James Beard Awards – Should we care?

James Beard Awards – Should we care?
Courtesy Media Bistro

Yesterday, the annual James Beard Awards were announced to the nation. I caught up this morning on the winners from Ireland through the Twitter stream. There were some Chicago winners and what seemed to be a positive “WOO HOO” from many regarding the awards and who FINALLY won from Chicago. First, congrats to Mindy Segal and Bruce Sherman for their respective wins. Also, the team at Next captured Best New Restaurant – I’ve been very lucky to dine, meet and write about them and the honor has been all mine – a win well deserved.

But, should Chicago really care about the James Beard Awards?

They recognize a select few chefs/restaurants and some winners have to wait through 7 nominations, Mindy Segal, to finally win. Bruce Sherman has had multiple nominations as did Carrie Nahabedian. Graham Elliot was nominated numerous times but never won. They only easy nominations and wins in recent years have been for the team at Alinea and Next, the genius so apparent you couldn’t help but give them the award. Yet, the chef of Next, Dave Beran, didn’t win for Rising Star Chef of the Year. Let me get this straight – a chef under 30 is nominated as one of the best in the country and doesn’t win but his restaurant wins the best new one to open in the last year? Yep, that math works out for me! Rising Star winner was from New York, shocking I know.

Many have argued that the awards are New York focused and they are. The other regional chef categories were introduced, I think, to keep the relevance alive to the nation. James Beard was rocked with scandal and potentially losing their influence nationally, only 8 years ago, when the Foundation was questioned on financial impropriety and if the awards would continue to exist!

In the end, I don’t think Chicago should care all that much. That award to Bruce Sherman, was for Best Chef Great Lakes – IL, IN, OH, MI are the eligible states. Um, there are other great lake states, plus an entire other region labeled Midwest. Our restaurants and scene are thriving. The openings are fast, furious and forcing the “older” guard to keep pace or be forgotten. We’ve never accepted or wanted a NY based restaurant here so who cares about James Beard. John Mariani, even predicted Next would win because of their PR machine – they don’t employ a PR company. Chicago is completely misunderstood and regarded as having a “stockyard palate.”

I’ve been trying to think of a good analogy to put this in to context for the non-foodie crazed. Imagine three siblings each trying to get the attention and love of their father, the James Beard Awards. The oldest son is the first born and while very successful, isn’t exactly creating anything new but is the standard to be measured by, New York. The middle child, a daughter, is very pretty and with a bit of slight of hand can appear to be doing great things but perhaps the only ones who truly care are her local friends, West Coast – LA and San Fran. For a long time they were the only children and the eldest could have cared less what his sister did. Then along came the youngest sibling, perhaps from James Beard’s second wife – ironic I know, who has been successful quickly and often. Reshaping and innovating with everyone noticing and silently copying them without admitting it – Chicago. James Beard gives out that – “I’m proud of you for graduating magna cum laude,” 7 years after the actual college graduation, Mindy and Bruce’s win – or has to say over the family dinner table, “That Facebook IPO is something special, what took you so long?” – Next winning Best New Restaurant and still not getting all the love.

It seems the Beard awards have been hyped in to relevance by some of the local media who use them as a catalyst to get more national jobs. By them, writing, tweeting and televising the winner’s reactions, some are forced to think this is SOOO AMAZING! They describe the Beard Awards as the “Oscars” of food, while it is glamorous; the Oscar’s don’t break out awards in to sub-categories to make everyone happy. “Best actor in a teen vampire drama???”

Everyone likes to be noticed and recognized, it’s only human nature. Chicago has been described as a “City of Broad Shoulders.” We can weather the snubs and still carry on. We know our dining and food culture is vibrant, evolving and relevant even if on the biggest stage it isn’t admitted. Humbly, we watch those in New York mimic and comment about our accomplishments with our knowing smile. We know they’re jealous of our ability to have a profitable business without charging a fortune for dinner. Our product is just as good and potentially better available thanks to proximity. Chicago is a city they all wish they could open in but knows we don’t let just any one in to our embrace. We don’t need James Beard to tell us we’re winners. After all it was perhaps best said by Groucho Marx, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.”

Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at chicagofoodsnob@hotmail.com. Joe also contributes to Eater.com Chicago and mydailyfindchicago.com

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