A Few Thoughts on the James Beard Awards

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ELV thought this would be a good time to share a few thoughts on the James Beard Awards, or, as they’re known around the ELV household – Passover.

As you might know, the Foundation came to Las Vegas yesterday to announce (at The Palazzo) the finalists for the 2012 awards to be handed out in New York City in May.

These “Oscars of the Food World” are coveted by many, disdained by some, and always controversial, especially in Las Vegas. What happened yesterday will no doubt fuel further controversy, since Las Vegas’ three semi-finalists (Picasso, Joël Robuchon, and Mitsuo Endo) were all passed over for finalist consideration in their respective categories.

What galls many is that the James Beard Foundation had the gall (as they see it) to come to our own backyard and then ignore our revolutionary/world-beating restaurant scene (and chefs) in favor of less worthy nominees in far less revolutionary and world-beating cities, along with the usual canard about how New York City gets all the nominations because it’s in the center of the food writing universe.

During the two events yesterday, a number of notable people in the press and restaurant worlds came up to us expressing disappointment and bitterness over the whole shebang with phrases like:

“Why did we bother to bring them here just to spit in our faces?”

“How much did the Venetian/Palazzo shell out (to produce the events) for no good reason?”

“Don’t these hotels know they’re being used without getting anything in return?”

“What does it mean for our culinary scene when Vegas got no finalist nominations?”

And most often: “Why do we get no respect in the food world from the New York establishment?”

Before we get to these, allow us to shed an little light and impose a little perspective on the whole process.

We (as in: John A. Curtas aka ELV) are one of approximately 400 restaurant writers (the ‘voting panel”) in America that gets to nominate and vote for the awards. The Foundation asks us not to overtly publicize or trade on this fact, so as not to raise questions of favoritism or outright bribery, but at the end of the day, we’re just 1/4ooth of the process, with some influence over the votes of others but not much.

Here’s how the process works for the restaurant nominations: In the early fall of every year, there is an open-call for nominations in all the categories. Along with the general public, we are all asked to send in a list of nominations in the various categories from our respective cities or anyplace else we have dined over the past twelve months. Of course, being from Vegas means the lion’s share of our nominations come from here, but we’ll also toss in other restaurants or chefs if we think they are worthy. We’ve never asked, but it’s a fair bet the nominating committee weighs the nominations (and the written pitches/recommendations) of its voting panel members a bit more heavily than it does those of the general public.

(FYI: This year we made spirited nominations of Las Vegas chefs and restaurants in eight categories, only three of which made it to the semi-final round.)

In January, the restaurant nomination committee meets in some city (in 2011, they were in Vegas at the Cosmo). This committee is composed of several dozen writers from around the U. S. of A., usually working critics at a major daily or well-known magazine. After several hard-working days (during which they sift through the nominations and consider written comments made by voting panel members on behalf of nominees), they arrive at a list of 20 semi-finalists, which are then voted on by everyone on the voting panel to get to the 5 finalists released yesterday.

Is it a perfect process? No. But it does attempt to impose some thoughtful, knowledgeable constraints on what would otherwise be a ballot-stuffing popularity contest.

But make no mistake about it, it’s still a popularity contest. And because so much of it comes down to how much publicity a given chef or restaurant gets in a given year, and because so many of the 400+ voting panel comes from the Northeast, Las Vegas will always have its work cut out for it to get the recognition it deserves.

In some ways, we’re the victims of our own success. So much money flows into our food and beverage scene based upon our “celebrity chefs” who, let’s face it, just pop in a few times a year, that our publicity machines don’t have to do much more than plaster a picture of Bobby Flay or Wolfgang Puck on a billboard to ensure thousands of customers will flock to our food halls. Las Vegas is revolutionary and mind-blowingly successful to be sure, but our restaurant scene is hardly innovative and personal in the way that appeals to many of the voters.

The people who suffer — from an awards standpoint anyway — are the Mitsuo Endos, Julian Serranos and Robert Smiths of the world — who get lumped in with the same flyover chefs and corporate mentality that garners no respect among the working food press — despite the fact that they’re doing work every bit as personal and top-notch as anyone.

So, to get to the point, should our chefs and hotels and restaurants resent the JBF being paid to waltz into town, just to tell us we’re not worthy of their awards? Not really. We’ve garnered the Best Chef Southwest Award two years in a row: Claude Le Tohic in 2010 and Saipin Chutima in 2011, both Bradley Ogden and Valentino have won past awards, and more nominations and awards will no doubt appear in the future.

A hotel-dominated restaurant culture will always be swimming upstream against the David Changs and Donald Links of the world. As long as our food scene is seen as being subsidized by giant casinos, respect will be difficult to obtain, even if the end product is as good as anything on earth…or even Cave Creek, AZ.

As for the Beard folks themselves, they don’t know what the votes are until they get here. By showing up, they are bestowing more than a little cred (and publicity) on our scene, and recognizing how valuable it is to the gastronomic landscape of America. For this Las Vegas should be grateful.

