james beard awards (2008)…

2008 James Beard Awards For the second year in a row, I had the honor of attending the James Beard Awards Gala and Reception in New York City.  As last year, the ceremony was held at the Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center. It was hot.  It was a zoo.  At times, the event was somewhat […]


2008 James Beard Awards
2008 James Beard Awards

For the second year in a row, I had the honor of attending the James Beard Awards Gala and Reception in New York City.  As last year, the ceremony was held at the Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center.

It was hot.  It was a zoo.  At times, the event was somewhat magical, in an Alice Waters-let’s-celebrate-the-farm-idealist sense of the word. At other times, it was absolute madness and mayhem.

2008 James Beard Awards
2008 James Beard Awards
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

For anyone who thinks the James Beard Awards Gala and Reception is remotely civilized or dignified occasion, one has only to see the mass exodus out of the auditorium as soon as the last award is given to realize that it’s just like any other big event with food.

I mean, sure, you’ve got the culinary gliterrati of America dressed to the nines. But even (and especially) the culinary gliterrati get hungry. By the time they handed out the last award (after the six gazillion cookbook awards, which really need to be moved to the media awards two nights before) we village people were getting restless.

This year’s awards ceremony was co-hosted by Bobby Flay and Kim Cattrall (of Sex and the City fame), who delivered the most memorable line of the evening (for me, anyway): “I like to cook myself.”  I heard a few snickers throughout the crowd.  Needless to say, there were numerous sushi jokes traded throughout the evening.

2008 James Beard Foundation Awards
2008 James Beard Awards

Although the awards are supposed highlight of the event, everybody knows that it’s the celebrity-gawking at the gala reception afterward, and especially the post-parties, that are the real sport of the evening. Pretty much everyone you could possibly want to meet in the food world was there.

I was especially heart-warmed to see Chef Grant Achatz of alinea, who, as everyone knows, has been battling squamous cell carcenoma, graciously accept this year’s award for Best Chef (there’s a great article about Achatz in the July issue of Food + Wine).  David Chang of momofuku fame (and fortune?) also delivered a wonderful acceptance speech, full of a humility that was motivated, I truly believe, by genuine shock, for the Best Chef New York Award.

Michelle Bernstein, chef of Michy’s, whom I find terribly cute and charming, was also a delightful winner to see take the stage for Best Chef Southeast.  And, the woman who (literally) sprinted down to the stage twice (I’m assuming the wife of) to accept the two cookbook awards given to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for his cookbook The River Cottage Meat Book, was most appreciated for helping to move the proceedings along quickly.

I was sorry that the red-haired ponytail and clogged wonder  wasn’t there to take the stage for a much deserved Best Restaurateur Award (I know you hate food bloggers, but I admire you anyway).  However, his partner, Joe Bastianich, who accepted the award on their behalf, looked great. I mean, GREAT; he had slimmed down quite a bit.  Go Joe!

Marc Vetri
Marc Vetri
Vetri, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

This year’s Gala Reception theme was “Artisanal America.”  It was fitting that Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Odessa Piper co-chaired this year’s Gala Reception.  They selected thirty chefs devoted to sustainable agriculture and artisanal producers to cook.  Each chef featured one of their favorite artisanal food producers in a composed dish. You can see the full menu here.

I got around to taste all but one or two of the chefs’ tables (*cringe*).

Bruce Sherman
Bruce Sherman
North Pond, Chicago

My two favorite tastes were Bruce Sherman’s (North Pond) Anise Hyssop and Goat Cheese Sorbets with Chive Shortbread Cookie, which was a world of unexpected flavors that exploded in my mouth; and Marc Vetri’s (Vetri Ristorante) Corzetti with Walnut Pesto, marjoram and Parmesan, a primal-quenching bite that made me want to crawl onto the tiny plate, tuck myself between the silky sheets of pasta, and fall asleep.  What is even more amazing is that Vetri’s team was making the pasta on site, cooking, and plating it all within an area half the size of my kitchen.

Other highlights included Alexandra Guarnaschelli’s (Butter) Salt-cured Local Foie Gras with warm strawberry-black pepper jam and arugula; and Scott Peacock’s (Watershed) Buttermilk Biscuit with sweet butter, country ham, and homemade Georgia strawberry preserves.

Alexandra Guarnaschelli
Alexandra Guarnaschelli
Butter, New York City

Guarnaschelli’s dish featured a little round of toast topped with a creamy nugget of foie gras encased in what appeared to be a sugar-glass dome.  At first bite, my teeth unexpectedly met a hard shell that, when shattered, released a gush of foie gras.  (In retrospect, I find my experience a little too hard to believe, as that is not the description of this dish, but I can’t help but remember it being that way.  Chef Guarnaschelli, if you’re out there, I’d love to know what, exactly, was going on with that dish.  Whatever it was, it was *magic.* )  The peppery strawberry jam was icing on the cake.

Scott Peacock
Scott Peacock, Buttermilk Biscuits & Sweet Butter
Watershed, Decatur, Georgia

Peacock’s tiny little biscuits were really just a vehicle for the best butter I’ve ever tasted.  Yes, the country ham from Riverview Farms was excellent, the biscuit, with its moist and tender crumb, was perfect, and the strawberry preserves tasted as red as its colour.  But, all of these extra pleasantries were realized only after the initial shock from the butter faded.

