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

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

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.

Many of those chefs have become household names through their own cooking shows or their own lines of packaged foods.

"The thing he hated most was having his name exploited," says Michael Batterberry, a friend of Beard and a judge at this year's awards. "In the early years of the foundation we didn't know if he would be applauding or spinning in his grave."

Whether or not Beard would have approved, this year's winners are more than happy to bask in the publicity - though some more than others.

For culinary icons like chef Charlie Palmer of Aureole and the Lenox Room, the award he took home as best chef in New York City doesn't amount to much more than a feather in his already-gilded toque. With or without awards, Mr. Palmer has far more business than he can handle.

But would Palmer try to spin the honor into a lucrative contract with the TV Food Network?

"I don't need a TV show," he says. "I'd rather spend my time cooking. We have to remember that we are cooks first and chefs second."

In the last seven years, a spate of cooking veterans have been taking home the coveted awards. "Now that all the icons are getting their awards, it will become more interesting and more fun," says Richman.

BUT outside culinary citadels like Manhattan or San Francisco, an award can indeed help propel a chef and a restaurant to the next level, as long as the winner hires the right public relations agency. These are the James Beard Awards, after all, and not the Oscars.

"I've noticed James Beard nominations, not just awards, being used in promotional materials in cities like Milwaukee and Miami," says Mr. Batterberry, who travels often as publisher of Food Arts, a glossy magazine for the upscale food-service industry.

Sanford D'Amato, winner of last year's best Midwestern chef award, says his reigning year has been his restaurant's most lucrative. "We started getting a lot more out-of-town visitors," says Mr. D'Amato. "Of course Milwaukee is still not the tourist destination we hope it will be."

The James Beard Awards began in 1990 after the foundation of the same name absorbed two prominent awards, the R.T. French Tastemaker Cookbook Awards and the Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America (previously administered by Cook's Magazine).

The Beard Foundation has expanded the awards since then, and now more than 60 awards are given in such diverse categories as best restaurant design and best radio show on food.

In the cookbook arena, the Beard Awards have some competition. The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), based in Louisville, Ky., doled out its Julia Child Cookbook Award on April 16.

Ms. Child, who is said to have once had a falling out with the Beard Foundation, received a standing ovation when she took the stage at this year's Beard Awards, where she was both a presenter and a winner - for her "Baking with Julia" program on PBS.

Both cookbook awards, which guarantee a nice emblem on cookbook jackets and a prominent display at the local bookstore, were born out of a schism between administrators of the Tastemaker Awards after the R.T. French Company ended its affiliation with those awards in the late '80s.

"They didn't agree with taking the awards out of New York City," says Daniel Maye, executive vice president of the IACP. "Of course we think our awards are better." When it comes to awards, most chefs agree more is not necessarily less. "You can never win too many awards," says Beard winner Palmer.

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