Speeches are shorter and gowns less revealing, but the James Beard awards are strikingly similar to their show-business cousin: the Oscars.
The culinary world's big night always hosts its own share of luminaries. With actor John Ritter as emcee - and such household names as Wolfgang Puck, Jacques Pepin, and Martin Yan in attendance - last week's black-tie gala was no exception.
For 11 years, the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving America's culinary heritage, has toasted the country's brightest gastronomic stars.
James Beard, who died in 1985, was often hailed as "the father of American cooking." He wrote dozens of bestselling cookbooks, cooked on television before it was common, and ran a famous cooking school.
His Greenwich Village brownstone, the nation's only culinary historic landmark, is now home to the foundation and a lively gathering place for chefs. Because of the building's size, this year's ceremony was held in the grand ballroom of the New York Marriott Marquis.
A James Beard award, like an Academy Award for a movie actor, is the industry's highest honor. It can propel one's career in directions only dreamed of before. Funding for that new bistro might pour in, a cookbook contract could be clinched, or, at the very least, the reservation line at one's restaurant will start ringing off the hook.
But this year's winner of the Rising Star Chef of the Year award, young Galen Zamarra of New York's Bouley Bakery, is careful not to assume too much.
"I'm just going to keep doing what I've been doing," he says backstage, looking down to admire the bronze medallion around his neck, engraved with the image of James Beard.
Maggie Glezer, whose book "Artisan Baking Across America: The Breads, the Bakers, the Best Recipes," won the award for best book on baking, also takes the honor in stride. "All I know for sure is that I'll now have a few more adjectives in front of my name!" she exclaims, clearly thrilled.
And Jean-Marie Lacroix, who was awarded the Best Chef Mid-Atlantic award for his fine cooking at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia, waxes philosophical: "This just goes to show that you can never give up on your passion."
After the awards show, the real star of the evening takes center stage: the food. Of course, it's no ordinary dinner party. And those chefs in the kitchen know these aren't ordinary guests. They pull out all the stops.
Each restaurant chef has a team in whites plating dishes, many of which feature truffles, foie gras, caviar, and other delicacies.
Among those milling around at last week's party were culinary giant Wolfgang Puck and his wife, Barbara Lazaroff. Mr. Puck, whose Santa Monica restaurant "Chinois on Main" had been nominated for the Outstanding Restaurant award, was gracious about losing to another California hot spot, Campanile. "I am genuinely happy for them," he says.
"I'm also thrilled for Michael Romano," he adds, of the man who finally won Best Chef New York after having been nominated for the past five years. But most gratifying about the evening, Puck says, is "seeing the young talent emerge."
The evening may have been a time to salute young talent, but it's also a reunion for the old guard. In addition to Puck, Mr. Pepin, and Mr. Yan, former James Beard winners Charlie Trotter, Jeremiah Tower, Jasper White, Todd English, and many other seasoned professionals were so busy embracing one another and catching up that they almost went hungry.
"This is such a crazy, demanding business," explains Mr. White, chef and owner of the Summer Shack in Cambridge, Mass., which was nominated for Best New Restaurant in America, "because we've all been through the same struggles, we have so much in common."
All agree that the James Beard foundation has helped nurture that bond. "Without this institution," says Mr. Trotter, Chicago chef and cookbook author, "there would be a great void on the American culinary scene."
Or, as Tricia Johnson Reece, producer of the San Francisco TV cooking show "Bay Cafe" said in her acceptance speech for Best Local Television Cooking Show: "I want to thank James Beard up in his kitchen in the sky for being our strongest link."
Spicy Grilled Beef Salad
1 (1-pound) sirloin steak, about 3/4-inch thick
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup beef or chicken broth
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1/3 cup thinly sliced shallots, separated into rings
4 scallions, trimmed, sliced lengthwise in half, and cut into 1/2-inch lengths
2 serrano chiles, seeded and minced
1/2 cup mint leaves
Accompaniments (choose 2 or 3):
1 small cabbage, cored, cut into wedges, and separated into leaves
8 to 10 leaves leaf or Bibb lettuce
4 to 6 leaves Napa cabbage, cut crosswise into 1- to 2-inch slices
1 European cucumber, cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 or 3 scallions, trimmed and sliced lengthwise in half
Prepare a grill or preheat the broiler. Rub the meat with the black pepper. If grilling, place the meat 3 to 4 inches above the coals or flame; if broiling, place on the broiler pan about 3 inches below the element. Grill or broil until rare, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Very thinly slice meat across the grain.
In a medium saucepan, mix the broth, lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar together and bring to a boil over high heat. Toss in the meat and stir quickly to coat. Immediately remove from heat and transfer the meat and dressing to a large bowl. (Work quickly so the beef doesn't overcook.) Add the shallots, scallions, chiles, and mint and toss gently. Let stand while you arrange your choice of accompaniments on a platter.
And the winner is...
Sixty-four James Beard awards were given this year. The following are some winners in the categories of cookbooks and chefs/restaurants. For a complete list, visit www.jamesbeard.org.
Cookbook of the Year
"Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet," by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid
"The Good Egg," by Marie Simmons
Baking and Desserts
"Artisan Baking Across America," by Maggie Glezer
"Mexico One Plate at a Time," by Rick Bayless with JeanMarie Brownson and Deann Groen Bayless
Entertaining and Special Occasions
"Savor the Moment," by the Junior League of Boca Raton, Fla.
Patrick O'Connell, The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Va.
Campanile, Santa Monica, Calif.
Best New Restaurant
Alain Ducasse, New York
Rising Star Chef of the Year
Galen Zamarra, Bouley Bakery, New York
Outstanding Pastry Chef
Gale Gand, Tru, Chicago
Best Chef, California
Nancy Oakes, Boulevard restaurant,
Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic
The Four Seasons, Philadelphia
Best Chef, New York
Michael Romano, Union Square Cafe
Best Chef, Northeast
Ken Oringer, Clio restaurant, Boston
Best Chef, Northwest/Hawaii
Philippe Boulot, Heathman, Portland, Ore.
Best Chef, Southwest
Robert McGrath, Roaring Fork Restaurant, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Best Chef, Southeast
Frank Stitt, Highlands Bar & Grill, Birmingham, Ala.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor