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Friday, May 20, 2011

Maize, Blue and Beard

When I received word that I’d been cleared to attend the 2011 James Beard Awards, I had to sit down and compose myself.  Like the rest of you, I’ve been overspending my paychecks on good food and wine for the past fifteen years in the name of quality culinary experiences. For the better part of the 90’s, I studied the NYC Zagat Survey with the due diligence of a medical student studying for the MCAT. In the early 2000’s, I wined and dined my media clients based on the latest opening deemed fashionable by New York Magazine. I fancied myself a bon vivant, and quickly became the go-to girl in my social circles for advice, reservation, and night out suggestions on anything and everything food.  I obliged. Please, I relished the role.

In 2005, I took that act on the road, and began munching my way around the globe, slowly uncovering the world’s culinary canvases over the course of a few years—India, Vietnam, Peru, Thailand, Mexico, Spain, Zanzibar, Puerto Rico, France.  That’s when it hit me: I was a total novice.  New York had nothing on the world.  Returning to the States, some of my best meals taken from carts on nondescript streets that snaked along the Mekong Delta or no-name cafes that fronted tiny European village towns, I realized that a whole new food experience existed for me in my home city.

Fresh from the global table, I found myself craving some hard-to-find flavor palettes. I wanted a Pad Thai from Bangkok’s Khao San Road, a dosa from the tiny storefront outside of the Sunder Nagar community in New Delhi, a Brazilian feijoada, or just-caught green mussels from a pub in Wellington, New Zealand where I mistaken for Meadow Soprano (yes, really).  I couldn’t count on the latest trendy spot to deliver these delicacies or the emotional connections that accompanied them. I had to dig deeper. That’s when I began to really scratch the surface. Not only did I discover new restaurants, I discovered ethnic treasures, I discovered “joints,” and I discovered the responsible chefs. Promptly, I fell in love with many of them.

I just recently started to write about food, and more importantly, the interplay between food and travel.  When I found out that the theme at this year’s Beard Foundation Awards was “The Ultimate Melting Pot,” as cliché as that might be (especially since the awards take place in New York City), I just couldn’t help but smile.  Clichés aside, it makes sense. 

Still, I’m just a bystander to all of this James Beard noise.  So, while I know all of the players by sight, (or Food Network shows), for the most part, nobody knows me. Of course, this works in my favor. I won’t get lambasted like my old friend Alan Richman, or worshipped like Sam Sifton.  Well, yet.  Solely dependent on my taste buds, I’m still undeterred by popular vote (or $100,000 furnished by the makers of Glad). But what I do know is what I like to eat and drink, and I most certainly have a list of favorites. I was thrilled to find that many faces and places I adored were on the list of James Beard Award nominees. Heck, some I’ve even interviewed or reviewed.  Maybe, just maybe, I did know people, after all.

For the first time as a food writer, I donned a little black cocktail dress and my best Louis Vuitton stilettos, and with a tattered notebook sticking out of my evening bag and my iPhone charger as sexy accessories, I spent the better part of the day taking furious notes on the sights and sounds of this highly anticipated affair. I noticed that many of my fellow journalists brought their laptops to save them from the finger cramping and rapidly deteriorating visibility on their smart phone screen (hastened by beverages, of course), but felt confident with my note-taking decision.  I mean, really, what would I do with my laptop at the after-parties? 

I bypassed the green carpet of personalities, too shy to actually command a culinary passerby with the dexterity of an E! News reporter, and slipped into the press room at fabled Avery Fisher Hall.  The Meatball Shop (another review favorite) was catering the affair—succulent spicy meatballs, pillowy parmesan polenta—and as the show began, I took a look at my surroundings. Then, I caught my breath.  In the house was Drew Nieporent, Andrew Zimmern, Bobby Flay, Daniel Boulud, Dan Barber, Michelle Bernstein, Emeril, Floyd Cardoz, Tom Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Michael White, Ted Allen, Anne Burrell, Bobby Flay, Jose Garces, Duff Goldman, Marcus Samuelsson, Gabrielle Hamilton, Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio, Ming Tsai, and Traci Des Jardins, to name but a few.  Talk about name-dropping.  Gulp.

Though the music was cheesy, the introductions poorly scripted, and the speeches less than Oscar-polished, the James Beard Awards had me at hello. Overall, New York restaurateur Danny Meyer stole the night with a total of three Beards—outstanding restaurant award 
went to Eleven Madison Park, Angela Pinkerton for pastry chef at the same, and The Modern nabbed outstanding wine service award under the direction of Belinda Chang. But tying it all together for me was the Great Lakes region best chef winner (this includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio contenders). Drumroll, please…  Alex Young 
of University of Michigan favorite Zingerman's Roadhouse got the love. Standing up there, representing the Maize and the Blue, my maize and blue, he thanked the Foundation "for recognizing mac 'n cheese and fried chicken." And while I know I ate well in college (I gained way over fifteen pounds), I didn’t know that I ate that well.  Serving as a benchmark for how far I had come since my days in Michigan, both in food and in writing, it was the win that resonated most for me.

While the James Beard Avery Fisher Hall gala was touted as the main event, the 2011 book, broadcast and journalism awards were announced a few nights prior. Being a writer, I think it’s equally important to tip my notebook to those winners, winners I can only hope to emulate one day.  They include Amanda Hesser's Essential New York Times Cook Book, the LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold, Top Chef: Season 7, Twitter handle Ruth Bourdain in the new humor category, 60 Minutes' José Andrés segment with Anderson Cooper, Jordan Mackay and Rajat Parr’s book Secrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World's Top Wine Professionals, Benjamin Wallace’s New York magazine profile of Keith McNally, Grub Street New York, and the San Francisco Chronicle's food section. 

What a night, what an honor.  Man, I hope I get the nod again next year…

If you want to check out my Huffington Post coverage of the James Beard Awards, you can access that post here. Also check out my reviews of James Beard Award winners on my Restaurant Column and articles on The Huffington Post:

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