The James Beard Awards – A Tempest In A Teapot Or Something That Needs Fixing?

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.

2 thoughts on “The James Beard Awards – A Tempest In A Teapot Or Something That Needs Fixing?

  1. That the awards are NYC centric is really no surprise considering that a preponderance of voters come from there and if they can only vote for places that they have been to, they generally vote for NYC restaurants and chefs. That makes Nate Appleman’s award that much more of a surprise. It does, however, also somewhat explain Ko’s selection. It would seem that while few voters actually had the chance to dine there, those who did, voted for it. The other restaurants split the vote. I don’t suspect anything more nefarious than that. For the record, I have not yet been to Ko nor am I on the voting panel or any panel for James Beard. One way to rectify the situation would be to spread the voting panel out evenly across the country. Of course, even then, an advantage would go to those cities with the most visitor traffic. Like all such awards, the JBA’s should be taken with a grain of salt. So long as the winners are in fact deserving of an award, I think they serve a useful purpose, as flawed as they are. Dan Barber chef of the year? He may or may not be, but he is certainly deserving of such an award as were the other nominees and some who weren’t nominated.

  2. It doesn’t surprise me either that year after year New York cleans up at the Beards. I agree with John Sconzo’s comment about the voters being form New York, and I feel that is the central reason for the bias.

    To their credit they do have a very mature culinary scene and many great chefs and restaurants. The city is also one of the densest in the country and conducive to a higher percentage of folks dining out. Cooks, restaurateurs, and aspiring chefs flock to New York, and it is simply statistically more probable that they will have a higher number of great restaurants.

    Where they fall short, of course, is in readily available, locally grown produce which I guess is not as big of an issue in the FEDEX overnight world we live in.

    I wholeheartedly agree that there should be better, more defined standards for the awards and more transparency. But I’m not sure how much of a difference it would make. Maybe NY runs off with 60 or 70 percent of the awards rather than 80?

    As for Ko, in my humble opinion it is deserving of the award. I have eaten some amazing dishes there and Chef David Chang’s innovations are truly mindblowing.

    Yes it’s not easy to get resys there, but with a little legwork it’s definitely not impossible. I am 5 for 5 in getting reservations there.

    I posted a guide to getting Ko reservations here:

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