Do James Beard Awards still matter? Should they?

Friday, April 12, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 15

On May 6, the top toques of American dining will gather in Chicago for a celebration of all things food, drink and hospitality at the annual paean to cookery called the James Beard Foundation Awards.

Coveted medals will be handed out to chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders and beer makers in 11 national and 10 regional categories.

These heady honors are based on an imperfect voting system, but remain the most visible accolades a chef can earn. They also can translate to future career super-success, as well as access to capital previously beyond their flame-kissed fingers.

Much to the chagrin of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, they are most often dubbed the “Oscars of the food world” when explaining to civilians outside of hospitality why they should care.

In a rather odd twist of reverse logic, I’m starting to wonder if the merits and relevance of the awards might be waning even as we are in a culinary boom time and media-created “celebrity chefs” blanket the airwaves.

I also have concerns about the judging and voting process since the rules are lax in areas and too much is left to personal vigilance and honor. And we all know how well that works.

How do I know about this? First, as a professional food writer for more than 25 years, I had to cover the awards with great intent. Yes, I contributed to the hoopla.

Second, I used to be a judge of the James Beard Awards.

It was a heady thrill to be part of something so big and important when I was first asked to serve on the Southeast judges’ panel. Each of us represented a city or state within the region, which in our case included Georgia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.

We would gather for calls to discuss names we had previously submitted of Beard-worthy candidates and discuss any talent that might be eligible for a national award, like best pastry chef.

The first part that chafed me was that I had to become a pom-pom-shaking advocate to get somebody on the long list (as the semifinals are often called). That seemed anathema to being an impartial judge, but we were the people who knew our city the best in most cases, so it seemed more palatable the more reticent you were.

The head judge of the region would then wrap it up and take it to the national committee, made up of chefs, restaurateurs and journalists, and they would hone the suggestions to the “long list.” Today, that submission includes nomination suggestions from the public and other outside sources, and results in more than 20,000 names being culled for the first vote.

Here’s where it gets tricky.

All judges get to vote on all of the awards. Now, according to the rules, I have to have eaten that chef’s food before I can vote for them, though with an online ballot and a blinking cursor, I could vote for the Best Chef: West region even if I’ve never been west of the Mississippi.

I’m not supposed to, but you know, “maybe I hung out with that one chef at a food and wine festival, and maybe we really had a great time and he’s such a great guy, well, I’m just going to click that name and give him a little love.”

Did I ever do that? No. Did I ever vote outside of my region? Yes, if I had traveled and eaten at someone’s place and had a great experience.

That’s still a bit of a popularity contest, because how do I know that the chef I voted for was better than all the other nominees if I haven’t tried their food?

Does questionable voting go on? Absolutely. An audit of numbers of votes should clearly show that some chefs get more votes than what would be reasonably expected among the geographical distribution of the judges.

No surprise then that PR machines are the forces that drive the flower. National media attention creates broad exposure, not to get diners in the door, though that’s a big part of it in major markets, but to get chef and restaurant names and stories in front of judges from those far reaching corners.

Another issue is how to calibrate the term “best” among the broad range of restaurant styles. Before I had actually met Pat Martin of Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, I made the mistake of throwing out his name during our regional judging call. I said he was superlative in his field and why shouldn’t we include lesser joints along with the expense-account crystal and china places?

Was I being a burr under the Beard saddle just for the sake of it? A little bit.

Most comments were kind if not dismissive: “Oh, I get where you’re coming from, but there’s just no comparison.”

Others were rather condescending, and a few laughed at me outright. I wasn’t serious about it, but there seemed some equity issues and pretensions about food that needed to be addressed, and soon thereafter, not because of my folly, the Beard Awards added an American Classics category that now hangs in otherwise-non-Beardworthy places like Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack and Arnold’s Country Kitchen.

Things seemed to be fine, with crusty crabs like me mollified by the gesture, until a rift in the cheesecloth happened in 2015. That was the year that the smoky savant Aaron Franklin of Franklin’s Barbecue won Best Chef: Southwest.

Franklin is indeed a great chef and a greater pitmaster, and his restaurant elicits lines so long in his hometown of Austin, Texas, that people pay for line sitters to hold their places.

Can you rectify, however, in the same category, the difference between eating off butcher paper and tin plates versus five-star service and a parade of elegantly created dishes that are singularly spectacular in their execution and presentation?

