Young and Hungry

Michael Birchenall Takes Exception to Y&H’s RAMMY Rant

Well, actually, Birchenall takes exception to part of my RAMMY Awards rant, in which I bitched and moaned about the crowded, tuxedoed sweat-shop ambiance of this year's event. Specifically, the editor and publisher of Foodservice Monthly wonders if I understand that this ceremony is not catering to me, the media, or the public.

Writes Birchenall in his Sauce on the Side column:

My issue with Tim's assessment of the evening...is that I'm not sure he understands why we were there ... or even why he was there. He used words and phrases like "ostentatious," highly insular," "inner sanctum," "frivolousness on its own tuxedoed sleeve." The evening was not for Tim. It was not for the media. It was not for the general public. This evening was for the benefit of a single group of professionals – members of the Association. It's a chance for the member restaurants and their staffs to get dressed up ... bring their significant others if they like, enjoy the evening with their friends and peers and celebrate the industry, the nominees and of course, the winners.

Tim calls it a problem that RAMMYS are given out for things like Restaurant Manager of the Year, Employee of the Year, Associate Member of the Year or Hottest Restaurant Bar Scene. Some of the fun awards are sent out for a public vote: bar scene, power spot, neighborhood gathering place. Not that the crew at the City Paper can't have a little fun with their ‘best of" awards with such categories as "Best Place to Go at 2 a.m. When There's Still a G-D Line at Ben's."

So what's wrong with some public vote awards. It's not like we're handing out the Nobel Prizes.

But what I really don't understand is the problem with the manager and employee awards. What's wrong with recognizing beyond the celebrity chefs who garner all the attention? Staff is who makes restaurants what they are ... it's not all chefs and owners. It's the people who work so hard every day to make a living in the hospitality field. If I had my way (like I said I'm not on the Gala committee) there would be awards for host staff, bussers, dishwashers, line cooks, banquet chefs, customers – for every person who contributes to a restaurant's success. Remember this is an Association Gala where non-members are welcome, but please be aware, this is about us. Having visited the podium the year before, I have seen it work ... the din low enough to be heard without distraction and the celebration keen enough to keep the guests and media happy.

Now, I have no problem with Birchenall coming after me. It's part of the business of having a professional opinion. People often take exception to it. I'm a big boy. I can take it. Plus, I think Birchenall's column, like my original rant, helps keep this conversation in the public sphere, which is good. The RAMMY ceremonies desperately need an overhaul, judging by this year's event.

What I do take exception to is the notion that the RAMMYs are just an industry/association event. Yes, the ballroom is stuffed to the gills with association members/restaurant employees and their friends and spouses, but the RAMMY Awards are not confined to any one ballroom. The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington actively reaches out to the media to cover the ceremony; it obviously wants the media — and the public that reads these media outlets — to take the awards seriously and, on some level, to embrace them as an annual coronation for the District's best chefs and restaurants.

Even more to the point, restaurants and chefs use these awards as marketing tools. They note their awards on Web sites and with certificates hanging on their restaurant walls. The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington cannot have it both ways: It can't say the RAMMYS are just an industry/association event, and therefore immune to criticism from a media that are outside the industry, and then turn around and ask an independent media to spread the word so that readers view the RAMMYs as a legitimate part of the larger restaurant and dining community.

If the RAMMYs just want to be a self-contained association event, then fine. I'll leave them alone and turn my attention elsewhere. But if they want an independent journalist to cover it for — and spoon-feed their award winners to — City Paper readers, then they are open to criticism at the same time. If June's ceremony was a yardstick by which to measure the event (and it may not be, if the stories I hear from previous years are correct), the RAMMYs just come off as so, well, insular. And disorganized. And, yes, unprofessional.

As a journalist, I have to decide daily what's worthy of coverage. After the last ceremony, I wanted to write the whole thing off and never attend again. But that's rather petty, I thought, so instead I tried to offer a few suggestions, based on many years of attending ceremonies large and small, that might make the event reflect the quality of the chefs and managers and employees who feed us every day on the scene. I wasn't, contrary to what Birchenall wrote, advocating that anyone ditch the awards to the behind-the-scenes workers. In fact, I agree with Birchenall: Let's acknowledge more of the staffers who work the front and back of the house.

But here's the thing: You can't treat every award presentation equally. Does anyone really think the audience at the RAMMYs — even the biggest industry brown-noser — cares as much about the Employee of the Year award as they do the Chef of the Year? Ceremony organizers need to acknowledge this simple fact: Streamline the lesser awards into a quick presentation. Spend more time on the major awards. Such a move would quicken the pace of the event and show some proper perspective on the industry as a whole.

The RAMMYs are not the James Beard Awards, and never will be. They can, however, adopt the professionalism of the Beard Awards. But to reach that level, they need to get their house in order at the RAMMYs. This event, after all, is the most public thing the organization does all year. If this comes across as amateurish, it's only natural that journalists will not bother covering it.

I called Birchenall this morning to talk about his column and our mutual takes on the RAMMYs. We actually share a number of criticisms about the RAMMYs. So I suggested that he and I work on an open letter to the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington with our thoughts on how to improve the event. He supported the idea.

We'll publish the letter as soon as we finish it.

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