James Beard Winners

Los Angeles Food Editor Lesley Bargar Suter on What It Feels Like To Win a James Beard Award

One of Suter's winning issues
One of Suter’s winning issues Photo: Hadley Tomicki

The James Beard Awards ceremony for chefs is officially underway right now at New York’s Lincoln Center. Moments before arriving, Los Angeles food editor Lesley Bargar Suter gave us a ring to discuss her win last Friday of a James Beard Award for “Food Coverage in a General-Interest Publication,” based on her in-depth explorations of L.A.’s Chinese food and farmers market scenes and abundance of breakfast classics.

Suter, who says she “blacked out for a second” upon hearing her name called, told us how it feels to win her first James Beard Award, who she’s dying to meet tonight, why New York and San Francisco might get more attention than “overlooked” L.A. from the foundation, and what might be coming next from the magazine “now that there’s a national audience looking to us to tell them that Los Angeles is a worthwhile food destination.” Oh, and also her mom and Jacques Pepin might be in love. Read on.

Congratulations on your win, Lesley. Where are you now?
LBS: We’re in the cab on the way to the fancy chef’s party, yay!

Nervous yet?
I’m excited to go now. When I first found out I was winning the award on Friday night, I kinda blacked out for a minute. I was at the awards at a big table with Mary Melton, the editor-in-chief of Los Angeles, and Michael, my husband. We were at Gotham Hall and they were about halfway through all the categories when they read this one and called my name. Mary and my husband screamed obnoxiously loud and to the point where they sort of shut up the room. Then I gave a boring ‘thank you’ speech. I was really excited and really nervous, but now having a full weekend in New York to calm down, I’m just excited now to watch the chefs win and eat their fabulous food and be at Lincoln Center as a Beard winner.

How do you imagine tonight unfolding? Anyone you’re dying to meet?
I’ve been before when Patrick Kuh won in the past, but this is the first time I’m going as a winner myself, so I’m very thrilled about that. I was dying to meet Ina Garten at the journalism awards. I am a die-hard Barefoot Contessa groupie and was hoping to catch her eye across the room, but that didn’t happen. I did meet the Modernist Cuisine team though, which was very cool.Tonight, Wolfgang will be there, being honored big-time, which is great, and I’m looking forward to seeing some of the big New York chefs. I know Anthony Bourdain doesn’t come usually, but that’d be great if he did.

There are a lot of old school food icons who come to these things that are exciting to meet. Like last year, I met Jacques Pepin with my mother; that was pretty darn great. They’re big fans of each other. They might get married later, who knows?

We imagine your intention in putting the winning features together wasn’t just for an award. What inspires you?
Beyond thanking the James Beard Foundation and my boss, I really want to thank Los Angeles. The award was for an general interest publication and our general interest is Los Angeles, so I thank L.A. not only just as a constant source of inspiration, but L.A. food is a real underdog, especially within the Beard Association, so I just want to report on it and push it. I think what we were really excited about, my boss and I, was beating New York Magazine on its home turf, which I think was a really big deal for us, being in New York and at the Beards. For a city that always feels like The James Beard is overlooking it, that’s a nice win.

Is there a reason you think the Beard Foundation may be overlooking L.A.?
With the Beards Association, I think it comes down to the way their voting system works, which is, you have to have eaten at these restaurants to vote on them…for people who come across the country to eat in L.A., there’s only a handful of restaurants that they go to, which are the Mozzas and Taverns and Lucques and all that, which are great, deserving restaurants, but I think maybe people are not very much able to eat off the beaten path quite as much and recognize some of the smaller people.

I think that’s part of the reason the Beards in particular, you see some of the same people getting nominated a lot, and some of the other great chefs getting overlooked. But I do think, you know, eating in New York over the last week has been pretty inspiring. There’s a level of food here that makes me want to go home and push some of our local chefs a little harder.

I think [LA is] doing really, really well and our ethnic food is really great but some of these big awards don’t really honor the street food as much as they honor the fine dining, which I think we in Los Angeles are great at in some areas. But the reason “foodies” love it is more the street food. So if they had a national black-tie street food award ceremony, we would kill ‘em all. But they don’t. So for now, I think we’re in there and competing.

I’m not sure why San Francisco, of all cities…the Beards are all organized where it’s all about coasts, and I’m not sure why, but San Francisco gets a lot more attention. But I’m not 100% sure that that’s warranted. I’m not sure why that is….The people who can vote on the [James Beard] finalists are the people who have actually won or been nominated before, so the semi-finalist chefs who have won in L.A. or have been nominated ever need to make sure that they get out there and vote, because that actually helps put the relevant guys on the scene. So I’m going to be one of those now, and I will try and deliver us.

Your awards came for features highlighting L.A.’s Chinese food and breakfast legends. Is there another favorite food in L.A. that you’re itching to cover in this fashion?
We haven’t been able to dedicate as much focus to Korean food as I would like to. Once a year, I pitch the features that I really think are worth dedicating full issues to and it was Chinese food last year and Mexican food before that. I’d love to do Korean this year if it could happen. It’s not on the schedule yet, but I would love to dedicate some space to that. Every time I do one of these issues that focuses on a certain ethnicity, I learn so much and it’s an area I would love to spend four months learning about, and eating through Koreatown. That would be great.

Our Chinese issue was pretty amazing, it was something that even New York can’t compete with…in terms of regional authenticity that we get to cover. In terms of ripe territory to explore, you can’t get much better than the San Gabriel Valley. I felt spoiled getting to cover that, which really says more about the San Gabriel Valley than it does about the magazine.

You spoke of the award making you nervous at first. Is there any downside to winning? So this is the first year this category was listed, the first year they separated food-based publications from general interest publications…It’s hard for us to be able to compete with food-based publications who may have a million dollars budgeted to cover food.

But seeing as this is the first year, yes, I hope we can achieve that every year. And we won’t, but it pushes me now that there’s a national audience looking to us to tell them that Los Angeles is a worthwhile food destination and worthy of national-caliber attention. No real downside, it’s pretty awesome actually. I’m still relatively early on in my career and it’s exciting for me. I try not to think about the pressure.

Los Angeles Food Editor Lesley Bargar Suter on What It Feels Like To Win