In the food world, there are certain rituals of the winter that are as predictable as Groundhog Day: In February, the nominations for the annual James Beard Awards are announced, and the next few months will be filled with a barrage of criticism and sour grapes.
While some refer to the awards as “the Oscars of food,” Anthony Bourdain has characterized them as “a chef shakedown.” Bourdain’s barbs are almost always amusing, and many times they sound accurate. Among other things, he has noted that the Beard Foundation ignores the Latinos who do much of the real cooking in America’s famous kitchens. The “shakedown” comment refers to America’s most respected food critics, who he criticizes for soliciting “free food, drinks, vacations, and other things of value for years with absolute impunity,” and whose writing often forms the basis for the nominations. As to the award ceremony itself, he points out that it contains more white people than you’d find at the Republican National Convention.
Given the Beard Foundation’s unsavory history, it’s hard to fault Bourdain. In 2004, Leonard Pickell, president of the JBF, resigned after revelations that he had misused hundreds of thousands of dollars of Foundation funds—money that was supposed to be used to give scholarships to young chefs. He was later indicted, pleaded guilty to second-degree grand larceny, and went to prison. The Board of Directors was asked to resign, and were replaced.
Despite all this, the JBF awards are once again considered (by some) to be the pinnacle of culinary accomplishment. The nominees are largely proprietors of restaurants that could be described as New American, farm-to-table establishments. They tend to be operators who have been overlooked or short-changed by Michelin. Some of them actually cook, although many employ a chef de cuisine to work in the kitchen while they attend to other matters.
I met James Beard once. He was a gruff, no-nonsense individual who did not tolerate fools easily or happily. As amusing as Anthony Bourdain’s comments are at times, the real knee-slapper—for me—is to imagine what Beard might say about everything being perpetrated in his name.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press; his second book, Moonshine Nation, is forthcoming from Lyons Press in June. For more information, go to amazon.com