Behind the James Beard Awards

Halfway through the four-hour marathon that was the 16th James Beard Foundation Awards on 08 may in the excessively chilled ballroom of the Marriott Marquis in New York, Shawn McClain of Spring restaurant in Chicago accepted his award for the Best Chef in the Midwest by speaking for the entire 700-strong audience when he said, “It’s a great relief to be up here on the podium. Sitting down for two hours is a long time for a chef and something I very rarely do.”
In fact I had been sitting for much longer that day gleaning some of the background to this award ceremony and an organisation that is, happily for the American restaurant profession, finally emerging from a pretty unsavoury era.
Over goulash soup, open sandwiches topped with liverwurst and matjes herring and bowls of boiled beef in the elegant Café Sabarsky on the ground floor of the even more elegant Neue Galerie dedicated to Germanic art on E 86th Street, I had listened to several people closely associated with the awards kindly explaining to me the Foundation’s current problems. Its previous director is currently in jail having misappropriated funds, an action that has not only clouded the Fund’s current reputation but had also led to the resignation of the entire former Board of Trustees.
In the reception before the awards there were others willing to voice their concern that the new influx of senior management and wealthy Trustees may take the Foundation down avenues far removed from its original aims of education and rewarding the best in the field of cooking, running and writing about restaurants (the separate ceremony for which had taken place the previous evening). But certainly if the new Board were to start by implementing a rule whereby award winners were not allowed to thank every member of their entire family or their washers-up by name thereby cutting next year’s ceremony in half at least they would undoubtedly begin with the grateful support of all future attendees.
But this year’s ceremony did manage to silence any bickering initially by focusing on the most worthwhile cause for its theme, the culinary legacy of New Orleans and that city’s restaurant industry and staff whose livelihood had been so severely affected by Hurricane Katrina.
No sooner had the evening’s MC, Cokie Roberts from ABC News whose mother had lived on Bourbon Street, explained how one of the first sights that had greeted her eyes on her return to the stricken city were precious family recipes hung out to dry on the line to ensure they would be preserved for future generations, than Drew Nieporent, whose chefs had been amongst the first to feed the police and fire fighters after 9/11, introduced the Sugar Tone Band from New Orleans. Down the aisle came an eight piece band playing Dixie followed by 30 dancing and cheering chefs from in and around New Orleans who, as they waved their kitchen cloths above their heads, demonstrated a novel use for these essential kitchen aids.   
This was followed by several eloquent speeches from these chefs and the appearance on stage of the remarkable Willie Mae Seaton, a woman of indeterminable age but of an obvious strength of character that filled the entire ballroom, who promised that her restaurant, long renowned for the city’s finest fried chicken, would finally re-open for business in the next month.
And while her brief speech brought the entire audience to its feet the speeches from the other New Orleans chefs highlighted two other underlying issues of the American restaurant industry currently. The first was the role all its members play in fighting the consequences of any disaster whether political or natural, not just in feeding those who have to clear up the mess but also the role they play in bringing the affected community back to life again.
The second was the constant plea from all these Southern chefs, who eschewed any trace of pathos but instead explained one other fact of their economic lives – that until last August up to 70% of their livelihood had depended on the city’s convention business which has now all but vanished. They, however, were open for business and all visitors were more than welcome – as Mae Seaton added ‘we don’t charge anybody for looking at our destruction’. And certainly judging by the copious buffet that greeted us at 9.30pm none of these chefs have lost their touch. The grilled crawfish, the Cajun shrimp, the shrimp remoulade, the green gumbo, the pulled pork and the beignets were just as flavourful as those I remember eating on the banks of the Mississippi.
Suzanne Goin from Lucques restaurant in West Hollywood, California, touched on another situation facing not just all American restaurateurs but everyone currently living and working in the US when she acknowledged the vital economic role of the immigrant. Acknowledging her award for the Best Chef in California, Goin declaimed that she was accepting this not just for herself but ‘for all the immigrants who are the heart and soul of my restaurant and certainly every restaurant in this country.’ Goin then rattled off a long list of the Mexican names of those who work for her before adding ‘they make it happen – without them my restaurant would be closed.’ At which comment, the entire audience rose to their feet acutely aware that Lucques was speaking for every American restaurateur from coast to coast.
This is certainly not a situation peculiar to the US but by the end of the evening two other themes had emerged from these awards.
The first, again common to the restaurant trade worldwide, was the manner in which all the winning chefs and Daniel Johannes of the Dinex Group in New York ( who won the outstanding wine and spirits professional award acknowledged all those they had worked for as they climbed this extremely arduous professional ladder. The restaurant industry is highly peripatetic with careers often set in motion by no more than a timely, often verbal recommendation and it was gratifying to see so many young chefs thank their former masters for making their careers possible.
The evening was to end, however, with awards to those who had kept the flag flying for the often simple, invariably inexpensive, but nevertheless top quality food that has fed Americans for years, long before the arrival of any restaurant award ceremony. Representing family businesses often a century old, there came on to the stage the hard working proprietors of Barney Greengrass in New York, Bowens Island Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, Hamura’s Saimin Stand in Lihue Honolulu, John’s Roast Pork in Philadelphia, Lagomarcino’s in Moline, Illinois, Louie Mueller’s Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, Polly’s Pancake Parlour in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire and Taylor’s Refresher in St Helena, California to proclaim the integrity of, respectively, their sturgeon, roast oysters, noodles, roast pork sandwiches, soda fountain drinks, brisket, pancakes and hamburgers. These speeches were greeted by warm applause but the unmistakable sound of of rumbling tummies. for full details of the Awards.