Food Writer's Diary

Beard Awards post-mortem

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Once again, I proved that I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to picking Beard Award winners. I got five and a half out of 20 right, which is slightly better than how a monkey guessing at random would have done, but not much. I guess I could give myself full credit, instead of half, for guessing that David Chang would win Outstanding Chef since there’s no way I could have predicted that it would be a tie between him and Paul Kahan. I also could say that I meant to guess that Brooks Headley of Del Post would be named Outstanding Pastry Chef, which my comments here [link] clearly indicate, but I highlighted Melissa Chou as my predicted winner, and if we actually picked who we meant to pick, Al Gore might have been president, and we all know that he wasn’t.

Click here for the full list of winners.

So I’m taking half credit for David Chang and zero credit for Brooks Headley, and I can happily get on with my life knowing not to let my sense of well-being hinge on my ability to predict Beard Award winners.

The awards were fun in a way; long and awkward in several other ways.

This year the awards were unfortunately themed “Lights Camera Taste” and rather superficially explored food’s role in film.

The exploration had to be somewhat superficial: Food has a really important role in many movies, but over the course of three hours the foundation had to hand out 22 awards, show videos of five America’s Classics restaurants (this year they were Kramarczuk’s in Minneapolis, Frank Fat’s in Sacramento, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, C.F. Folks in Washington, D.C., and Keens Steakhouse in New York City) and half a dozen Who’ Who of Food & Beverage in America inductees (Eric Asimove, Dorothy Kalins, Barbara Lynch, Zarela Martinez, Michael Mina and Bill Yosses) as well as a video of the Lifetime Achievement Award winner (Cecilia Chang) and Humanitarian of the Year (Emeril Lagasse).

The Beard Foundation has gotten pretty good at getting through the awards with dispatch. They’ve moved all the TV and cookbook awards to the journalism awards dinner, which is held on the Friday night before the Restaurant and Chef Awards, which are held on Monday. They’ve also stopped letting the award presenters — usually past winners paired with a representative of the sponsor of that particular award — read the names of the nominees. Instead a pre-recorded voice does that, speeding things up and preventing the mangling of names that was a constant problem in the past.

In fact, this year it seemed like the event planners worked to spread the awards out to three hours, which, believe me, is unnecessary. I don’t think anyone would feel less honored if it were all taken care of in two and a half hours, or even two hours. The several video montages of food scenes in film, shown at intervals over the course of the awards, were cute, and no doubt a lot of work, but I think ultimately most attendees would have preferred a shorter ceremony. I know I would have.

At the reception after the awards, one person suggested — rather callously, I thought — that the foundation get rid of the America’s Classics. Those are cute, old-timey restaurants that exemplify the country’s culinary heritage and are important to acknowledge. The foundation also makes very good videos for them.

In fact, those interludes are the most entertaining things about the awards. Occasionally a winning chef makes an amusing quip or drops an unnecessarily profane word on the crowd, but mostly they thank their business and life partners and talk about how great their staff is and how wonderful it is to be a chef, which is all well and good — and quite frankly the whole point of the awards — but not surprising.

There was a lot of weeping this year, actually. I’m not sure whether that has to do with the evolution of chefs, at least in their own minds, from back-of-the-house troglodytes to well-rounded artists, or to their appreciation, thanks to their television appearances, of the impact of emotional expression, or to something else entirely.

It’s possible that their eyes were simply tired from using the 3D glasses that were handed out in order to read the program and fully appreciate some of the videos — an added accoutrement that I could have done without.

It certainly wasn’t a gender thing. Although at least eight women came to the stage to accept awards, including Americas Classics honorees (but not Who’s Who inductees, because they didn’t give speeches), the men were tearing up at least as much.

I wanted to cry once or twice because of the choice of songs that were played as the winners took the stage. They were terrible.

The foundation really ought to revisit how they decide on those songs.

Whoever’s making that choice definitely has an affinity for Star Wars, the music of which has been a frequent theme at past ceremonies as well as this one.

I’m pretty sure all of the songs were from movies, and many of them had to do with the regions the chefs were from.

So when the best chef in the West was announced, they played the theme song from Beverly Hills Cop, which was odd since the winner, Christopher Kostow, works in Napa Valley. When Stephanie Izard was named best chef in the Great Lakes region, they played the Emperor’s Theme from Return of the Jedi. That is reportedly Izard’s favorite movie, but it’s still an awfully ominous song to play for someone who, by all accounts, is about as nice a person as you’d like to meet.

And it would be a pretty extreme understatement to say that it was over the top to play “Thus Spake Zarathustra” from 2001: a Space Odyssey, after announcing that David Chang and Paul Kahan had tied for Outstanding Chef.

Still, all in all, it was a fun evening.

There was a new addition to the afterparty circuit. Queers for Beard, a party honoring LGBT nominees, was thrown at the Out Hotel.

So my colleague Erin Dostal and I stopped by and sampled micro-brew beer from North Carolina and Rappahannock River oysters and lamb sausages on which, if we so chose, we could drizzle white huancaina sauce — unnecessarily suggestive, perhaps, but delicious. There were also some delicious nut brittles and a couple of enthusiastic go-go dancers.

So that was fun, and as we were leaving, Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro was arriving. Good for her.

From there we headed to Del Posto, whose pastry chef, Brooks Headley, had been named Outstanding Pastry Chef, just as I had meant to predict, but failed to do so.

But the party was full and the bouncer told us they weren’t letting anyone else in for the rest of the night.

So we headed to the annual Eleven Madison Park party, which is ordinarily a frat-style kegger. This year, it was held at a rented loft, instead of the restaurant itself, and I helped myself to a strong mint julep poured from a bottle of Maker’s Mark and danced a little bit, until the cops arrived around 1:30 a.m. and broke up the party.

That’s right, the New York City Police Department broke up a party thrown by one of the city’s fanciest, most esteemed restaurants.

Hilarious.

Erin, intelligent woman that she is, hopped in a cab. However, I ended up with the Houston contingent, Southern Foodways Founder John T. Edge, and assorted New York City sous chefs at one of Gotham’s many Irish Pubs, where I had beer and spoke of many things, although I can’t recall what exactly.

I got home at around 4:30 a.m., because that’s what you do on the night of the Beard Awards.

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Food Writer's Diary is a blog written by Bret Thorn, senior food editor of Nation’s Restaurant News, which covers culinary trends and his adventures.

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Bret Thorn

Bret Thorn is responsible for reporting on culinary trends in foodservice for Nation's Restaurant News. He joined NRN in 1999, after spending about five years as a journalist in Thailand, where...
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