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Prizes and Politics Spice Up James Beard Awards

They're among the most prestigious food honors, but they aren't without a dash of controversy

By Jay CheshesSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 1997


In spite of Billy Crystal's absence, the James Beard Awards are starting to seem more like their show-business cousins the Oscars.

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The food fanatics behind these most prestigious of culinary awards are giving out medallions, not just for great cooking, service, and cookbooks, but for humanitarianism as well.

Chefs as humanitarians, you ask?

Well, yes, Alice Waters, the famous founder of California cuisine, is indeed turning her culinary skills toward not just feeding heads of state, but also wards of the state - through a gardening program involving inmates at the San Francisco County Jail. She was honored as humanitarian of the year.

Ms. Waters, who also won an award for her vegetable cookbook, "Chez Panisse Vegetables," was one of several San Francisco Bay Area residents who took top culinary honors at the awards ceremony in New York City last week.

The best chef in the country according to the inheritors of James Beard - the patron of culinary arts who died in 1985 - is Thomas Keller, of the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., just across the Bay from three other award winners - Aqua, the restaurant where the best rising young chef, Michael Mina, presides; Fleur de Lys, where the best chef in California, Hubert Keller, holds court; and Rose Pistola, the best new restaurant in the country.

Judging from the last seven years the James Beard Foundation has been administering these awards, the best cooking in this country is a decidedly bicoastal affair. Seven of the eight best-chef awards have gone to either a Northeasterner or a Californian, as have six of the seven best-restaurant awards (this year's winner was New York's Union Square Cafe), and six of the seven rising-star chef awards.

"New York City has the best restaurants in the country. What can you do about that?" says Alan Richman, a food writer for GQ magazine, who won his fifth James Beard journalism award this year and serves on the committee that oversees the chefs awards.

"A few years ago people were saying it was Los Angeles. Now Chicago and San Francisco are coming up fast," says Mr. Richman, who has also won a National Magazine Award. He considers his Beard Awards to be "the greatest thing that ever happened to me professionally."

Whether Oscar-style lobbying for favor has anything to do with the award selection has been the subject of speculation since the awards began.

Some chefs contend that only those professional chefs who have cooked at Beard House - for which they often spend thousands of dollars - wind up taking home a medallion.

Last year's winner of the best-chef award, San Francisco's Jeremiah Tower, made a joke to that effect while presenting this year's best-chef award, and a Southwestern chef nominated this year was overheard making a similar barbed comment about the $4,000 it cost him for the honor.

Still other food professionals contend there's no time for any such concerted vying for favors.

"Our hours are so long. There's just no time for lobbying," says Tracy Nieporent, public relations manager for the restaurants of his brother, Beard Award-winning restaurateur Drew Nieporent, whose chain of restaurants racked up a triumvirate of awards in 1995.

Although friends of the late James Beard say he was a great nurturer of young talent, and the charter establishing the James Beard Foundation states as its purpose "to promote innovations in American cuisine and encourage careers of aspiring chefs," the current incarnation of the awards bearing his name mostly champion the established culinary stars.