How the balance of power is changing among Beard Award judges
“All the winners were wrong,” a journalist, who is probably himself one of the judges for the James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards, grumbled while drinking at a Beard Awards after party at Toro. He’s a man who likes to stir up controversy, so I won’t bother to name him, nor did his comment shock me much, because he likes to disapprove of things.
But then a jocular journalist from Chicago agreed, and that kind of surprised me.
I’ve always maintained that the Beard Awards are sort of a popularity contest anyway, voted on by well-connected members of the food media as well as previous winners. The whole weekend isn’t really about whether you win or lose, it’s about coming to New York, visiting old friends and drinking and eating.
In fact, it might actually be better for business not to win: More than half of the nominees each year are the same as the year before (this year it was around 60 percent, in fact), and each year you’re nominated, you’re likely to get good local press, which is the kind of press that actually gets customers in your restaurant.
Besides, all the nominees are qualified — although, it’s true that the winner of the award for Bestin the Northeast, Jamie Bissonnette, won the award as chef of Coppa in Boston, when in fact he’s now the chef of Toro in New York City, where we were drinking, and eating his smothered chicken wings and tater tots.
I heard his grilled cheese with uni was remarkable, but there were plenty of people at the party who were more eager than me to try it, so I let them have it.
As a chef in New York City, Bissonnette’s technically not even qualified to compete in the Northeast, since Gotham has a category all to itself, which April Bloomfield won.
Bloomfield was one of two open lesbians to win a Beard Award last night. The other was Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Downtown Diner in Raleigh, N.C. Both thanked their life partners from the podium.
It seems almost ridiculous to mention that, because who cares? But people would have cared in, say, 2006, and for that reason alone I think it’s still worth mentioning.
Christensen’s also the first chef from Raleigh to win a Beard Award, by the way.
Click here to see who else won.
Anyway, I guess Mr. Grumpy had a point about Bissonnette, but whatever. He’s a good guy and a talented chef, and Boston still got a Beard Award for Barbara Lynch, who was named outstanding restaurateur. She was the second woman in a row to win that most entrepreneurial of the restaurant and chef awards; Maguy Le Coze of Le Bernardin won last year.
Were the angry journalists who are probably themselves judges (it’s a semi-anonymous thing for semi-obvious reasons having to do with objectivity, which is only semi-possible in such a close-knit business) objecting to Lynch and Bloomfield and Christensen? I don’t know. But after some reflection I realized that the balance of power among judges has probably shifted, especially in cities like New York and Chicago, which have lots of past winners.
The Beard Awards, as I mentioned, are voted on by food media and past winners. With the awards now in their 24th year, and there only being about 600 judges nationwide, kind of loosely divided into regional committees (judges can vote in whatever category they feel qualified to vote in, although they’re not supposed to vote for chefs whose food they haven’t eaten), and about 20 awards given each year, that means that past winners now probably outnumber media judges, especially in New York, Chicago and California, where lots of past winners live.
Many chefs and other relatively close watchers of the Beard Awards have observed that the winners tend to belong to specific dynasties. If a protégé of Thomas Keller or Mario Batali or Paul Kahan or Grant Achatz (himself an alumnus of Keller’s The French Laundry) or any other past winner is nominated, he or she (increasingly she, although still just 6 out of 21 this year) stands a good chance of winning. It’s possible that that situation will be amplified as more winners vote for their own disciples. But it’s not like members of the media don’t also have their own darlings.
Regardless, it’s a fun weekend and a nice way to celebrate the industry.
I do have my own gripes, though.
Every year, the restaurant and chef awards ceremony lasts for between three and three-and-a-half hours, which is a long time for anyone to sit in formalwear, let alone chefs, who tend not to be very good sitters. Yet the Beard Foundation seems intent on stretching the ceremony out. I’m not talking about the excellent videos about the America’s Classics winners or the always-moving lifetime achievement and humanitarian of the year winners, or even the Who’s Who inductees. Those all highlight people and places that are worthy of honor and a pleasure to watch.
I’m talking about the need to tack themes onto the awards.
Last year it was “Lights! Camera! Taste: Spotlight on Food & Film.” Attendees were handed 3D glasses so we could watch 3D films and read our 3D programs, until I dropped my glasses on the floor.
The theme required that we watch a video montage of food in film, and that songs from movies be played as winners walked up to the stage. It was forced and tedious, as was this year’s theme, “Sounds of the City,” which examined food in song.
The sensuality of food and music do indeed go well together, but the Beard Foundation aimed low, starting the ceremony with a medley of “Food Glorious Food” from the musical Oliver!, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel, the Jimmy Buffett classic “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and “Eat It” by Weird Al Yankovic.
That was followed later on by considerably less cheesy performances, first by Holly Williams and Chris Coleman and then by Trisha Yearwood. Then after Nancy Silverton was given the last award of the evening sometime after 9:30, another musical performance got underway, I have no idea by whom because I left, having been sitting there for close to three-and-a-half hours.
All in all, it was still a nice ceremony, but there’s no need to pad it.
Here’s a good Beard Awards theme for you: “A good excuse to come to New York and party with your friends.”
Why not stick to that?
Contact Bret Thorn; firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary
May 7, 2014: This story has been updated with links to an article about who actually won the Beard Awards this year.