Why You Should Care About the Beard Awards

This weekend (and even as I write it I begin to quiver) the whole food world, from superchefs on down to bacon bloggers, is on tenterhooks. Why? Clearly you must not live in the foodiverse, because this is the weekend of the James Beard Awards.

Now, I’ve written about the awards before, and not always in a glowing way. As was noted last year following Gabrielle Hamilton’s inexplicable Best Chef award, hype has a way of generating Beard awards, which inevitably generates more hype. That’s still true as far as it goes. But I now think that the Beard Awards are, on the whole, of single value to the world at large, and worth paying attention to.

Full disclosure: I’m on the Awards committee and am also up for a journalism one, for this column, Friday night. (The journalism awards are the Beard’s equivalent of the technical Oscars, given on another night and rightly ignored by all media.)

So I may not be completely reliable as an objective observer of the institution. That said, it came to my rescue this past week. I was in Austin, Texas and wanted to eat a really great high-class meal. I knew where to go to get BBQ (Franklin’s) and old-time hamburgers (Dirty Martin’s.) But I wanted to see what the state of white-tablecloth dining was like, and I was only going to be able to eat one such meal. The most hyped restaurants in Austin right now are Uchi and Uchiko, two sushi restaurants, and the latter’s young Executive Chef Paul Qui, who just won Top Chef. are all anybody talks about down there right now. But A) I don’t really like Japanese food, at least in the form I encounter it here in the US, and 2) it makes no sense to go to Austin to eat Japanese fusion food. And then I remembered David Bull, who I heard about when he was nominated for the Best Chef Southwest award a few years ago. I remember looking him up, reading about his food, and making a mental note to eat it when I had the chance.

There are two things about this worth mentioning here. One is that, because the Beard Awards are voted by chefs, I tend to take them far more seriously than I do the local critics, who tend to be bowled over by whatever the newest or most expensive restaurant in town is. (The ultimate example of this was the lady in North Dakota who wrote a rave review of The Olive Garden.) Mitchell Davis of the Beard Foundation, says that the Beards are unique in the guidance they offer diners. “Without any national standard to judge or rate restaurants,” he says,, “like a Michelin guide for the entire country, i think the Beard Awards fill the void for the consumer.” Even in cities that do have big name guides, such as Michelin or Mobil, but I don’t trust them either; who knows what they think constitutes a good meal? They don’t even show pictures of the food the way Yelp does. Despite the occasional popularity spiral, the Beards are voted for by serious restaurant people; they’re the peers of the people they judge, and although that sometimes leads to an Old Guard of chefs that have coasted for years on boozy goodwill, it also proofs the award against short-term hype most of the time. The food at Congress wasn’t flashy, wasn’t farm-to-table (at least in theatrically rustic way of most such restaurants) and had neither a rock-and-roll TV chef nor the presence of exotic ingredients to overawe diners. It was just perfectly composed, intensely flavorful, grown-up cooking of the kind that bores the 20-something foodies who control restaurant buzz in most cities. David Bull spent his whole career cooking for middle-aged grandees in Dallas and Austin; of course he isn’t getting the same buzz as Paul Qui.

This isn’t to say that the Beards are without their problems as a gold standard for restaurants. As noted above, there is a fame spiral that applies, even among its most august judges – their own form of buzz, based on shared experience and a tendency to be behind the curve with new young chefs. Everyone knows this; but it’s not the worst thing in the world if a chef takes a few years to register on their radar. It’s rare that a rookie or sophomore pro athelete gets the MVP; even Michael Jordan had to wait. The very somnolence of some of the older Beard judges acts as a buzz-filter, and provides a much-needed counterweight to ephemeral clamor. As I get older (and poorer) I come to appreciate that more and more. The hot new joint will never need any help, by definition; but a Beard award – even a nomination! – is forever.

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