After lightning struck a second time last year, grumblings created a low seismic tremor.

Rodney Scott, the beloved and affable pitmaster from South Carolina won for his spiffy new digs in Charleston. Everyone is happy for Rodney, to a fault, but people ask if that is truly the best restaurant in the region?

In a recent article in the Nashville Scene, Steve Cavendish and Chris Chamberlain called for the creation of a new and separate category for barbecue. While it solves the immediate problem of what to do with these kinds of iconic American cooking styles, what keeps it from becoming a line in the sand constantly washed away by the tides of fad and taste?

The Beard Awards cracked open the door when they separated baking and pastry into unique categories. What’s next? Best Saucier? Best Sausage Maker? Heck, if you’ve ever tried to make great fried chicken then you know that takes skill and art, too.

Local pitmaster Carey Bringle of Peg Leg Porker certainly wants a barbecue category, and while not casting aspersions he’s quick to say it’s “not less than, it’s different.” He wouldn’t pass judgement either way on pitmasters like Scott and Franklin winning their categories.

Still, being nominated becomes a huge marketing peg, even on the far-less superior “long list.” It’s touted in press releases and printed on menus. Few though make it to the short list of “Nominees” or finalists, which are the five best from the first round of voting. This year, no one from Nashville made it to the list of finalists.

The only homegrown winner remains Tandy Wilson, who was on the long list eight times and the short list four times before winning in 2016. When asked, after this year’s shutout of locals, when we could expect to see another winner from Nashville, Wilson conjectured Sean Brock’s ambitious upcoming ode to Appalachia was the most likely candidate, and deservedly so.

It will certainly be buoyed by a tsunami of promotion and social media splashes along with Brock’s already formidable media presence that could help push it over the edge.

Local chef and food business maven Kim Totzke, chief operating officer of the Turnip Truck, still sees value in the awards as a way to recognize what has long been a difficult, thankless, blue-collar profession before the foodie revolution. She knows, though, that many great small eateries that are deserving of those accolades are usually overlooked since they lack the costly budget of marketing and PR.

“It’s the place down the street from where you live that feeds our soul and our bellies, like Margot (McCormack) and Hal (Holden-Bache), who have my heart,” says Totzke of her East Nashville chef friends from Margot Cafe and Lockeland Table. McCormack, who has cooked and mentored in Nashville for more than two decades, in fact made it to the long list for the fourth time this year, but not beyond.

It’s so difficult for a small-market restaurant to win that the only hope seems to be the strategy of playing the bridesmaid for enough years until you can break through. That’s just for the regional awards. The national awards where competition is against culinary powerhouses like New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Chicago, make it almost impossible for a flyover chef to take a top national award.

Almost. That’s why it was no minor miracle when Frank Stitt’s Highland’s Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama, won Outstanding Restaurant last year. And a Southerner, no less.

That is in large part thanks to kingmakers like John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance who have played a major role in calling attention to smaller markets in the South. Edge’s role as the head of the national judging committee for the Beard Awards also helped turn a klieg light onto a region long overlooked.

The James Beard Awards will remain messy, complicated and imperfect. However, with mounting frustration in the hinterlands, continued mixing of culinary metaphors and an increased reliance on mega-promotions, the awards run the risk of becoming a conflict-of-interest, self-important parody of the industry.

Honestly, it feels like the luster of celebrity has dimmed the experience when the name of a chef eclipses the name of the restaurant. Recognition is great until the bluster of ego eclipses the quality of the food and the dining experience. There’s also the stress and strain involved that taxes even the best kitchens. In the end, the ones that hardest chase the medals run the greatest risk of disappointment, for both themselves and the dining public hoping to score a great meal.

Just ask Tandy Wilson, who largely eschewed the PR game.

“There was stress on me, my family and the City House family leading up to the win,” he recalls. “I certainly don’t want to sound ungrateful for the whole ride, but let’s just say there was much relief after winning, and that’s a stress I have not experienced since. I had never experienced success like this before becoming a chef; learning how to enjoy it took some figuring out for me.”

Perhaps that’s why his medal no longer hangs around his neck, but was converted to something more pragmatic – a belt buckle.

Reach Jim Myers at culinarity@gmail.com