NEW YORK — When the first Emmys were handed out in 1949, a Los Angeles critic complained that the ceremony at the Hollywood Athletic Club looked like a Union City fish fry--"raggedly timed and boringly slow moving." That first year only six Emmys were awarded--and only 600 people attended.
The first James Beard Awards were presented in 1991--and things were a little different. Yes, it was raggedly timed: Most of the attendees could have done without emcee George Plimpton's jokes. (Example: Julia and Madonna were going to be co-presenters, but then they would have been Madonna and Child.) And it was a little slow-moving--too many songs, too many celebrities, too many speeches.
But 30 awards were handed out, 1,000 people attended and if the M.S. New Yorker, on which the ceremonies were held, had sunk, it would have taken American cooking along with it. Standing on the decks of the ship was the largest gathering of American chefs, restaurateurs, winemakers and cookbook authors ever assembled in one place.
"I came from Boston because this is the Oscars of the food world," said Lydia Shire (of Biba in Boston), waving a glass of Champagne and gesturing vaguely at the people who had come together for the James Beard Awards. "It's the one time you're guaranteed to see all your compatriots in one place."
She looked up and gave a little gasp. "There's Jean-Louis (Palladin, of Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington)," she said. "I respect him so much. To see him in the flesh is so exciting. And of course I'm really hoping that Jasper (White, of Jasper's in Boston) will win best regional chef in the Northeast. I'm his biggest fan."
What distinguished these particular awards from the Oscars or the Emmys or the Obies (besides the extraordinary food that was served) is that everybody seemed to be everybody else's biggest fan.
At the Oscar ceremonies, people thank their wives, their agents and the heads of the movie companies; at the James Beard Awards, chefs thanked each other. Jasper White did win in the Northeast--and he thanked Lydia Shire. When Stephan Pyles of Routh Street Cafe in Dallas won the Award as Best Chef in the Southwest, he thanked the two other nominees, Mark Miller of Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe and Robert Del Grande of Houston's Cafe Annie.
When the chefs weren't thanking each other, they seemed embarrassed about their will to win. Jean-Louis Palladin strolled up to accept the award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic, grinned broadly and said somewhat sheepishly, "I'm sorry for Bob (Kinkead of Twenty-One Federal) and Roberto (Donna of Galileo), but they're younger than me."
Not everybody was there to stand up and accept the accolades--and the no-shows often had unusual stand-ins. Imagine that Jeremy Irons hadn't been able to make it to the Academy Awards this year--and had asked loser Robert De Niro to accept in his stead. And that De Niro also came carrying Kevin Costner's speech, and was prepared to stand up and accept for him too. It's difficult to imagine that it could happen at the movies; it did actually happen at the James Beard Awards.
When Square One Restaurant in San Francisco was announced as the winner of the award for Outstanding Wine Service, loser Larry Stone of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago came forward to accept. "We're a tight-knit group," he said.
Later he admitted that he also had the acceptance speech of the other nominee, Jeff Prather of Seattle's Ray's Boathouse, in his pocket.
Like the Academy Awards, the Beard Awards are judged by professionals in the field. In this case the judges included the 120 members of the Who's Who of American Food and 100 food and wine journalists and cooking teachers selected by the James Beard Foundation. "You're being judged by your peers," said Alfred Portale of New York's Gotham Bar and Grill, "so it's really an honor to be nominated."
The James Beard Foundation (which was started by Julia Child in 1985) began by combining the three most prestigious food awards in the country--The Who's Who of American Cooking (started by Cook's magazine in 1984); the Food and Beverage Book Awards (started by the R.T. French Co. in 1966); and the James Beard Chef Awards, which were initiated by the Foundation in 1986. Then they got as much star power as they possibly could. "James Beard got his start in the theater," said Peter Kump, president of the foundation, "and this seemed like the perfect way to honor his memory."