There are three ways to experience the James Beard Awards. You can either buy a $500 ticket, be nominated, or cover the event for your local magazine, website or industry trade journal. I didn’t receive any nominations for awards this year, so I choose the press path, which gave me access to the red carpet, press room, the gala reception and the after-hours parties.
The grand event is held in NYC at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. My day started off hazy, hot and humid, with a torturous 6-mile run in Central Park. But right around 5 P.M., the air cleared and it turned out to be a perfect evening to celebrate all the culinary achievements of the year.
The Red Carpet. The red carpet is like the academy awards minus the commentary from Joan Rivers on everyone’s designer outfits. Limos pulled up, and the chef nominees strolled down the carpet toward the Avery Fisher Hall entrance. I managed to snag a few chefs on their way in, and asked them some of my most hard-hitting questions. I asked Andrew Zimmern (Bizarre Foods, Travel Channel) if he ever had food poisoning from the exotic foods he eats during the show (no, because most of the food has been freshly killed, or not killed at all, right before consumption). I asked José Andrés (Mini Bar, D.C.) if he thought Spanish food would make it into mainstream casual dining anytime soon (yes, but it will be a slow process). I saw Wylie Dufresne (wd~50, NYC; the only RCA member nominated this year) and wished him good luck, and we talked about how food science inspires his menu concepts. Then Rick Bayless and I talked about street food and the importance of authenticity in mass food production.
The Press Room. The press room was packed with food writers, bloggers, tweeters and other assorted members of the media. We tried to watch the TV screens with the live stream of awards, but it’s a bit difficult to focus when there is nonstop flowing Perrier-Jouët Champagne and pink Plymouth gin cocktails. There were also some snacks to go with the drinks, including Jacques Pépin Pressed California Caviar (not passed out by Jacques himself, although he did attend the awards), and Artisanal cheese from NYC. As we feasted on our gourmet spread, award-winning chefs cruised into the press room, blinding us with their gold medals. I interviewed David Kinch, who took the Best Pacific Chef award for his restaurant Manresa, which made me very happy because now I can justify the $1,000 my three friends and I dropped there a few weeks ago for dinner. A complete list of winners is available online.
The Post-Ceremony Gala. The official post-awards reception takes place upstairs at Avery Fisher Hall. Dozens of tabletops feature bite-size—but spectacular—portions from award-winning restaurants and chefs. I tried the Bacon Soup with Scallop, Leek, Tomato and an Oyster Cracker and the Butter-Scotch Budino with Malden Sea Salt, Caramel Sauce and Rosemary Pine-Nut Cookies. There was also Basil Tofu, Sweet Chili Crab Dumplings, and Spring Pea Custard. We washed it all down with Greek reds, Spanish Albariño and Sherry. I am a huge fan of dry Spanish Sherry, and am also member of the Secret Sherry Society.
The After-Hours Parties. The after-hours parties are unofficial and unpublished, and we had to ask around to find out where they were. Bar Boulud had a party, so did Bouchon, David Chang, EMG and Eleven Madison Park. I ended up at Eleven Madison Park and watched chefs dancing on the tables in the dining room (converted into a dance floor). Drinks were on the house, if you could work your way to the bar! I only lasted till 2:30 A.M., but twitter updates confirmed that the parties went on all night long.
I had photographer David Magana (who happened to be my art teacher in 1987 in Barcelona, Spain where I went to high school) with me, and his artistic eye managed to capture some great candid and posed shots of the evening. You can see those pictures here.
As a culinologist, I tried to figure out what these award winners are doing today that will affect mainstream casual dining tomorrow. What will be the next big white-tablecloth hit to trickle down slowly and end up in the next fast food LTO? How can research chefs and culinary scientists take those concepts and make them work in restaurant units and in the retail market? How can we maintain authenticity? Is it possible? I’m looking forward to watching these new dishes evolve from where they are now to where they will be, and am curious to see how my fellow culinologists will educate the restaurant patrons across the United States to appreciate and enjoy these new flavors!