The James Beard Foundation Awards is the Big Night Out for an industry that's all about nights out. Cooks, writers, restaurateurs, sommeliers, and others in the service of making great food and interpreting it for a hungry public gather in New York City every May for medal-bestowing, eating and drinking. In theory this is also a big chance for stars across the USA to shine during the Oscars/Grammys/Emmys of the culinary world.
Perusing the list of finalists this year, however, Southern California's light shone quite dim within the Beard constellation. From the first potentially promising roster of semi-finalists that included Rustic Canyon's Evan Funke (Rising Star Chef) and Zoe Nathan (Pastry Chef), Catherine Schimenti at Craft L.A. (Pastry Chef), Animal (New Restaurant), Palate Food + Wine (New Restaurant), Campanile (Service), Sona (Wine Service), there wasn't much for Los Angeles to cheer for during the final awards round. Not to mention a L.A.-heavy list of Best Chef Pacific region noms that got totally hacked (Gino Angelini, Quinn Hatfield, Josiah Citrin, Michael Cimarusti, David Myers, Jason Travi, and Craig Strong of The Dining Room at the Langham). By the time Monday evening rolled around, our hopes rested with Suzanne Goin for Outstanding Chef, The Bazaar for Best New Restaurant and Outstanding Restaurant Design, and Patina's Wine Director Eric Espuny for Outstanding Wine Service.
When award time came, our city got snubbed all around. Even the Restaurant Review medallion went to New York magazine's Adam Platt over our own Pulitzer-bestowed critic Jonathan Gold, who was a finalist at Sunday's Media Awards where Evan Kleiman was among the guest chefs.
But let's not dwell on the negative too much. Squid Ink was on the scene to locate the fine folks representing Los Angeles on Monday night at the Foundation Awards and Gala at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.
Given this year's theme celebrating Women in Food, the event program included some L.A. ladies whom the distinguished participating chefs identified as colleagues they admire. Goin, Pasadena native Julia Child (we'll always claim her, thank you), Nancy Silverton, Sherry Yard, and Mary Sue Milliken appear on the list.
Milliken, who presented the Books in Reference and Scholarship award (The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg won, in case you're curious) offered an upbeat take on the night. Milliken was all smiles as she noted how the ceremonies have "really grown up [and] have changed so much." She recalled how in 1985, when she and Susan Feniger, then of City Café, left town to accept their award from Craig Claiborne, "we had to close the restaurant," a move that most chefs have learned to avoid by now. About the personalities and talent on display this year she said, "I love the lineup." Plus as one of eight founders of the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Foundation, "it's exciting to see so many people I've known for so long, and some new ones, too."
During the post-awards Gala -- which after a three-and-a-half-hour-plus ceremony couldn't come along fast enough -- Suzanne Tracht and Jar's chef de cuisine Preech Narkthong cranked out California-style char siu pork tacos with mango salsa to a crowd that gathered around the station in the lobby consistently throughout night. Before the evening's hoopla started, Tracht appeared calm and ready to handle the unrelenting demand of getting food into the hands of discerning eaters. Marina Del Rey-based Kim Haasarud of Liquid Architecture was making drinks at the Rums of Puerto Rico station. We heard a rumor that Sherry Yard was in the crowd but were not able to personally confirm.
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We ran into cookbook author JoAnn Cianciulli, who recently published L.A.'s Original Farmers Market Cookbook and attends the awards every year. About an hour into the gala she seemed to be enjoying herself. "So far, so good," she said of the evening overall. It also never hurts that "the champagne's flowing, and there's always more." That could refer to the liquor, the food, or the overall good cheer. Or all three, and then some.
Amid all that champagne, we could use a toast in honor of more Southern California love from the Beard Foundation judges panel.