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Jacques Pepin and Alice Waters discuss James BeardEXPAND
Jacques Pepin and Alice Waters discuss James Beard
Michele Stueven

Hey California, Have the James Beard Awards Outgrown Themselves?

As an Angeleno I'm thrilled beyond belief that after nine years of being nominated Michael Cimarusti took home the James Beard Award for Best Chef of the West this year.  And we all breathed a big sigh of relief last year when Caroline Styne — the Susan Lucci of the awards — brought home the medallion for best restaurateur to Los Angeles after years of nominations.

Every year California — ground zero for a food movement that has changed the way this country eats, yet the seemingly neglected stepchild  — laments over coming home empty handed at the James Beard Awards. Has the country’s food scene outgrown just one food award? Is it time the breadbasket of the nation and melting pot of culinary inspiration and community farms to conceive its own award?

Is it time for the Alice Waters Awards, celebrating chefs, farms and restaurants that range from L.A.'s own Bavel and the historic Firehouse in Sacramento to the vineyards of Napa Valley, the Basque hideaways in Bakersfield, Loquita and The Lark in Santa Barbara, and others in Temecula, Orange County, San Diego, as well as nods to the farms of the Imperial Valley that keep restaurants throughout the state thriving?

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Hell, I’d argue that the incredible Tijuana food scene of Alta California belongs in there too with its culinary history and current organic farm programs, such as Mexico's wine-producing Valle de Guadalupe which boasts more than 150 wineries. And yes, of course San Francisco is a given, to be challenged with a different level of competition among its peers.

Waters was part of the American Masters PBS documentary James Beard: America’s First Foodie and is largely responsible for the farm-to-table movement that has set the bar for restaurants across the country. And it all started in California.

"We were part of the counterculture at the time," she once told me about the “slow food experience” before sustainability was a buzzword. "We weren't running a restaurant the way other restaurants were being run. We planned for the night and avoided as much waste as possible."         

The Beard Awards, with all sincere respect, started as a way to pay homage to an entire industry that was generally taken for granted. Since then our food world has exploded and our stars are arguably more fun and talented than most Hollywood celebrities. And as just as the Academy Awards outgrew themselves, making way for the Directors Guild Awards, SAG Awards and Producers Guild Awards, among others — it might just be time for California to sow the seeds for a field of kudos all their own. Glitz and glamour aside, nobody can pull off an awards night like we can.

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