Young and Hungry

D.C. Chefs/Restaurants Shut Out in 2009 Beard Awards

Did you hear that? Utter radio silence.

Y&H expected a cacophony of food blog and board commentary today following the announcement of the 2009 James Beard Awards for restaurants and chefs.  But after the D.C. area got the cold shoulder last night at the Beard ceremony in the Big Apple, there has been little hand-wringing about the snubs, aside from an implication of favoritism among judges (Don Rockwell), an honor-to-be-nominated pep talk (Michael Birchenall), and a straight-forward, just-the-facts-ma'am report (the Post's Joe Yonan, an award-winner himself this year).

What's missing? Arguments, fussing, and outraged commentary about the New York-orientation of this year's winners. However, if you study the 2009 winners, particularly national categories in which nominees come from all parts of the country, you'll find that New York chefs and restaurants won 8 out of 9 times.

WTF? I mean, WTF?

OK, yes, everyone who follows food in this country understands that NYC is still the epicenter of the known universe when it comes to dining. Just ask a New Yorker — or even someone who just writes for a New York publication — and they'll tell you.

This year's winners got me to thinking about the process behind the voting. On the foundation's Awards Policies and Procedures page, you can find this explanation under the Restaurant and Chef Awards:

Anyone can submit a chef or restaurant for consideration during the online open call for entries in the fall. (There is no entry fee.) Entries are tabulated by the independent accounting firm Lutz & Carr, and based on the results, the Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee produces a nominating ballot with up to 20 semifinalists in each category. This ballot is distributed online to more than 400 judges, who select the five official nominees in each category. The same judges then vote on these five nominees to choose the winners.

The judges include previous Restaurant and Chef Award winners, the Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee, 25 leading regional restaurant critics, food and wine editors, and culinary educators in each of the 10 regions. There are more than 400 judges nationwide.

In each category, the judges are looking for individuals whose contribution to their field is unique and long-lasting. The specific criteria change depending on the category...

How many of these 400 judges, you have to wonder, are based in New York City? Given that the panel includes previous winners and "food and wine editors," you have to think that a good percentage of them are. I called the Beard Foundation's PR folks to see if they could track down the list of judges, so that I could determine any NYC biases. I'm still waiting on that list and, if I get it, I'll pass along any findings.

As of right now, however, color me skeptical. I mean, if the majority of them are based in New York, then how often do they travel to cities outside of NYC to taste the food of the other nominees? Once? (If so, what if that one meal happens to be a dud, which happens even at the best of 'em.) More then once? (If so, who's footing the bill for all this travel and dining?) None? (If so, who the hell should care about these awards?)

So many questions, so few answers.

  • Mark Felt

    I appreciate your analysis - indeed, without more detailed information on the judging process and criteria, it would seem that any win by a non-NYC chef or restaurant is a virtual coup.

  • Michael Birchenall

    nice analysis ... during the Beard scandal a few years ago, Mario Batali made a statement that he votes on restaurants and chefs outside NYC that he does not know and restaurants he has not eaten in ... it's the nature of awards and there is probably no easy answer, no matter the system (even with the pep talk) ... you will always have 80 percent losers and that will leave many people unhappy, especially if you make the trip, entertain your posse, spend the big bucks, and fully expect to win

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