A very good friend — a force in the food world — was watching television in the early evening hours of Monday, May 7th when she saw Beyoncé, on the red carpet in front of a bevy of paparazzi, being interviewed. “Wow,” exclaimed my friend. The James Beard Awards have come a long way. Beyoncé?” We both laughed as she found out that the carpet beneath Beyoncé’s feet actually paved the way to the high-society Costume Ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that same night. But at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall across town, there was a similar buzz as chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers and TV food stars had their own tomato red carpet to walk upon. At the end of that carpet? Hope, anticipation, excitement and desire to go home with a ribbon and medallion to mark one’s importance in the food world hierarchy.
The beloved gastronome James Beard might have actually enjoyed the evening, smack in the center of New York’s cultural hub, offering hospitality, as any great restaurant might, to the nominees and their fans who trekked great distances to be part of culinary history. This year marked the awards’ 25th anniversary. Often called the Oscars of the food world, they were created to honor the memory of iconic cooking teacher and author James Beard, whose broad inquisitive face appears on the ribboned award. I know. I have four of them. It is a thrill to win. It is also impressive to be nominated as the food world expands at a pace commensurate with the rising tide of obesity (might be interesting to look at that).
If the first food revolution presaged the awards by a decade, the second coming is surely here. Whereas, once the culinary tide went from France to New York, then shifted from East to West, it now glides from Farm to Table. This younger generation, very much in evidence that night, are blogging their hearts out and are, perhaps, even more passionate than we were in the mid-70’s. (That’s the 1970’s.) But to my way of thinking, it’s not the glitter and fanfare that makes the James Beard Awards important, it is one of few institutions that helps bind, like forcemeat, the past to the present and provides a historical anchor to the future — one that is often spinning out of control as younger chefs vie for fame and fortune, and in some cases, hone their rhetoric to be sharper than their knives. The older generation of chefs and restaurateurs, on the other hand, have chosen restraint and judgement as their path and watch in amazement (and perhaps amusement, as Beard would have done) at what some of the newly-initiated cooks are calling “cuisine.” And that’s where context and craft come into focus.
Last year I wrote about the awards and highlighted the ascension of women in the ranks. The piece was called “Women with Beards” (with an alluring jacket cover from the Italian singer Mina), for that’s what stood out to me then. But as women have seamlessly woven themselves into the fabric of the industry at many levels (although there is still work to be done), the greater attraction for me now is the food COMMUNITY. It felt like that the other night. A great happening, based on fellowship and nourishment — a large sangha of men and women devoted to an industry that has had its own coming of age — complete with glamour and glitz.
Do yourself a favor and google the award winners — from cookbook authors to satirical journalists, from TV stars to rising stars, from lifetime achievers to who’s who-ers, from beloved old restaurants to best new restaurants. And there’s a nice photo of Daniel Boulud and “friend.” That friend is me. More fan than buddy, I will cherish the photo, always, as he represents all that is good in our industry.
Kudos to all the winners, to all the nominees, and to the James Beard Foundation for continuing to raise the bar higher and higher while keeping us all rooted in our culinary history.