ELV doesn’t mean to start him no scandal, and he counts as his friends and respected colleagues both the executives and officers of the James Beard Foundation, but many of the James Beard Award winners of last night gave him and his staff pause for reflection — not the least of which is Momofuku Ko (a restaurant that no one has dined at) winning Best New Restaurant in the entire nation for 2009. For if ever there was an example of food writers and voters voting for a place based only on hype, this is it.
The rules governing the JBF awards state clearly and simply that you can’t vote for a chef or an establishment you haven’t visited in the past year. This is similar to the rules applied to Restaurant Magazine’s 50 Best Restaurants In The World (that ELV also votes on), except that the 50 Best states that you must have visited any establishment you vote for within the previous 18 months, before casting any vote on its behalf.
Momofuku Ko has twelve seats and a reservation system only computer nerds with a lot of time on their hands can decipher. As a highly placed source in the New York food world told us today:
“Considering that nobody but a few dozen computer geniuses who have unlocked the secret of the Ko reservation system have eaten there, how in the world did it win best new restaurant? Did anyone who voted for it actually have a meal there?”
One pr person casually dismissed the awards to us today as total blow job by the New York food media to its own. He also applied the same derogation to the 50 Best Restaurants list, to which ELV (somewhat defensively) replied: “That may be true to the latter, but the James Beard Foundation represents a higher standard of taste and integrity than any single ‘zine looking to sell copies….”
Would that it were so.
On one level, the JBF might be considered typical media logrolling, but that’s not what the mission of the Foundation is, nor good for the culinary arts in general — especially if the public perception becomes that this is just a bunch of writers and journalists backslapping each other for prestige and profit.
This year’s winners (80% of which are New York-based) call into serious question whether anyone in the food or restaurant world should participate or ever take them seriously again. The Momofuku Ko award is just the tip of the iceberg.
ELV’s solution: a published, definable set of standards for each award AND the end to the secret ballot. Every voter for the awards should publish and be able to defend his or her vote. This isn’t politics, but it is about the public trust. The public (who presumably take these awards into account in deciding everything from what cookbook to buy to what reservation to make) deserves to know that the people voting on them know what they’re talking about.
To do anything less does a disservice to the legacy of James Beard and all of the cooks and restaurateurs who slave away, day in and day out, throughout our nation, to serve the American public.
To read former Awards Chairman John Mariani’s (still valid) critique of the process (published on his Web site a few years ago), click here.