Do Restaurants Need to Campaign to Win a James Beard Award?

Piero Selvaggio at his Valentino Santa MonicaEXPAND
Piero Selvaggio at his Valentino Santa Monica
Heather Platt

“Let me put it this way, it’s not a free lunch! OK?” laughs Piero Selvaggio. Selvaggio, who has owned and operated the legendary Santa Monica Italian restaurant Valentino since 1972, received seven James Beard Foundation Award nominations and two wins between 1992 and 2004 for his outstanding service and wine program. Though the famous restaurateur appreciates the cachet of having won one of the highest honors in the food and beverage industry, he says it came at a high financial cost.

“It cost probably all together $40,000 to $50,000,” he says, referring to the expense of sending his team to New York City to host four different James Beard House dinners.

The James Beard Foundation is a New York City–based, national nonprofit organization with the mission to “celebrate, nurture and honor America's diverse culinary heritage.” The foundation raises money for various educational programs and provides scholarships for culinary students. But it may be best known for its yearly awards, considered by many to be the greatest achievement in the culinary world.

One of the many ways the JBF raises funds is through dinners at James Beard’s former home, a beautiful, historic building in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Being invited to cook there is considered a great honor, and many of the chefs and restaurants who participate in Beard House dinners go on to become award semifinalists, nominees and winners. The JBF refers to the house as a “‘performance space’ for visiting chefs." It's clearly an excellent way for rising talent to be showcased. Almost every night of the week, dinner is served for around $135 for members and $175 for the public.

Despite the honor of being invited, apart from a small food stipend, chefs and restaurants are responsible for the cost of the dinners. For out-of-town chefs and restaurants like Selvaggio’s, the expense is obviously much greater.

“If you live in Los Angeles or in San Francisco, on the West Coast, figure what it will be to prepare dinner for 70 in a very limited confinement, which is a house kitchen, basically. You have to bring lots of help. You have to bring three to four people. You have to bring the food. You have to look at a wine company that will donate the wine. All of these things have their prices,” Selvaggio says.

But the JBF stresses that there is no obligation for chefs who are invited to participate. And the foundation states on its website, “Financial stability and resources to partner with JBF for a New York event without negative consequences to own business” are an official requirement to be invited.

“Chefs and restaurants are invited to cook at the James Beard House, and if it is not financially possible, there is no obligation whatsoever on the part of the restaurant or chef to do so. That said, those that do choose to cook for an event at the house and have to travel far distances to do so would understandably have higher expenses than those whose businesses are closer,” says Mary Blanton Ogushwitz, who handles public relations for the JBF Awards.

"I’m not really sure how that process goes, but yes," says Suzanne Tracht when asked if she thinks participating in James Beard House dinners helps chefs win awards. "I would say that you have to be involved in it. To get an award from the James Beard [Foundation], I think that you have to somehow be involved, and I guess doing a dinner would make you involved."  Tracht, who is adored locally for her Beverly Grove restaurant Jar, has participated in two Beard House dinners, once when she was the chef at Jozu and once when Jar first opened.

Though Tracht was honored by the JBF's 2009 Women in Food, she has not received awards in the chef or restaurant categories. Despite this, she feels that participating in the dinners was worth the cost.

“Well, of course you’re going to New York, so it’s always expensive," Tracht says. "I’ve done it twice and you know, it’s always an honor. I’m very supportive of the James Beard House. I was happy to be asked to do something there. It was very helpful." Tracht described the experience as an excellent opportunity to network.

"I wasn’t so much thinking, 'I’m going to do this dinner and get nominated and win an award.' I never think about that. I’m a small business. I’m probably one of the few restaurant owners that works in the restaurant and only has one restaurant. But I went there because I really believe in the James Beard House," Tracht says. "I think it’s really important that California and everywhere else besides New York ... that people do know that they can be involved in the James Beard House without having to be a New York chef."

Where Tracht sees a great opportunity for non–New York chefs to get involved, Selvaggio sees as an expensive disadvantage.

