James Beard Awards Leave Bad Taste

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Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Chef José Andrés took home the title of Outstanding Chef at the James Beard Foundation Awards on May 9, 2011

The James Beard Awards are often called "the Oscars of the food world," and not unjustly. There is the same endlessly parsed nominating process, the black ties and red carpet, the instantaneous tweeting as each award is announced inside the cavernous theater — in this case, Avery Fisher Hall at New York City's Lincoln Center. And, like the Oscars, it is impossible to separate out praise from politics, admiration from hype. As with the Oscars, that can be very frustrating — as we learned, again, last night.

Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef at Prune and author of the best-selling memoir Blood, Bones & Butter, won for Best Chef in New York. She was as shocked as anybody else, saying in her acceptance speech that she never thought someone who opens sardine cans and puts them on Triscuits would be standing there. Neither did her rival chefs, who found it hard to believe it had really happened. "I mean, we all love her," one said to me afterward. "But ... I mean, come on!"

Hamilton's pen may have covered her (and, by extension, the food world) with glory, but she doesn't wield the same power with her spatula. Prune, her small restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side, is beloved and influential but by no means ambitious. As she mentioned in her speech, she does serve sardines and Triscuits at the bar. People love to go there for brunch, but that doesn't make her a better chef than Wylie Dufresne, whose restaurant a few blocks away draws people from other continents. Or Michael Anthony, whose work at Gramercy Tavern helped to galvanize the haute locavore movement nationwide. I won't say anything about the other nominees, Michael White and April Bloomfield, since I'm friends with both. Nor can I claim to have eaten at Prune very often over the years.

But then, Hamilton wasn't there as a chef: she was there as the embodiment of the chef community's self-image, a tough, eloquent, worldly woman whom nearly everybody rightly admires. The Beard Award was really given for her memoir — and all the press and attention she garnered with it. As with the Oscars, marketing and name recognition can be more important than merit.

If you look at who wins most of the regional awards — I have to remind myself that New York is one such region — they tend to be the places that get the most hype. Voters from outside the region get to cast ballots, so a place like Zingermans in Ann Arbor, Mich., which as far as I can tell is famous for making a really first-rate Reuben, can win a Beard Award. Everybody has heard of it. So it wins. Which makes it more famous and more successful. Meanwhile, some gifted schnook somewhere in South Bend, Ind., sighs, turns back to his stove and prepares a plan to escape his creditors. Even a Beard judge said as much on the blog Eater the previous week, going so far as to say, "The Beard Awards are a barometer of hype, rewarding places because they're famous and generous, rather than because the food is awesome, the wine wonderful, or the service superb." There are a lot of great young chefs you haven't heard about who didn't get nominated. That's a problem.

The Beard Journalism Awards are more fair for that reason, since they are essentially given for the generation of hype. So hype is a fair commodity. But as someone who was nominated for a James Beard Award this year and lost, I spent a good amount of the weekend licking my wound. No one could ever have predicted my guerrilla webcast would be nominated for anything at all. (I would have been surprised if it had allowed me to cut in line at the gyro truck.) But once nominated, I was immediately tempted to belittle and dismiss my peers — and then, after losing, to sulk. It was a gross business, emotionally, but hard not to get caught up in. We all say that we don't need the validation of a bunch of people we don't know, but that's exactly who we most need validation from. Of course your friends think you're great! You want strangers to think it.

The chefs, who have their own, far more elaborate ceremony, need it even more. None of their restaurants make as much money as, say, the Cheesecake Factory at a Long Island mall, so they have to find a way to sift out their value. This includes the stars awarded by local newspapers, or in some cases the Michelin Guide. And some of the other awards, like Food & Wine's Best New Chef. But the Beard is the one everyone looks to. And for that reason, it needs to be just. When it isn't, nobody is happy — even, I would guess, the people who win it. Gabrielle Hamilton looked happy but also a little bewildered. Nobody wants to be the How Green Was My Valley; but then, neither do they want to be Citizen Kane. Fair or not, people will remember who won and lost years after the fact. That's one of the reasons the awards matter so much — or, at least, should matter so much.

Ozersky is a James Beard Award–winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. You can listen to his weekly show at the Heritage Radio Network and read his column on home cooking on Rachael Ray's website. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.