Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Beard Awards Blathering

The James Beard Awards - often referred to as the "Oscars of the food world" - were given out just a few days ago; the winners in writing and television categories were announced this past Friday evening, with the chef, restaurant, and wine/bar programs being honored on Monday night.

These are bestowed by the enormously prestigious James Beard Foundation, whose "mission is to celebrate, nurture, and preserve America’s diverse culinary heritage and future."  Here is the organization's philosophy:

"Food matters. You are what you eat not only because food is nutrition, but also because food is an integral part of our everyday lives. Food is economics, politics, entertainment, culture, fashion, family, passion ... and nourishment. The James Beard Foundation is at the center of America's culinary community, dedicated to exploring the way food enriches our lives."

Thus, the Beard Awards are a huge, huge event for those who are fortunate enough to be in the inner circles.  They're also a very big deal for obsessive geeks like me who sit in front of their laptops watching a live stream of the ceremony (since the Food Network inexplicably doesn't show it).

So, what did I think?  Do I have some opinions about the winners, non-winners (it sounds so much kinder than "losers"), and everything else?

Why, of course I do!  I'm the same girl who once ridiculed the absurdity of Gatorade flavors and ranted about wedding cake - or, rather, a lack thereof at a friend's niece's wedding.  Of course I have notions to share and pontificating to do!

So pour a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, depending upon the time of day, and let's chat.  Here's the list of winners for you to peruse, in case you haven't seen it yet, so that you can contribute to this cause in the comments.

In no particular order:

- I acknowledge that big cities tend to have the greatest opportunity for, and ability to support, world-class restaurants.  But the finalists and winners were very New York- and Chicago-centric.  Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Austin ... they all represented a bit.  But overwhelmingly, those other two nabbed the attention.  I adore both cities - I was born and raised in New York!  But there's a wide world of culinary excellence beyond their skyscrapers.

- I didn't even like Ted Allen on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," one of my very favorite shows in its early incarnation (before they started to whore themselves out to sponsors and were heavy-handed in mentioning brand names).  Ted was supposed to coach the poor schlub guests about cooking and dining.  And one time he actually expected some clueless guy - because, of course, they were all clueless guys who needed to move on from their frat-boy status into adulthood with the help of the gay community's fabulousness - to learn how to cook (cruelly) and eat (messily) a lobster, rather than teaching him how to prepare something simple and classic and neat and tidy.  It was so unfair and embarrassing!!!  So now I see him on "Chopped," for which he won two - two!!! - Beard Awards.  He is the antithesis of dynamic, and so ungifted in stating the obvious; Jeremy and I groan when we watch him, because he is utterly superfluous on the show and makes his lack of necessity painfully evident.  And he - Ted Allen?!? - won two awards???

- I'm very sorry that no chefs from Michigan restaurants made the short list of nominees. (Grant Achatz - culinary superstar, multiple Beard Award winner, inductee this year into the Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America" - was raised in Michigan but owns restaurants in Chicago).  Three had been named as semi-finalists: Luciano Del Signore of Bacco Ristorante in Southfield; David Gilbert of Forest Grill in Birmingham; and Matthew Millar of Reserve in Grand Rapids all received acknowledgement of their gifts and talents in the early rounds.  I'm also sorry that the Michigan-raised nephew of a good friend/co-worker - Max Sussman of Roberta's in New York City - didn't make the final list of nominees for "Rising Star Chef of the Year."  His winning would have been so, so cool!

- I was so happy to see the warm and wonderful Laurie Colwin welcomed into the Cookbook Hall of Fame, many years posthumously.  She writes as though she's chatting while the two of you are making dinner ... precisely the tone I strive for.  Nothing glamorous or complicated, just simple lovely recipes.  If you haven't read her work, I highly recommend her collections of food essays - Home Cooking and More Home Cooking - in addition to her fiction.

- Why was everyone wearing black or grey, with the exception of Duff Goldman who wore a mustard-colored t-shirt which was inappropriately informal for the occasion despite being worn under a dark suit?  Yeah, it was New York and it was a semi-formal affair.  But still!  When I go to the awards ceremony some day - when, not if!  Be positive! - I will wear pink.  Maybe red, maybe purple, but most likely pink.  With sparkles, of course ... :)

- I love that there are awards specifically for newcomers - such as the afore-mentioned "Rising Star Chef of the Year" award that my friend's nephew should have won (though it was no surprise whatsoever that Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar, famous for her addictive Crack Pie, won that prize) - as well as for those who are well-established and have produced and served at a consistently exceptional level for a minimum of 5 or 10 years (depending upon the category).  Everyone gets a chance.

- The ceremony didn't run very smoothly, and there was a fair amount of "down time" between presentations.  The show needs some form of transition ... possibly a band, so they also have a means to play off the long-winded folks (though there were thankfully very few of them).

- I'm so impressed that the winner of "Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic," Maricel Presilla of Cucharamama, is also an academic with a doctorate in Medieval Spanish history.  However, she was one of those long-winded winners who needed to be played off the stage.  I, of course, say this as someone who would also undoubtedly get played off the stage.  Judge not, lest ye be judged.

- It's so important that while there are many accolades for sophistication and pretense, there is also celebration of comfort food and old-fashioned favorites, acknowledging culinary and style diversity while appreciating talent and fabulous flavor wherever they may be found.

- And that leads me to my favorite category of the evening: "America’s Classics."  This category honors establishments ranging from steak houses to back woods shacks that are "beloved in their regions for quality food that reflects the character of their community."  This year's honorees are:

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner (Marianna, Arkansas)
Nora's Fish Creek Inn (Wilson, Wyoming)
Shady Glen (Manchester, Connecticut)
St. Elmo Steak House (Indianapolis, Indiana)
The Fry Bread House (Phoenix, Arizona)

Each link features the video that was shown at the awards ceremony, demonstrating how cherished these establishments are in their towns, letting you meet the owners who give so much of themselves each day and who maintain valuable traditions.  I highly recommend that you watch each segment - they're only about 2 minutes long.  But if you only watch one, watch the one for Jones Bar-B-Q Diner ... I intend to make a pilgrimage there some day.  Others go to Mecca, I'm going down to Marianna, Arkansas, for some seriously old-fashioned, "if it ain't broke why fix it?", secret recipe, this is how it's done barbecue.  And I love that an older couple - the barbecue joint's owners - from a podunk town of 4000 right smack in the middle of the state was wined, dined, and celebrated in the big ol' city!  This was my favorite award - and my favorite recipient - of all!


Unknown said...

First.. I've been to the Fry Bread House.. it's is amazing!! Second.. Heck yes on your thoughts on Ted Allen!! lol I've thought the same thing about the guy for a long time now and I never saw him on anything but the Food Network. Third.. thank you so much for your recap, I didn't watch any of it so it was great to hear all about it through you!

Sheila said...

Mary, thanks for this post! I suspect one of the reasons so many chefs move around a lot is to be sure they are at some high profile restaurants in big cities to even start getting recognition. But, I too, love the small town finds!

Cranberry Morning said...

Well, I think we should all go down to that diner in Marianna, Arkansas. Good for them!!

Love your narrative, Mary. Laughed aloud when I read I, of course, say this as someone who would also undoubtedly get played off the stage. Judge not, lest ye be judged. LOL

I can see that it would be way more fun to watch the Beard Awards with you than alone. :-)

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