in the Midwest, thanked James Beard for being “such a crazy old weird dude” — and sit down.

There are 22 of them, including the graphics and design awards, so it takes awhile, but the Beard Foundation seems to be working on streamlining them even further. They don't let the announcers — usually past winners and a representative from that particular award's sponsor — read the nominees' names anymore (except, for some reason, B. Smith, who gave out the graphics and design awards). Instead, a recorded voice reads them, keeping the presenters from butchering the names, which had been a constant problem in past years. And master of ceremonies Alton Brown seemed intent on moving things along.

Even Wolfgang Puck told the audience, who were giving him a standing ovation: “Sit down. you'll get a drink sooner.”

The awards are followed by a reception that seems to become more of a zoo each year as throngs of foodies in formalwear crowd each other out to try to get something to eat.

I'd had a big lunch — a torta from the Frontera Grill at O'Hare — because I don't like to stand in line for food, so I mostly sipped wine and chatted with people. I caught up with inimitable chef-restaurateur Michael McCarty, who was visiting with Ruth Reichl, and with Nic Jammet, partner in the SweetGreen fast-casual salad and frozen yogurt chain based in DC.

Food writer and drink maven Francine Cohen chastised me for not being in the press room but was good enough to bring me a delicious little white wine, made mostly of Colombard, of all grapes, from Southwestern France.

After snacking on Paul Kahan’s blood sausage, I realized the party was over for me and headed for the logical first after-party, at Boulud-Sud, across the street from Lincoln Center. But before I went in I ran into Chris Cosentino, of Incanto in San Francisco, and Ken Oringer, of many cool places in Boston, who were intent on going to Otto.

You see Matt Molina, the chef of Mozza in Los Angeles, had been named best chef in the Pacific, so Mario Batali, one of Mozza’s co-owners, was fêting him downtown, as is the custom when you win a Beard Award.

My philosophy when it comes to after-parties is not to go where everyone’s going, but where the people I like are going.

So to Otto we went, where I commiserated with Chris Cosentino about the coming end to foie gras in California. It becomes illegal in that state as of July 1, a fact many people at the awards were protesting against by wearing "Save the Foie” pins — too little, too late, I'm afraid. The law was passed in 2004, after all, to give foie gras producers time to find a way to make the fattened duck liver in a way animal welfare activists deemed acceptable.

The pro-foie crowd might have considered organizing back then.

I also met Mario Batali, perhaps for the first time, I'm not sure. I talked to him about figuring out how to report on the Beard Awards. Reporting on who won is silly, since the Beard Foundation live-tweets the event and a list of the winners is readily available online.

He agreed that the rapportage of the awards was meaningless, but that there were plenty of interesting back stories, such as Michael Anthony’s recovery from heart surgery this year — something Anthony mentioned when accepting the award for best chef in New York City.

Seattle-based chef and restaurateur Tom Douglas was there, too. I thought he was out of town, because his business partner, Eric Tanaka, accepted the award for outstanding restaurateur on his behalf. But Tom said he just didn’t like public speaking, and that Eric was a genius and should have been the one to accept the award anyway.

I got kind of philosophical with Daniel Holzman of The Meatball Shop, and learned something of the life story of his business partner Michael Chernow.

Chernow told me he had a bit of an acting and modeling career, which was how he ended up modeling for a recent J. Crew catalog. The fact that J. Crew also mentioned that he owned The Meatball Shop was a nice added piece of free press.

The party started winding down around 2 a.m., and I quickly swung up to the annual keg party at Eleven Madison Park to congratulate my friend Will Guidara, the place’s co-owner, for Daniel Humm’s victory as the country’s Outstanding Chef.

I stepped over the broken beer bottles, gave him a hug and called it a night.

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