“There is always the controversy that the Beard House hasn’t been really very friendly to Los Angeles considering the depth of restaurants and talent that is in Los Angeles,” Selvaggio says. "But let’s face it, until they moved to Chicago, they were very much a New York institution that was looking at their local boys. For many years Beard House was basically featuring New York chefs, and when it was time for their awards, three-fourths of the awards were given to restaurants in New York."

To his theory that participating in Beard House dinners helps chances of winning, it certainly would put Angelenos at a pricey disadvantage. But the point may be moot: According to the official rules of the JBF, any chef hoping to improve his chances of winning by donating his talent to an event probably should plan to do it solely for the joy of giving to a great cause. In other words, no lobbying.

“The programs are unrelated, and the Restaurant and Chef Awards are solely administered by the independent Restaurant and Chef committee, while the Beard House dinners are part of in-house programming and administered by thefoundation’s program director,” Blanton Ogushwitz says. The official voting process is outlined in this post from 2016 that lays out a theory about L.A.'s relative lack of representation in the winner's circle.

That said, the perception from chefs is clearly different. When asked if she thinks restaurants that can't afford to participate in James Beard House dinners are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting nominated, Tracht's answer was definitive.

“Oh yeah. Absolutely. I mean, if you asked me today if I could do that, I’d be like, ‘Hell no.' I can’t afford it right now. We’re going into our summer season!" she laughs. But regardless of the cost, Tracht would encourage young chefs to get involved.

"I would say, ‘Make it work.’ You know the old saying, how it’s never the right time to have a baby or buy a house or whatever? Just find a way and do it. You know, even if you go out to New York and you find someone to stay with. You can cut down on your expenses. You don’t go to the most expensive restaurants to eat while you’re there. But it gets you out and it’s a really important thing to do."

It has been well over a decade since Selvaggio’s involvement with the JBF.  A lot of time has passed and the foundation has not always been immune to buzz of corruption.

“There was some controversy because one of their presidents was pocketing money and so forth and there was a bribe. A lot of the better journalists, better members, kind of canceled and gave up their membership or their judgment. I remember Ruth Reichl gave it up,” remembers Selvaggio, referring to the 2004 scandal in which the former board president, Leonard F. Pickell Jr., was found to have misused hundreds of thousands of dollars in foundation money, resulting in seven committee judges resigning, including Reichl.

But when asked if it is possible that there could have been any truth to complaints in the past regarding the cost of perceived campaigning in order to win an award, the JBF response was:

“No. Besides performing to the best of his or her abilities, there’s nothing anyone can do to affect the outcome of an award. We hear stories of people campaigning for various awards but our procedures are overseen by an independent accounting firm and are not susceptible to outside influence,” which is also the response posted in the FAQ section of the foundation's website.

Officially, no contribution of time or money will in any way influence whether a chef or restaurateur may be nominated or win a so-called Oscar of the food world. Prospective candidates don’t even have to be a member of the foundation. Therefore, it's not expensive to win or be nominated. But it’s certainly expensive for those who think they can try. Even if you’re nominated, plan on spending between $425 and $500 on a ticket to the awards ceremony if you want to bring a date.

According to Tracht, these prices are not always in line with the reality of a chef or restaurateur's financial situation. "It’s hard to run a restaurant. There are a lot of expenses that people don’t realize. It can be tough. You have to look at like, well, am I going to make sure that my employees' checks go through this week or am I going to go do a dinner at the James Beard House? You’re going to pay your staff, of course. You also have to remember that the restaurant business, even though we make it out in all the TV shows and this and that and it all looks so glamorous, like we would just have $500 [for a ticket] — we really don’t!"

And though it’s not a requirement to donate huge amounts of time and money, and the words “lobbying” and “campaigning” are not even in the JBF vernacular, it raises the question, do all hopeful chefs and their publicists know that? It seems they do not.

Even Selvaggio, who is no longer a JBF member, cherishes his awards. "To say that you are a James Beard Award chef or restaurateur, or wine service, it’s all nice and big on your résumé and nice and big in the portfolio of a restaurant," he says. In fact, Selvaggio's Valentino has recently received media attention for reinstating Luciano Pellegrini in the Santa Monica kitchen. Pellegrini won the James Beard Award in 2004 for Best Chef Southwest for his work at Piero Selvaggio's Valentino Las Vegas.


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