An Insider’s View Of The Beard Awards: ‘There Were No Gift Bags’

Originally posted on May 8, 2007. Helen is still very funny and you should go read her blog right now.

Congratulations are in order for the Boston-area winners at last night’s James Beard Foundation Awards. Although the Globe didn’t win for Best Newspaper Section and America’s Test Kitchen was tragically robbed as Best National Television Show, local legend Todd English got a Best Food Special nod for his PBS program Food Trip with Todd English and, as I previously mentioned, Frank McClelland (of L’Espalier and Sel De La Terre fame) was named Best Chef in the Northeast. Our good friend, the brilliant and hilarious Helen Rosner of ReadySteadyGo. was lucky enough to attend last night’s ceremony. Her verbose and riotous report follows after the jump.

This was my first year at the Beard Awards, so I couldn’t really participate in all the “last year it was like X” compare/contrast that most attendees were having fun with. What I do know: past years’ events were in a ballroom at the Times Square Marriott hotel, and this year’s was at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center - an actual theater with actual seats and an actual stage.

Walking the red carpet (no, seriously) into the lobby, I passed Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill (a nominee for - and the eventual winner of - Outstanding Restaurant) and had a little swell of Chicago pride. Inside was crazy - a thousand professional and amateur foodies milling around and wondering how to sneak into the press room, which apparently had an open bar (those of us with paid-for tickets - the cheapest seats were $400 a head - had to wait until after the awards show to get sloshy). Here’s a handy trick to tell professional foodie females from amateur foodie females: amateurs look like socialites and dress like they’re going to prom. Professionals dress like your mom.

After painfully boring opening remarks from Susan Ungaro, the new president of the foundation (will she lift the foundation out of scandal?!?!? Stay tuned!!!!), the stage was occupied by Heather Storm, who I have never heard of. Apparently she hosts a segment on CBS’s The Early Show (aka The Morning Show No One Watches) where she interacts with chefs and cookbook authors. Considering that (a) she used to be a sportscaster, and (b) she was the most skeletally thin person in the entire room, I am guessing her decision to be the cooking-segment gal was not entirely driven by a passionate, longstanding love for food and cooking. Heather Storm proceeded to miss virtually every cue throughout the show, leaving the audience staring awkwardly at an empty stage after winners departed with their medals, and whenever she ran on late she would blame someone else for her inability to get on stage on time. I think I dislike her strongly, though she did accidentally call Bobby Flay a “hoo-hoo honoree” instead of a “who’s who honoree,” which was hilarious because, well, think about it.

The awards presentation itself was poorly planned. The video screen showed lists of nominees that looked like they were made by someone who had just learned PowerPoint that day, and during the In Memoriam PowerPoint Presentation (I Swear To God I Am Not Kidding You) there was no audio whatsoever, which was really odd. The stage was gigantic and the auditorium was gigantic and no one seemed to have had the forethought to seat nominees up near the stage, so that we wouldn’t have to listen to so much of “Sweet Potato Pie”
that we left the Ray Charles part and got to the James Taylor part (which is, for the record, the bad part) while the winners speed walked the city block down to the stage.

Speaking of “Sweet Potato Pie,” someone thought it would be cute to have all the musical cues be songs about food. You know what? This is a great idea. In theory. The problem is that when you include songs like “American Pie” in that list, which open with about 70 seconds of slow and incredibly depressing lyrics, which sort of undercuts the excitement of your win for Best Regional Chef. Other food-related music choices: Strawberry Fields (adorably appropriate for Mollie Katzen, who entered the Cookbook Hall of Fame for Moosewood), Peel Me A Grape, I Heard it Through the Grapevine, and UB40’s seminal Red Red Wine, a paean to alcoholism which inexplicably played as Wolfgang Puck came onstage.

A lot was really great. The Lee Brothers won their cookbook category and cookbook of the year, and gave sweet and funny speeches both times. Ted Allen self-consciously called attention to how crappy the PowerPoint was. Martha Stewart managed to curb her disdain. David Chang gave the credit for his Rising Star award to his restaurant team. Michel Richard and his sommelier were hysterically, farcically funny while accepting their Wine Service award, and I want them to have a Jeeves-and-Wooster-esque television show. Katie Lee Joel proved her uselessness by being unable to read the teleprompter, but has incredibly shiny hair. The honorees for “American Classics” - the proprietors of non-haute restaurants in far-flung, unchic cities, who cook things like deep-fried hamburgers and sandwiches with french fries used AS A CONDIMENT - were sweet, seemed genuinely touched, and made really cute remarks like “Stop what you’re doin’, swallow what you’re chewin’ - we won an award!” They also made me deeply crave fried chicken. Fun fact: REM took the album title for “Automatic for the People” from the slogan of a restaurant in Athens, GA. Another fun fact: the secret ingredient in that restaurant’s fried chicken is garlic salt.

Here’s my confession: I didn’t make it through to the end of the awards show. Just about when Padma Lakshmi took the stage (verdict: pretty and competent), my companion and I decided to go out to the lobby and get a rush on the post-show reception. Which, let’s be honest, is the real point: 30 tables with free food from the country’s best restaurants? Yes please. For all that Anthony Bourdain was cranky about the lack of kitchen facilities at this year’s new site, everyone seemed to do a bang-up job with portable burners and pre-mise’d prep. We spent a lot of time hovering by French Laundry’s table (salmon tartare cornets, and free clothespins!), and I ogled the oh-so-dreamy Todd English as he ladled out deconstructed crab-and-parmesan-and-morel lasagna. Jose Andres’ cotton candy foie gras was interesting if not delicious, and Traci Des Jardins’s rabbit escabeche with favas was the springiest springtime food I might have ever eaten in my life.

Some final thoughts: Salman Rushdie was there, urgently barking into his cell phone that he was “standing by a sign that says Marcus Samuelson and where the *bleep* are you?!” And then Padma showed up and he calmed down visibly. Bill Buford, whose book Heat is amazing and who was utterly robbed in his category by that no-good upstart Michael Pollan, was carrying his wife’s oversized silver metallic leather tote bag. Lorna Sass and Dorie Greenspan both have awesome glasses. I overheard a skinny woman in a Marc Jacobs sundress say “What’s the French Laundry? Do you think it’s good?” There were no gift bags.


An Insider’s View Of The Beard Awards: ‘There Were No Gift Bags’