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Dana Cowin Explains How This People’s Best New Chef Award Will Work

Dana Cowin
Dana Cowin Photo: Melissa Hom

We were a touch confused yesterday following the announcement by Food & Wine that they would be awarding a people’s choice award this year in addition to their annual roster of Best New Chefs, all due to be printed in the July issue. Online voting by region has commenced, but we didn’t get how many winners there would be, or how this was all going to work alongside the editorial staff’s picks. So we got editor-in-chief Dana Cowin on the phone to explain everything.

First off, how did you come up with the short lists for each region?
The list of the 100 chefs was gathered from nominators across the country, which included stringers, as well as our own staff on the ground. The people who were nominated were then screened to make sure they had all run a kitchen for five years or fewer and that their menus seemed to be pushing food forward — that their whole CV seemed to be pushing food forward. These are the basic tenets of the Best New Chef program. There were chefs we found who were doing great work with say, classic Italian, but that’s not really what the Best New Chefs program is about. It’s about honoring chefs who are shaping and reshaping the world of food with their dishes.

How do these lists compare to the list you’re working on for the regular Best New Chefs? Is there overlap?
It’s one of those weird math subset problems. There must be Best New Chef candidates within that 100 list, but it’s very possible that all of the editors’ picks this year are not on that list. We completed the people’s choice short list before we completed the travel schedule for the editors choosing the Best New Chefs, so there’s potential for them not to overlap just because people on the ground are discovering things, and chefs, after that first list went out.

So what happens if someone wins on the people’s list and also gets chosen for one of your editorial picks? And will the winner’s profile appear beside the editors’ ten picks?
A chef can win both. I’m genuinely interested to see if there’s overlap, and if there is that’s just fine. This is how the award works: There will be ten finalists, one for each region. Each one is the regional winner, and as regional winner they will be included in the magazine, in a list. But there is only one overall winner of the People’s Best New Chef, and that person will have a profile written about them in the magazine — that winner is simply the chef with the most overall online votes.

But won’t that sort of unfairly disadvantage chefs working in smaller regions, without, say, the pull of a Twitter following in a big city?
That is a good point. We just couldn’t figure out a practical way of solving that. I suppose one could have weighted voting — but I’m not sure that’s fair either. The person with the most people and votes behind them is just that. Luckily we still have the Best New Chefs franchise, and there, it’s more of a level playing field across regions, with editors, in some cases, with fifteen years experience choosing Best New Chefs.

Do you trust “the people” to choose well? After all, the NBA all-star game always does that for its starters, and they always end up with a mixed bag.
I don’t know enough about sports to answer that question — but I love the idea of an all-star chefs kitchen! It’ll be interesting to see because it’s kind of about chefs who are motivational and can get out the vote. We’ll find out if a chef has a loyal following. That counts for something, you know, if a chef has a lot of people who are willing to go to a site and vote for them. It shows they’re popular and that’s always good to know. There’s not a single person on that short list who isn’t talented enough and who I wouldn’t be glad to see be the winner.

Does your web staff have any safeguards in place against e-ballot box stuffing?
There’s only one vote per IP address, so that makes it hard to stuff the box. It would require a certain level of ingenuity … Mostly it will be about the ingenuity of chefs to get the word out to family and friends and fans.

Are you personally rooting for anyone to win — in the Pacific region, say?
You’ve got to be kidding me. I have no favorites in this race. I will reveal nothing! There are so many fantastic chefs. I had a staff meeting today and I asked my team if people had voted, and they weren’t sure if they were allowed to vote and I said, “Sure, you’re allowed to vote.” Then they asked me if I’d voted and I was like, “But how can I vote?” So, I haven’t even voted yet. I promise I will vote by the end, but I won’t tell you then either.

What day will you be unveiling the new Best New Chefs list this year?
April 5. And I will be doing my Twitter riddles again.

Vote for the People’s Best New Chef at Eatocracy through March 1.

The People’s Best New Chef [Food & Wine]
Earlier: Skenes, Lee, Moore All Nominated for Food & Wine People’s Choice Thing [Grub Street SF]
The Voice of ‘The People’ May Not Be What We Want to Hear [Grub Street Philly]
Meet 2010’s ‘Best New Chefs’ [Grub Street NY]

Dana Cowin Explains How This People’s Best New Chef Award Will Work