Times are changing in the restaurant world – but just how fast? Tonight’s James Beard Awards will help answer the question of whether the traditional tablecloth restaurants, which seem to be on the way out, still wield their old clout in the gastronomic Establishment.
That’s how we figure it, anyway. The three major categories we are looking at – Rising Star Chef, Best New Restaurant, and the big one, Best Chef NYC – all feature major divisions between old and new styles. In one corner is the old guard, the ancien régime of high-end restaurants, with smooth-talking functionaries jumping out of the woodwork, and every dish served up on the altar of the diner’s attention span with solemn ritual. Count Rising Star nominee Daniel Humm, Best New Restaurant nominee L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (“counter” notwithstanding), and Best Chef nominees Terrance Brennan of Picholine, David Waltuck of Chanterelle , Floyd Cardoz of Tabla, and Gabriel Kreuther of the Modern in that camp. On the other side is the new breed of chef whose cooking is no less ambitious, but whose restaurants are a complete contrast in attitude and culture. Freewheeling Rising Star nominee David Chang, and groovy, linen-free Best New Restaurant nominee Ssäm Bar, are the most extreme examples, but a win for Downtown Wylie Dufresne, of the supremely low-key wd-50, would signal a Zeitgeist shift too.
Of course, this being a mass vote, we wouldn’t be surprised to see compromise candidates win all three categories: the sui generis Floyd Cardoz for Best Chef, the semi-formal A Voce for Best New Restaurant, and the young and progressive chef of the very traditional Eleven Madison Park, Humm, for Best New Chef. But Chang, Ssäm, and Dufresne wins would truly signify the end of the world as we know it. (And we’d feel fine.)