We Californians have a reputation, however fictional or exaggerated, for looking on the bright side of things. So when it comes to reporting on the 2011 James Beard Foundation Awards, which took place last night at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City, we'll take a glass-half-full approach. Even if Los Angeles JBFA restaurant nominees won't come home donning medals with a bald man around their necks, a strong handful of choice chefs attended the awards and represented L.A. at the event, the theme of which was the Ultimate Melting Pot. These folks came both as award hopefuls and supporters.
Meanwhile, this paper's critic was inducted into the Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America category, closely following the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award that Mr. Gold won at Friday's JBF Media Awards. Here's a complete list of last night's winners.
Culled from the list of semifinalists that had a strong L.A. showing, our local contenders ultimately included Suzanne Goin for Outstanding Chef, Michael Cimarusti of Providence for Best Chef Pacific, and Dahlia Narvaez of Mozza for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Barbara Bestor's firm was nominated in the Outstanding Restaurant Design category for its work with Pitfire Pizza. The prizes themselves however, all went to others. And yet, if we for the moment set aside Anthony Bourdain's critiques (and JBF Humor winner Ruth Bourdain's tweets) and just decide that the Beard Awards Really Matter, Southern California restaurant enthusiasts had reasons to celebrate.
We can claim an outpost of Outstanding Chef winner, José Andrés. If we expand the Southern Californian geographic focus a bit to celebrate other victors, Noriega Restaurant and Hotel in Bakersfield was honored with an American Classics award. And many a Californian has made a pilgrimage to experience Saipin Chutima's food at Las Vegas' Lotus of Siam, ever since Chutima left the beloved Renu Nakorn in Norwalk and decamped to Nevada in the late 90s. (Chutima shared the Best Chef Southwest title with Tyson Cole of Uchi in Austin.)
For a lot of L.A. chefs in the crowd, the cross-country journey might be brief, but the spirit of generosity is big. Spago's Sherry Yard told us "I'm here to support all the pastry chef friends that I love and care for, and L.A. chefs." For some perspective, Yard explained the "cyclical" nature of the nominations. "There are a lot of chefs that are recognizable names, and they'll be nominated. And then there are years when there aren't as many recognizable names and everybody kind of gets their due. This year would be one of the years where it's very evenly distributed throughout the United States." She pitched in at San Francisco chef Yigit Pura's station (Yard and Pura were partners on Top Chef: Just Desserts, which Pura won.) Sang Yoon comes to the Beards most years, although given that Lukshon is just three months old, he'll be back in L.A. before the jet lag has a chance to set in. "I'm only gone for one day."
Susan Feniger, co-chair of the evening's post-awards gala, and Mary Sue Milliken were seen hanging out at the Lotus of Siam table and congratulating Saipin Chutima. "I haven't been here forever!" Feniger said. "I feel like the James Beard Foundation is doing great things now. I love the idea of all the different foods." She pointed across the way to Michel Richard who "is doing interesting stuff tonight," while representing his forthcoming Caesars Palace restaurant with a faux sweet egg concoction held in a thin chocolate shell.
Octavio Becerra of Palate in Glendale was getting back in the JBFA gala swing of things, serving up pork belly and ears banh mi with kumquats, pistachios and lardons, after not having been at the Beards "for a good 10 or 12 years." That's also why "it helps to have friends in the city." Back during his days as a chef in the Patina camp, the past Beard nominee had done the event "half a dozen times." Meanwhile, RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen Executive Chef Mohan Ismail, who is from Singapore and worked in New York at Tabla, Spice Market and Blue Hill, was at the Beards for the first time cooking at the gala. "It's very nice to see all my old friends in New York. It's nice to be back."
After all is said and done and eaten and drunk, there's a lot to be said for Michael Cimarusti's optimism. "I just hope I keep getting nominated. Whether or not I win, it doesn't really matter," he told us in between taking bites of Becerra's banh mi. "This is only the beginning of the night. The night gets progressively more and more interesting."
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