“I have the best job in the world,” said David Chang, chef and owner of the New York City-based Momofuku restaurants, when accepting the James Beard Foundation Chef and Restaurant Award for Outstanding Chef of the Year, an honor he shared with Paul Kahan, chef-partner of Blackbird, Avec, The Publican, Big Star and The Violet Hour in Chicago.
This was the first time in the awards’ history that the Outstanding Chef prize — the top honor, according to the Beard Foundation — was given to two chefs. The two most newsworthy winners, however, were State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, which was named Best New Restaurant, and Danny Bowien, who was named Rising Star Chef of the Year. Bowien is the chef and co-founder of Mission Chinese Food, which has locations in San Francisco and New York City.
Those awards are important because a venue only has one chance to be named best new restaurant and because a chef only has until age 30 to be named a rising star.
Other than those categories, the awards go to a rotating roster of chefs, beverage professionals and restaurateurs who are generally acknowledged to be great at their jobs.
About half of the nominees each year are the same as the nominees of the year before. Once you're nominated for an award, you have a good chance of winning it eventually, and then once you win, you can’t be nominated again for a number of years. In fact, this year was the first time a chef has won twice in the same category: Melissa Kelly of Primo in Rockland, Maine, won the award for the best chef in the Northeast in 1999, and she won it again this year.
But the point of the awards isn’t who wins. It all has to do with Chang’s observation that he has the best job in the world, a sentiment several chefs and restaurateurs had expressed earlier during the three-hour awards ceremony, even though on paper that’s not remotely true.
Chefs take time to celebrate
A chef’s job is ridiculously hard. It requires long hours of manual labor in hot settings for not much money. Chefs work on weekends and holidays and during celebrations; almost any time someone else is having fun. If a chef works very hard and does the job well, he or she might then have to manage the daily dramas of staff, many of whom come from the margins of society, while making sure they comply with health codes, as well as managing an increasingly complex array of labor laws and zoning regulations, on top of the regular daily headaches that all small-business managers face.
But chefs do, as a general rule, love their jobs, and the Beard Awards are an occasion for celebrating that fact, gathering to appreciate the camaraderie they share and reveling in what Christopher Kostow, chef of the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, Calif. — who was named Best Chef in the West at the awards — called “this entire amazing culture that we have.”
So it didn’t matter that the theme of the awards, “Lights Camera Taste: Spotlight on Food & Film,” seemed like a non-sequitur, and that few people in the audience used the 3D glasses that were handed out to read the parts of the program or view the video presentations that were engineered to take advantage of that technology. The master of ceremonies, actor Oliver Platt, did as well as could be expected amusing the audience and moving things along. Award recipients cried when appropriate, the audience cheered and the stars of the independent restaurant world went out into the night to continue the celebration of the industry.
The revelry started with a reception in which guest chefs were supposed to prepare dishes that reflected a favorite film — Christopher Lee of Sophia’s in Philadelphia served smoked baby back ribs with Georgia peach glaze inspired by Smokey and the Bandit; Traci des Jardins of Jardinière in San Francisco served tortilla soup, inspired by the film of that name; Aarón Sánchez of Mestizo in Leawood, Kan., served lamb enchiladas with mole negro inspired by Like Water for Chocolate.
After-parties followed, many of which closed earlier than expected. Del Posto, which won the Outstanding Service award, stopped letting people in by around 12:30 a.m., and Eleven Madison Park’s annual frat-party-like bash, which was held off-site in a rented event space this year, was shut down by the police at around 1:30 a.m. It was not immediately clear why, but nearby Irish bars in Midtown Manhattan benefited from the spillover of restaurant industry folk who continued into the night.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 8, 2013 This article has been updated with the correct name of the James Beard Foundation 2013 Restaurant and Chef Awards master of ceremonies, and with the correct years Melissa Kelly won a James Beard Award. It also corrects the identification of persons in the last image on the second page.