If Los Angeles Wants James Beard Awards, We've Got to Get Our Act Together

Noorook salad at Baroo, one of this year's James Beard Foundation award semifinalists
Noorook salad at Baroo, one of this year's James Beard Foundation award semifinalists
Anne Fishbein

This morning, the James Beard Foundation announced its annual list of semifinalists for chef and restaurant awards. This list has long created some confusion among consumers and chefs alike. Are the folks on this list nominees? 

The answer is no: These are the chefs and restaurants and beverage professionals from which the nominees will be chosen. Those nominees will be announced on Tuesday, March 15. 

As usual, Los Angeles has a decent representation on this semifinalists list, including the straight-up surprising (and awesome) inclusion of Baroo, the fantastic but nontraditional modern Korean restaurant in Hollywood, as a Best New Restaurant semifinalist. Other L.A. semifinalists include Cassia in Santa Monica for Best New Restaurant,  the Varnish for Outstanding Bar Program, Suzanne Goin for Outstanding Chef, Republique's Margarita Manzke for Outstanding Pastry Chef, A.O.C. and Providence for Outstanding Restaurant, Roy Choi for Outstanding Restaurateur, Spago for Outstanding Wine Program, Madcapra's Sarah Hymanson and Sara Kramer for Rising Star Chef, and a ton of folks for Best Chef in the West: Josef Centeno, Michael Cimarusti, Jeremy Fox, Ludo Lefebvre, Travis Lett, Ori Menashe, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, and Kris Yenbamroong. You can see the entire list of 2016 semifinalists here

In recent years, this type of Los Angeles representation on the semifinalist list has garnered a couple of actual nominations but very few awards, leading our food media and food community to wonder why the James Beard Awards committee keeps shafting us. But I'm here to tell you that it's not the committee's doing. If L.A. wants actual awards, then L.A. — all of L.A. — needs to get its act together. 

Before you start accusing me of declaring our chefs and restaurants unworthy, let me explain. The actual committee (you can see who they are on this page) has one task: to put together the semifinalist list that came out today. After that, the awards are a pure numbers game. The people from the semifinalists list who get the most votes become nominees, and then another round of voting happens to decide the winners. 

Voting at both of these stages is done by hundreds of voters, mainly food media and past winners. The voting ballot stipulates that a judge should vote only for restaurants where he or she has actually eaten. This tends to give big cities with lots of visitors a major advantage, especially in the national categories. Last year, Russ Parsons pointed out in the L.A. Times that David Chang's New York City empire alone has won more awards than all of Southern California. Because New York has so many visitors, particularly of the chef and food media variety, voters are much more likely to have eaten at — and therefore vote for — NYC restaurants. It's an advantage that the Beard Foundation has yet to figure out, and until it begins sending a panel of judges around the country to try each semifinalist (which would be an outrageously expensive undertaking), it's unlikely to change. 

The other complaint I hear a lot from food types is that the same people end up on the semifinalist list year after year. Aside from Best New Restaurant (for obvious reasons), that tends to be true: I've lost count of the times Suzanne Goin has been nominated for Outstanding Chef, and as much as I adore the Varnish, it would be nice to see another L.A. bar program recognized. But I also get the sense that the committee is reluctant to move on from the Goins and Cimarustis of L.A. because those chefs deserve to win and never have. It's hard to justify putting the brilliant up-and-comers on these lists when their mentors have never properly been recognized. 

So the moral of the story is this: If we want those sweet awards, L.A. has to become a must-visit city. We're getting there. Last year was a record year for tourism. Multiple national magazines have declared Los Angeles to be the best eating city in the United States. Our food journalists are some of the most boosterish writers in the country, for better or worse. Major food festivals, such as the upcoming All Star Chef's Classic (which brings many chefs who are past winners, and therefore voters, to stay and eat in L.A.) will help greatly.

This is an issue of tourism: The folks who run the L.A. Tourism Board ought to make a major push for L.A. as a food destination. It's an issue of making writers and chefs and editors feel as though they can't afford not to have eaten here. 

Whether or not you agree with their exact choices, the James Beard Awards committee has consistently recognized Los Angeles on its semifinalist list. The rest is up to us as a city, to make sure enough people are eating here to get the votes that count toward actual awards. 

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