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Behind the scenes at the Beard Awards

May 10, 2012 | 11:30 am

The James Beard Restaurant Awards in New York felt like the Oscars, complete with paparazzi. There was no red carpet, but Wolfgang Puck, David Chang of Momofuku and Matt Molina of Osteria Mozza got the star treatment"I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date" kept running through my head as I sat stuck in New York traffic on the way to the James Beard Restaurant Awards on Monday night. I'd just rejoined the awards committee, but had never attended the actual event, held this year at Lincoln Center.

It's a fancy affair: Men in black ties and women in long gowns and high, glittery heels waited in line to present their tickets. No red carpet, but the whole event feels very like the Oscars, complete with paparazzi. As I moved toward the entrance, I caught sight of Wolfgang Puck swarmed by cameras and reporters. David Chang of Momofuku in New York had rock star status too.

Inside, flutes of champagne circulated. But the awards ceremony had already started upstairs with Food Network star Alton Brown playing the Billy Crystal role, moving the event along, inserting a little humor here and there.

Just like the Oscars, the awards had presenters, most often the chef who'd won the same award the year before. And unlike the World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards, which I'd attended in London the week before, every winner gets to give a short speech. That means the event is long, but it's what gives some heart to what could easily be a boring exercise.

I enjoyed that small glimpse into each winner's story -- from burger flipping to a James Beard Award. The early experiences, mentors and dreams that led to this night. If there was one theme throughout the evening, it was generosity in acknowledging everyone who helped along the way. And reaching out to younger cooks eager to make a mark in the restaurant world. Many wives were thanked, pointing out how male-dominated the world of chefdom is.

Memorable moments:

Tim Cushman of O Ya in Boston (best Northeast chef) thanking the late Michael Roberts of Trumps as one of his mentors.

Nancy Oakes and Pat Kuleto of Boulevard in San Francisco (outstanding restaurant) bumping fists and hugging over their win -- finally! -- after being nominated for eight straight years. 

Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park in New York (outstanding chef) remembering how then-owner Danny Meyer persevered during the worst of the recession, when the high-end restaurant sometimes did only 20 covers a night.

Paul Grieco of Terroir in New York (outstanding wine, beer & spirits professional) accepting the award with a shout-out to "fellow sommeliers for moving away from being cork-pullers to becoming awesome storytellers."

Marisel Presilla of Cucharamama in Hoboken, N.J. (best chef, Mid-Atlantic) dedicating her award to Latin American cooks in kitchens all over the country -- "Yes, you can!"

Puck gave an endearing acceptance speech for the lifetime achievement award, recounting how he left his village at 14 with his little suitcase for his first restaurant job as an apprentice. He was still very small. After a month, the chef fired him. Puck pleaded with the chef, telling him he couldn't go home. But he was fired anyway. Someone in the kitchen took pity on the kid and hid him in the cellar, where he peeled vegetables for two weeks before he was discovered. This time the chef sent him to a sister restaurant, where he thrived. The lesson: perseverance. He ended his speech with the words, "This is just the beginning!"

Afterward, everyone, God knows how many people, filed out into the foyer, where 25 chefs from across the country presented their takes on James Beard dishes to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the James Beard Foundation. I didn't taste everything: It was too hard to get to the food.

I was intent on finding the ever elegant Jeremiah Tower (the late Stars in San Francisco), but never saw him. I caught a glimpse of another San Francisco icon, Joyce Goldstein, who planned the gala reception with Larry Forgione, but the crowd swallowed her up. Same thing with presenter Rick Bayless and Momofuku's Chang. It was like chasing the White Rabbit. You'd see someone across the room but when you made your way to that spot, they were already gone.

I kept running into Ruth Reichl, though -- how can you miss that famous hair?

After-parties fanned out across the city. One contingent headed to Mario Batali's Otto to celebrate Osteria Mozza chef Matt Molina's win as best chef, Pacific; others went to Boulud Sud, Eleven Madison Park, Terroir and other spots. The entire restaurant world pretty much had a hangover the next day.

Me? I walked part of the way back to my hotel and to bed.

-- S. Irene Virbila