Cafe Society

Beard House Blues

So, yeah….As has already been announced, I tanked it at the James Beard Awards. Didn’t win, lost it in the clutch, came home empty-handed (again…).

But you know what? That’s cool for a couple of different reasons. For one, it was just an honor to be nominated and blah blah blah… I know everyone who loses feels compelled to say that kind of thing, both to make themselves feel better and also all those people who were holding out hope that, against all odds, said nominee would be able to pull it off by some freaky, eleventh-hour miracle or freakish breakdown in the envelope-stuffing process. But in my case? Well, it’s actually a little bit true.

See, the James Beard Foundation journalism awards have never been the hottest ticket in town. They have generally been…how to put this gently? Okay, imagine every bad stereotype of a food writer you can imagine -- from the pissy, half-cocked ex-chef to the bookish little shrew sitting at her crowded desk, pouring over dusty historical volumes to assemble a cookbook dedicated to the cuisine of turn-of-the-last-century fur trappers, to the ascot-wearing fop surrounded by sycophantic screws all gushing about the tasting menu at Ducasse. Now imagine taking about a hundred of them and cramming them all together into a too-small hotel ballroom in Midtown Manhattan on a hot summer night, forcing said writers (who are, generally speaking, not the most social creatures on the planet) to mingle with each other in a cocktail party atmosphere; giving them just enough time to cross paths with someone they know, but can’t stand, someone they hate but have to pretend to like and someone they’ve loathed for years and aren’t afraid of taking a swing at publicly; ubricate generously with alcohol and then force them all to sit down together and try to eat a banquet dinner while waiting anxiously to hear whether or not they’ve won their category.

I’ve been to three of these things now. I won once and lost twice. It’s never been what I’d call a rockin’ good time. I’ve heard that the chef awards (held a couple of nights later) are a different scene entirely -- an event that plays out like a cross between a foreign correspondents lunch at the Paris embassy and a particularly well-attended trade show gone sideways on champagne cocktails and laughing gas.

This year, though, the good people of the Beard House decided to lend a little class to the otherwise fairly cliquish and uncomfortable journalists event by making it an all-media affair, inviting the TV people and radio people to the party, classing it up with a few glossy names. In order to make room for these people, they had to cut and combine a number of the awards. Thus, the Restaurant Criticism award (the one for which I was nominated and which used to put me up against just my contemporaries at the newspapers) was enlarged to include all print critics. Newspaper, magazine, local, national, what-have-you. Anyone who had a word to say critically about restaurants anywhere was in the same race. And when it all shook out, it came down to Colman Andrews from Gourmet magazine in New York, Brad A. Johnson from Angeleno magazine in Los Angeles and little ol’ me from little ol’ Westword in Denver. Perhaps you’ll notice that I am the only one on that list of three who works for a newspaper. New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, L.A. Times, whatever that paper in Chicago is called—no. Just me, just the ‘Word, just Denver.

So I had that going for me. No matter what happened, I was already the best (in the eyes of the Beard Foundation) when it came to newspapers. Not only that, but my competition? Come on… Colman is one of those guys who, when you’re talking about food writing, probably invented whatever you’re talking about. He’s been in the game for decades, is an institution, and still knows how to turn a wicked phrase. And Brad? Well that boy can seriously write. I honestly did not know his name before I saw that I was nominated alongside him, but have since become a fan. He won, he deserved it, no hard feelings at all. Plus, he was very gracious when I went and congratulated him later that evening, which counts for a lot in my book. Had he been a dick about it, pretended he didn’t know who I was, blown me off (all of which has happened to me before at these things) I would be saying different things here, but he didn’t. Class act all the way.

Also, the event itself was just a lot cooler this year. The service staff had an easy hand with the booze, just pouring and pouring and pouring, which led to everyone being a lot friendlier than in years past. I ended up being seated with a nominated TV producer (who lost to Tom Colicchio, Ted Allen and the crew from Top Chef and then left immediately after for a dinner date uptown); Katy McLaughlin and her posse from the Wall Street Journal, and Katy won the Newspaper Feature Writing With Recipes award to much raucous applause from our table; and Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva (in photo at top) -- the Kitchen Sisters from the NPR show Hidden Kitchens.

Come to find out, the Sisters and I ended up having quite a lot in common. For one, we both lost our respective categories (and nothing can bring strangers together faster than trying to drink away the sting of losing). For two, the Sisters had written one of my favorite pieces of a couple years back, “An Unexpected Kitchen,” which was reprinted in the 2006 edition of Best Food Writing: a long and incredibly well-written investigation into homeless people at shelters who use George Foreman Grills to produce some fairly incredible meals. It was a lovely bit of writing, a great example of the power of investigative reporting and should be taught to students who think that all food writing is fancy dinners and tuxedoes.

And once I was done gushing to them about their work, it came up (thanks to my lovely wife, Laura, who is just slightly more social than I am and capable of holding a conversation with strangers without embarrassing herself or spilling drinks all over them) that I’d written something that they’d loved: the bit I did for This I Believe on NPR dealing with my obsessive love for barbecue. Come to find, they’d read my piece in San Francisco at a book-tour event at the public library for a thousand people and were planning on reading it again the next day at the Big Apple Barbecue Festival in Madison Square Park in Manhattan. The only problem? They didn’t have a copy of it with them, and I was only too happy to oblige…

Another interesting coincidence: the final course of the night’s meal was being prepared by none other than Keegan Gerhard, who was listed in the night’s program as having come from D Bar Desserts in none other than Denver, Colorado. And though I have never had the highest opinion of Gerhard -- seeing him primarily as a Food Network shill and all-purpose host for any show or competition they can shoehorn him into -- I gotta tell you that the dessert he did (smoked wild chocolate and cherries, one that I want to see again on the board at D Bar as soon as possible) was the one truly killer plate of the night. Matter of fact, since the TV producer and his date had bailed early, I ate theirs, too -- shamelessly and with gusto.

I was a loser, after all. Who did I have to impress?

So in the end, it was actually a pretty good time. And as the event was wrapping up (with Ruth Reichl being rushed out to her town car, the Top Chef gang being whisked out a secret side exit and me finally getting a chance to pass a few words with Brett Anderson from the Times Picayune in New Orleans, who I like and respect more than just about any other newspaper food writer out there and who wins awards by the fistful every year for being as good as he is) I was already over my grief at losing. Laura and I briefly considered ducking back into Jimmy’s (the boxing-themed local bar across the street from the hotel where we’d lifted a couple of pre-party drinks with my buddy East Coast Dave, and which would’ve been cool as hell if not for the fact that it was full to the rafters with complete Manhattan douchebags engaging in all manner of annoying Manhattan douchebaggery), but thought better of it at the last minute, took a quick walk around Times Square and then, back to business as usual, got down to the serious work of trying to find something to eat in the city that never sleeps. -- Jason Sheehan