There was also a wonderful Finan Haddie Chowder, a creamy soup choc-a-bloc with diced potatoes and large flakes of smoked haddock, put out by Sam Hayward of Fore Street in Portland, Maine.  Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison’s (Bacchanalialightly-cured Georgia trout served on a bee pollen cracker with cured trout roe also caught my attention.

Other plates of note:

Alain Sailhac
Alain Sailhac, first Executive Chef of Le Cirque
modeling a Duck Slider

Cutest: Cindy Pawlcyn’s (Mustards Grill) Duck Sliders were wonderful, if not the cutest creations of the evening.  (Check out the little patties all lined up on the griddle.)  The bun was perfect, the patty was flavorful and juicy; it really was a delectable little taste.  She was also doing lamb sliders, which I didn’t get to circle back around for.

Messiest: Bill Telepan’s (Telepan): Scrapple with Soft Poached Egg: runny yolks + greasy scrapple + little plates + tight crowds + tuxes and gowns = DISASTER.  The fact that there were no adequate utensils was even more problematic.  The entire night, plates were either served with tiny metal spoons, much more appropriate for soups and sorbets, or with shallow wooden sporks.  I wish I had gotten a picture of these things: think tongue depressor with a shallow trowel with round bumps (as tines) at one end. Ay.

Ana Sortun
Ana Sortun, Green Garlic Pancakes
Oleana, Boston, Massachusetts

Inappropriately Sized: Michael Nischan’s (Dressing Room, A Homegrown Restaurant): Meatloaf with mashed potatoes.  This was a small meal.

Impractical: Nancy Silverton’s (mozza) whole artichoke heart on buricotta cheese.  Although I loved this dish, again, there were no adequate utentils with which to cut a whole artichoke heart, which ended up slipping and sliding around on a bed of squishy buricotta under the pressure of my tongue depressor.  The other dish Silverton prepared, burrata with leek vinaigrette (which was actually more like melted leeks dressed with vinaigrette) and bread crumbs, was much more feasible to eat.  Mark Sullivan’s (Spruce) soupy SMIP Ranch Vegeteble Pistou was equally as challenging; it should have been served in a bowl with spoons instead of a plate with dim-witted sporks.

Slowest Service: Maricel Presilla (Cucharamama): Presilla and her staff managed to annoy many an impatient and hungry party-goer by moving at the speed of molasses, plating one tamale per minute.  She and her team would have been kicked off of Top Chef in a heartbeat for pulling that kind of stunt.  That being said, the tamale was pretty good.

Eric Ziebold
Eric Ziebold
CityZen, Washington, D.C.

Dangerous: Eric Ziebold (CityZen): Tempura-fried softshell crab with green rhubarb gazpacho.  HOT and no utensils!!  I had to decide whether the enjoyment of a softshell crab immediately out of the fryer was worth burning my fingers for, or, whether I’d rather save my fingers and wait until the molted crustacean had cooled enough to handle, at which time, the golden lacey tempura shell would have gone soggy from soaking up the green rhubarb gazpacho (why he would serve it with something so wet, I have no idea).  Suffice it to say, my fingers hurt for the rest of the evening.  The things I do for good eats.

Least Favorite: Jaime Martin Del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu’s (La Casita de Mexicana): Mole in puff pastry.  Sadly, this was just thoroughly uninteresting. The puff pastry was sorta-kinda stale; after all, it was 90+ degrees and humid as all get out.

Cal Peternall
Cal Peternall
Chez Panisse Cafe, Berkeley, California

Simple and Classy: Toss up between Artisanal’s (as in Terrance Brennan’s world-famous cheese shop and brasserie) cheese board, which offered a selection of cheese ranging from Hoja Santa, a fresh goats milk cheese wrapped in Hoja Santa leaves (Texas), to the creamy and slightly sweet Rogue River Blue wrapped in grape leaves macerated in pear brandy (Oregon); and Cal Paternall’s (Chez Panisse Cafe) Spring Berry Sorbet with an accompanying basket of the sweetest wild strawberries I’ve tasted in ages.  Alice would approve; it as very Chez Panisse.

Melissa Kelly and Kathleen Blake
Melissa Kelly and Kathleen Blake
Primo Main, Rockland, Maine

Although most of the post-partiers descended upon the newly-opened Bar Boulud right across the street from Lincoln Center, I side-stepped that madness (if you want to read about it, and the ther after parties, head to Eater) and took up an invitation to the post-party at Eleven Madison Park, where I continued to stuff myself because the food was amazing: (this is from 12am memory, so some of this may be slightly wrong) house-made lamb sausage with fava beans and potato puree; butter-poached shrimp on melted leeks crostini; foie gras au torchon with apricot compote on brioche rounds; Four Story Hill chicken roulade with black truffles; and vegetable-stuffed bread.  Dom Perignon flowed like water.

It was an excessive night of eating and partying that I hope to repeat.  Congratulations to all of this year’s nominees and winners.  A big thanks to all the chefs who cooked for us; despite all my rants and nits, I couldn’t have done any of what you did.  Finally, to all of you artisanal food producers, keep it up; we all appreciate and need you!

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