James Beard Award Semifinalists 2012 Announced…So What?
Yesterday was one of the most high profile days for the James Beard Foundation- the announcement of their 2012 James Beard Restaurant and Chef Award Semifinalists. According to JBF, these awards are “the highest honor for food and beverage professionals working in North America." Apparently loads of people feel the same, as their servers spent much of the day beyond capacity (I was only able to view the whole list late last night despite trying all day). While this award most certainly means a jump in both prestige and profits for the chefs and restaurants they honor, we’re wondering what this means for us, the eaters?
Having been to many of the establishments that received a nod on this year’s list I can wholeheartedly understand why they would be honored. Drink (Boston) and The Franklin Mortgage and Investment Co. (Philadelphia), two of the nominees for “Outstanding Bar Program" are indeed the two best bars I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking at. Both have very different styles but are perfectly suited to their respective cities with wonderful staff, artful execution of both classic and inventive drinks, and bang-out atmospheres. Similarly, for a person who doesn’t care too much about pastries or baking Maura Kilpatrick of Sofra and Joanne Chang of Flour (Boston’s representatives in the “Outstanding Pastry Chef" category), and their staff, have made me a believer.
That said, there are undoubtedly countless numbers of deserving establishments and professionals that have been left out. Whole categories routinely don’t make the cut- budget, ethnic, or “non-traditional" establishments for example (like food trucks, who in places like Austin are serving gourmet caliber food). Coffee isn’t its own category but wine is. Perhaps some of what I’m pointing out represents recent shifts in our country’s preferences, or maybe some would regard food trucks and coffee shops as too “trendy" to be taken seriously- if so I disagree. To me they both speak to a more accessible, affordable form of pleasure than have existed in the traditional dining architecture of our country. Casual eating establishments have existed for at least as long as their fancier (for most people “special occasion") counter parts (poorer people like to eat outside of home too) and cuisines not based in Europe or America have become a big part of the local culture around the United States. When I look at the James Beard list year after year I see tons of places I would love to eat at but probably won’t (because of money or the clientele/atmosphere just not being my thing). This is a matter of personal preferences, yes, and no one “Best of" list can please everyone, but as the James Beard Foundation’s mission is “to celebrate, nurture, and preserve America’s diverse culinary heritage and future" it’s interesting to consider these questions of inclusion and access.
Perhaps, then, a more important question is “Do they matter?" To restaurants, chefs, bars, bakeries, bartenders, eaters…do these things matter? Do they make us love (or hate) some places all the more? Would you spend your hard earned money at a place just because it received a James Beard Award, or would the fact that they had been honored mean they were probably already doing something right? Does a prestigious award change the character of a place or the quality of a chef’s food? I don’t know and I suspect the answers vary for each place and person. I just know that I’m excited by authenticity, humility, hospitality, and innovation- these qualities (that are hard to articulate but easier to experience) produce the kind of food and drink I live for, and if a Beard Award matters to the folks that receive them then great, but as one customer on the other side of the counter I ask “so what?"
What’s your take on Beard Awards? Send us an email at email@example.com or find me on Twitter @TheEsthete
Here is the full list of Beard Award 2012 semifinalists