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James Beard Awards: Behind the voting

March 19, 2013|By S. Irene Virbila
  • The 2013 James Beard Awards will be presented in May.
The 2013 James Beard Awards will be presented in May. (James Beard Foundation )

When the first ballot for the 2013 James Beard Foundation restaurant awards was published, Pete Wells, the restaurant critic for the New York Times, took exception in the Times’ Diner’s Journal blog. He felt that New York had been short-changed on the lists of 20 semifinalists for the various restaurant awards. (See the comments below the entry for a lively discussion.)

Now it’s L.A.’s turn to grouse. After all the official restaurant awards panelists had voted (there are 25 for each of 10 regions), plus the more than 300 previous James Beard restaurant and chef award winners, and 17 members of the restaurant and chef award subcommittee, Los Angeles, which was looking strong on the semifinalist lists, emerged from the first ballot without much to show in terms of finalists, especially in the national categories.

We had two restaurants (BierBeisl and Tar & Roses) in the new restaurant category; none on the final ballot. Of two semifinalists for outstanding bar program (the Varnish and Rivera), neither made the cut for finalist. Karen Hatfield of the Sycamore Kitchen didn’t make the leap onto the finalist ballot for outstanding pastry chef either. Too new?

I should mention that with Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle, I am co-chair of the West region, which as of this year includes California, Hawaii and Nevada. Our 25 panelists’ most important votes are in our own region, for best chef west, but any panelist from any region can vote in the national (and other regional categories) if they have actually eaten at the restaurant in question.

Now I know Los Angeles is high on food lovers’ wish lists of where to dine. Whenever I’ve interviewed a chef or wine professional outside California, I’ve heard first-hand lists of restaurants tried and/or saved for the next visit. We know plenty of folks from the food world are coming here specifically to eat. So what gives?

It could be that too many Los Angeles chefs ended up on the ballot and that the votes canceled each other out. If that theory holds, then in the best chef West category, in which three Bay Area chefs and one from Napa Valley are pitted against Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal, the two should have a good chance of winning.

In the outstanding restaurant category, which applies only to restaurants open 10 years or more, effectively limiting the field, Patina and Mélisse had been listed as semifinalists, but dropped off the finalist list.

As for outstanding chef, that usually goes to someone who has already won in their region. Nancy Silverton won best pastry chef in 1991, while Suzanne Goin won best chef Pacific in 2006. Both are viable candidates, but again, their votes could cancel each other out.

I could analyze each of the categories but don’t think it would get me very far. Voting from panelists outside the region reflects the cities and regions where they’ve traveled in the preceding year -- and it also reflects their assessment of the quality of the restaurants they’ve encountered around the country. And the best are no longer confined to New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle -- and Los Angeles. It’s a big country out there.

But that voting block of the more than 300 previous James Beard restaurant and chef award winners has a big influence too, not only about the cities where the winners work, but also where they travel, notably for big food and wine events. Also, it’s probably natural that votes would fall off for such venerable restaurants as Patina, Mélisse and even Providence, however excellent, since foodies and food professionals tend to want to try what’s new when they travel.

The voting pattern is going to be different every year. But I think, like those lying-through-their-teeth Oscar nominees always say, it’s an honor to be nominated.


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