The James Beard Foundation likes to call its annual restaurant and chef awards the Oscars of the restaurant world. Really, they’re more like the Emmys in that the same nominees are named year after year.
One big difference, though, is that once you win a Beard Award, you’re ineligible to win again in that category for a number of years. That allows new people and restaurants to be nominated, giving those new nominees an excuse to attend this annual celebration of the restaurant world.
For that reason a chef from the Southeast told me he was glad that his area's regional award was a tie — it went to Hugh Acheson of Five and Ten in Athens, Ga., and Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta — because that opened the way for two new nominees next year.
Sometimes regional rivalries are played out during the awards. A blogger from San Francisco expressed regret that his city only won one award this year, and mild irritation that the award for best chef in the Pacific went to an Angelino, Matt Molina of Osteria Mozza, owned by Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali.
Who actually wins in any given year isn’t really the point of the Beard Awards, though, because most nominees win eventually. For example, Boulevard in San Francisco, which won this year's award for the country’s Outstanding Restaurant, had been nominated seven times previously.
However, there are two exceptions to that rule. The first is the Rising Star Chef of the Year award, which has a cut-off age of 30, and which was won for the first time this year by a pastry chef — Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar — who told the audience she was in trouble with her mother, who she had told not to come to the awards because there was no way she was going to win.
The other exception is Best New Restaurant, which can only be won by a restaurant within a year of its opening. That award went to Grant Achatz’s new place, Next, in Chicago, which changes its theme every three months and sells tickets as if guests are attending a theatrical performance rather than having dinner.
It’s customary for New York City winners to throw after-parties following the awards, so I shared a taxi with Boston chef Ken Oringer — a previous winner of Best Chef in the Northeast — to Otto, where Batali was throwing a celebration in honor of Molina.
Oringer didn’t attend the awards, but he, like many chefs, was in town for the associated parties. We talked about the camaraderie that chefs have and how when he was cooking at restaurants in New York, he would be farmed out to work a shift or two at other restaurants that were short-staffed.
That camaraderie is strong in Boston, he said, and he was delighted that one of Barbara Lynch’s restaurants, No. 9 Park, won the award for outstanding wine program — a major coup for the city, which rarely wins national Beard Awards.
Ultimately, it’s the camaraderie that makes the awards what they are. As beverage consultant Steve Olson, who presented the award for the new category of Outstanding Bar Program, told me: Restaurateurs spend every day devoting themselves to other people’s enjoyment. The Beard Awards are the one time they simply celebrate themselves.