Beard Awards and Award Musings

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Copyright Grant Kessler
written and compiled by Matt Kirouac
Tonight marks the James Beard Foundation Awards, and in the spirit of accolades, we checked in with chefs to get their thoughts. If it were up to chefs to determine the award categories and name the winners, awards season would have a decidedly different flavor. Regardless of the outcome tonight, we’d like to wish a hearty good luck to all.

Chefs chime in on awards

The James Beard Foundation Awards take place tonight

The James Beard Foundation Awards are cited as one of the most important awards for industry pros such as Elizabeth Mendez (Vera, Chicago); Matt Danko (The Greenhouse Tavern and Noodlecat, Cleveland); Melissa Trimmer (Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, Chicago); and Howard Hanna (The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange and Manifesto, Kansas City), who says he loves the breadth of the categories and the way that they are broken down regionally.

Beard-wise, Josh Galliano (St. Louis), a Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef: Midwest, says the Rising Star Chef award has the most clout. While Best New Chef draws parallels to sports awards doled out to rookie athletes, he says Rising Star is a better fit when it comes to honoring culinary talent. It awards chefs who have become stars of a city or region after establishing themselves and it “seems a little more inviting or a little more understanding of the nuances and the strange trajectories that we take as we become a chef.”

There’s an obvious logic to most chef and restaurant awards, be they critics’ picks, diner surveys, or ivory tower touts from clandestine experts.

When it comes to apocryphal awards, some chefs have satirical ideas: Tony Aiazzi (The Workshop Kitchen, Philadelphia) suggests Best Mashed Potatoes as a category, and Chicago’s Brandon Baltzley advises Most Productive Porter, while others tend to the straightforward and noble, like Jason McLeod (Box Tree Restaurant, San Diego) and his Most Dedicated Chef idea, or Hardest Working Unsung Hero Chef, per Paul Fehribach (Big Jones, Chicago).

Carrie Nahabedian (NAHA, Chicago), Beard semi-finalist for Outstanding Chef, explains that the most rewarding accolades are those of chef peers and guests.

According to Geoff Rhyne (FIG, Charleston), the most meaningful award would be a Chef’s Chef award. In other words, “Whose food do all the other chefs really enjoy eating where the guy is cooking his ass off?” Cary Taylor (The Southern and The Southern Mac & Cheese Store, Chicago) echoes that sentiment. From Le Pichet in Seattle to The Eagle’s Nest in a tiny Southern Illinois town, chefs certainly have their standbys.

If Hugh Amano (Food on the Dole, Chicago) had his way, he’d celebrate chef Abe Conlon of X-marx Chicago. Amano can’t praise Conlon enough, saying, “He is creative beyond measure, but his food is always rooted in solid fundamental technique, and it always works. Always.” Amano has learned a lot from cooking with Conlon, eating with him and eating his food, and he believes Best Chef recognition should go to a chef who has a love of not only food, but service, and does it all in his own style.

I don’t look at awards as much as a chef’s body of work. There are a lot of unheralded chefs who cook great food at cool spots and some that have a shelf full of accolades who I could care less about.

~ Cary Taylor, The Southern and The Southern Mac & Cheese Store, Chicago

Zeeshan Shah (Old Town Social, Chicago) is in it for the respected reputation, while Brian Enyart, Chicago chef consultant, sums it up by saying, “I’m not sure anyone in Chicago sets out to win an award. We do the best we can and push ourselves to be a good part of the food community.”

Randy Zweiban (Province, Chicago and Phoenix) would prefer to see the ”… money to be used towards the betterment of a cause the winner believes in. Such as Share our Strengh, Meals on Wheels, The Healthy School Campaign etc.”

Aptly compared to movie awards, Cary Taylor theorizes that some food awards are indeed quite similar to the Oscars in that they demand a certain amount of “campaigning.” Just because some chefs neglect to campaign, or just because they cook their hearts out from an under-the-radar spot, should not exclude them from deserved recognition.

Nominated tonight or not, we’d like to tip our caps in acknowledgement to all hard-working chefs today, and best of luck to all of tonight’s nominees.


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