As for those of you who wanted me to give JBF President Susan Ungaro and Vice President Mitchell Davis (the folks I sat between last night) a piece of my (and your) mind last night over how shameful they were treating Las Vegas, all I can say is this: everything you just read I said to them and they listened like the good-hearted, thoughtful professionals they are. The reality check we gave them was, unfortunately, until Vegas sees more love from the JBF awards, getting more Las Vegas dollars flowing into their scholarship coffers will be difficult.

The good news is, we left with a sense that a continuing relationship between the James Beard Foundation and Las Vegas would be good for all concerned, even if what happened yesterday was a bitter pill to swallow.

Here is the list of the finalists we’ll be voting on soon:

Best Chefs in America: Chefs who have set new or consistent standards of excellence in their respective regions. Each candidate may be employed by any kind of dining establishment and must have been a working chef for at least the past 5 years. The 3 most recent years must have been spent in the region where the chef is presently working.
Best Chef: Great Lakes (IL, IN, MI, OH)
Michael Carlson, Schwa, Chicago
Stephanie Izard, Girl & the Goat, Chicago
Anne Kearney, Rue Dumaine, Dayton, OH
Bruce Sherman, North Pond, Chicago
Andrew Zimmerman, Sepia, Chicago

Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic (D.C., DE, MD, NJ, PA, VA)
Cathal Armstrong, Restaurant Eve, Alexandria, VA
Johnny Monis, Komi, Washington, D.C.
Peter Pastan, Obelisk, Washington, D.C.
Maricel Presilla, Cucharamama, Hoboken, NJ
Vikram Sunderam, Rasika, Washington, D.C.

Best Chef: Midwest (IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD, WI)
Justin Aprahamian, Sanford, Milwaukee
Gerard Craft, Niche, St. Louis
Colby Garrelts, Bluestem, Kansas City, MO
Tory Miller, L’Etoile, Madison, WI
Lenny Russo, Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market, St. Paul, MN

Best Chef: New York City (Five Boroughs)
Michael Anthony, Gramercy Tavern
April Bloomfield, The Spotted Pig
Wylie Dufresne, wd-50
Mark Ladner, Del Posto
Michael White, Marea

Best Chef: Northeast (CT, MA, ME, NH, NY STATE, RI, VT)
Jamie Bissonnette, Coppa, Boston
Tim Cushman, O Ya, Boston
Gerry Hayden, The North Fork Table & Inn, Southold, NY
Matt and Kate Jennings, La Laiterie, Providence, RI
Eric Warnstedt, Hen of the Wood, Waterbury, CT

Best Chef: Northwest (AK, ID, MT, OR, WA, WY)
Matt Dillon, Sitka & Spruce, Seattle
Jason Franey, Canlis, Seattle
Christopher Israel, Gruner, Portland, OR
Naomi Pomeroy, Beast, Portland, OR
Cathy Whims, Nostrana, Portland, OR

Best Chef: Pacific (CA, HI)
Michael Chiarello, Bottega, Yountville, CA
Chris Cosentino, Incanto, San Francisco
Christopher Kostow, The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena, CA
Matt Molina, Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles
Daniel Patterson, Coi San Francisco

Best Chef: South (AL, AR, FL, LA, MS)
Justin Devillier, La Petite Grocery, New Orleans
John Harris, Lilette, New Orleans
Chris Hastings, Hot and Hot Fish Club, Birmingham, AL
Tory McPhail, Commander’s Palace, New Orleans
Alon Shaya, Domenica, New Orleans

Best Chef: Southeast (GA, KY, NC, SC, TN, WV)
Hugh Acheson, Five and Ten, Athens, GA
Craig Deihl, Cypress, Charleston, SC
Linton Hopkins, Restaurant Eugene, Atlanta
Edward Lee, 610 Magnolia, Louisville
Joseph Lenn, The Barn at Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN

Best Chef: Southwest (AZ, CO, NM, NV, OK, TX, UT)
Bruce Auden, Biga on the Banks, San Antonio
Kevin Binkley, Binkley’s Restaurant, Cave Creek, AZ
Bruno Davaillon, Mansion Restaurant at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas
Jennifer Jasinski, Rioja, Denver
Hugo Ortega, Hugo’s, Houston
Paul Qui, Uchiko, Austin, TX

Best New Restaurant
A restaurant opened in 2011 that already displays excellence in food, beverage, and service and is likely to have a significant impact on the industry in years to come.

, San Francisco
Washington, D.C.

Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional
A winemaker, brewer, or spirits professional who has had a significant impact on the wine and spirits industry nationwide. Candidates must have been in the profession for at least 5 years.

Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Milton, DE
Merry Edwards, Merry Edwards Winery, Sebastopol, CA
Paul Grieco, Terroir, NYC
Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery, NYC
Neal Rosenthal, Mad Rose Group, Pine Plains, NY

Outstanding Wine Program
A restaurant that displays and encourages excellence in wine service through a well-presented wine list, a knowledgeable staff, and efforts to educate customers about wine. Candidates must have been in operation for at least 5 years.
A16, San Francisco
The Barn at Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN
Frasca Food and Wine, Boulder, CO
Emeril’s, New Orleans
No. 9 Park, Boston

Outstanding Bar Program
A restaurant that displays and encourages excellence in cocktail, spirit, and/or beer service through a well-presented drink list, a knowledgeable staff, and efforts to educate customers about beverages.

The Aviary, Chicago
Bar Agricole, San Francisco
Pegu Club, NYC
The Violet Hour, Chicago

Outstanding Service
A restaurant that demonstrates high standards of hospitality and service. Candidates must have been in operation for at least the past 5 years.

Cyrus, Healdsburg, CA
La Grenouille, NYC
Michael Mina, San Francisco
Spiaggia, Chicago
Topolobampo, Chicago

Outstanding Pastry Chef
A chef or baker who prepares desserts, pastries, or breads and who serves as a national standard-bearer for excellence. Candidates must have been pastry chefs or bakers for at least the past 5 years.

Joanne Chang, Flour Bakery + Café, Cambridge, MA
Melissa Chou, Aziza, San Francisco
Hedy Goldsmith, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, Miami
Dahlia Narvaez, Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles
Ghaya Oliveira, Boulud Sud, NYC
Mindy Segal, Mindy’s Hot Chocolate, Chicago

Outstanding Restaurateur
A working restaurateur who sets high national standards in restaurant operations and entrepreneurship. Candidates must have been in the restaurant business for at least 10 years. Candidates must not have been nominated for a James Beard Foundation chef award in the past 10 years.

Bruce Bromberg and Eric Bromberg, Blue Ribbon Restaurants, NYC
Tom Douglas, Tom Douglas Restaurants, Seattle
Piero Selvaggio, Valentino Restaurant Group, Santa Monica, CA
Caroline Styne, Lucques/A.O.C./Tavern, Los Angeles
Phil Suarez, Suarez Restaurant Group, NYC

Rising Star Chef of the Year
A chef age 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to have a significant impact on the industry in years to come.

Dave Beran, Next, Chicago
Daniel Bowien, Mission Chinese Food, San Francisco
Thomas McNaughton, flour + water, San Francisco
Christina Tosi, Momofuku Milk Bar, NYC
Sue Zemanick, Gautreau’s, New Orleans

Outstanding Restaurant
A restaurant in the United States that serves as a national standard-bearer for consistent quality and excellence in food, atmosphere, and service. Candidates must have been in operation for at least 10 or more consecutive years.

Balthazar, NYC
Blue Hill, NYC
Boulevard, San Francisco
Highlands Bar and Grill, Birmingham, AL
Vetri, Philadelphia

Outstanding Chef
A working chef in America whose career has set national industry standards and who has served as an inspiration to other food professionals. Candidates must have been working as chefs for at least the past 5 years.

David Chang, Momofuku Ssam Bar, NYC
Gary Danko, Restaurant Gary Danko, San Francisco
Daniel Humm, Eleven Madison Park, NYC
Paul Kahan, Blackbird, Chicago
Donald Link, Herbsaint, New Orleans
Nancy Silverton, Pizzeria Mozza, Los Angeles

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6 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on the James Beard Awards

  1. “The people who suffer — from an awards standpoint anyway — are the Mitsuo Endos, Julian Serranos and Robert Smiths of the world — who get lumped in with the same flyover chefs and corporate mentality that garners no respect among the working food press — despite the fact that they’re doing work every bit as personal and top-notch as anyone.”

    Nicely said. As long as the rubber-stampers and 36-hour visiting writers alike continue to focus on celebrity names being the *only* story, then no scene will flourish or be recognized. There is a great deal of talent working in Las Vegas. Does anyone know how to find it?

    P.S. imho, considering the amount of talent currently in Los Angeles, I think that scene was far more overlooked, despite some finalists.

  2. anytime you want to come to kansas city to try bluestem, you let me know!

    but maybe the day before/after the obligatory tour de barbecue …

  3. It’s truly bizarre to see Hugo’s on that list. I’ve lived in either Houston or the Houston area for the vast majority of my life. The area has recently been going through a golden age of restaurants. But Hugo’s? That place has been *completely* off the radar for *at least* half a decade. It wouldn’t make my top 20 list in Houston. To see the chef as a top five finalist for a large region of the country is baffling.

  4. I think the most obvious indication of the NYC bias of these awards is the fact that New York City is its own region, while every other state in the union is lumped into a category (Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, etc). Seriously, that’s pretty blatant, it’s like they’re basically saying NYC is a food universe unto itself and deserves to be weighted differently than every other place in the country…which may very well be true, but it doesn’t exactly engender a feeling of fairness or equal opportunity or lack of bias in my mind…

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