The James Beard Foundation Awards seem to have a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. Two years ago, Nancy Silverton brought home Outstanding Chef while last year Jon & Vinny scored an award for Best Chef: West and Dahlia Narvaez won for Outstanding Pastry Chef. The city did very well in the finalist and nomination process, with plenty of solid choices across the board, but last night in Chicago, the city came home with nothing.
Meanwhile, major cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York all brought home the signature silver medals, with strong diversity and representation. So what gives? Why didn’t LA, which hosted the nominee announcement at A.O.C. last month, bring home any awards? There are a number of issues with this, but first let’s have Farley’s take on the situation:
Farley Elliott, Eater LA Senior Editor
Boy oh boy. In a year where more out-of-town chefs came to Los Angeles than ever to eat — they're even coming to Los Angeles to live and cook! — the voters for the James Beard Foundation Awards just couldn't get things together enough to give the city some shine anywhere in the cooking department.
No rising star chef (ahem, Miles Thompson at Michael’s), no best new restaurant, no outstanding baker. No Best Chef West, despite ten entrants in the category. Nothing. LA's own Kismet didn't even win for restaurant design, and the only locals who earned hardware were Evan Kleiman for her work at KCRW's Good Food and Suzanne Goin of the Lucques Group. They absolutely deserve the hall of fame honor, but it's hard with so much of the national culinary conversation revolving around Los Angeles right now to not expect something more.
But it's a big country, and others like San Francisco's Corey Lee have been waiting in the wings a long time themselves. And frankly this is a position Los Angeles has found itself in for decades, where (mostly) New Yorkers want to come and try our food, comment on our sunshine, and embrace our produce, but not leave much by way of awards behind.
And at the end of the day, that's okay, because while New York City will be lining up for Gjelina East (whenever it ends up opening), Angelenos will be spending the latter half of this year breezing into a table at April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman's Cat & Fiddle West approximation in Hollywood, or enjoying an elevated cocktail at Miami import Broken Shaker.
Come December you might look for a chicken burger to satisfy your night and find it at NoMad from New York, or make your way further into Downtown for a bite at SF's The Slanted Door extension. Dave Beran, Jessica Largey, Enrique Olvera; they're all coming, coming, coming. I guess in the end, we don't need awards — the rest of America showing up at our doorstep with a sheepish smile after all these years is enough.
Matthew Kang, Eater LA Editor
I took a long, silent drive home last night after bouncing around town for some food and drinks, celebrating Michael Hung’s new restaurant in Koreatown and walking around the historic, 100-year old confines of Yamashiro, with perfect vistas of the City of Angels.
I thought of sportswriter Bill Simmons, who took long walks with his dog after his Celtics lost to the Lakers in the 2010 NBA Finals (I was celebrating that year). Los Angeles had once again not come home with any James Beard Awards. The chefs and restaurateurs of this town raised a collective shrug and moved on, back to the kitchens, back to their menus, and back to the farmer’s markets that have some of the best produce anywhere.
The last few years I’d had the privilege of going to the awards ceremony in Chicago, representing Los Angeles and basically ready to start a fight with anyone in the media room if they disrespected our city. Los Angeles even hosted the nominee announcement at A.O.C. this year, which I’m sure didn’t come without some kind of cost. It was for naught.
That got me wondering: How do we fix this system? Is it the nomination process? Are we simply nominating the wrong people (I don’t think so). I think the biggest issue is the way that LA is forced to compete with San Diego, Las Vegas, and mostly San Francisco. Like the Academy Awards, whose voters skew heavily toward one particular demographic, the voters for the James Beards tend to be congregated in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York because they’re comprised mainly of previous winners. So it’s a system that feeds itself.
It’s not a full picture of the scapegoat though. California (along with Nevada and Hawaii) comprises over 39 million people (plus another 4 million or so if you throw in the other two states) and exists within the West section, but that’s a pretty broad and populated landscape. Los Angeles must compete with San Francisco, San Diego, Las Vegas, and Hawaii, while New York City has its own category — a city with nearly 9 million people (plus more in its suburbs). That’s not fair at all. Chicago, which lands in the Great Lakes section, basically competes on its own, with some occasional competition from Cleveland, Detroit, and other states. This year, all five nominees were from Chicago. Hm.
The easiest fix is this: Los Angeles, or at least Southern California, should have its own region. San Francisco should pair with Hawaii and Vegas (because Los Angeles simply has a greater population than San Francisco, so this evens it out population-wise). Last year, San Francisco didn’t win any awards, so we kind of get each other on this front. We shouldn’t have to fight anymore because we know this: The food in California would obliterate the food in any other state in the Union.
This way, Los Angeles should, in theory, come home with at least one award every year (unless San Diego decides it’s going to usurp us). I also had some issues with the “major” categories like Best New Restaurant, which sported two NYC restaurants (what a bias there) and Tartine Manufactory (which, let’s be honest, is basically République but in San Francisco). The Outstanding Restaurant winner came from a chef who basically thought he was going to bring the “true flavors” of regional Mexican food to Southern California.
It’s simply frustrating to see a city that many consider the best dining area in the country shut out from the industry’s biggest awards ceremony. It’s a weird feeling because this city knows we have the best food anywhere. Lucky Peach declared LA the best eating city in America, and yet we’re constantly looking for some outside validation. LA lacks a Michelin guide. We have no restaurants in the World’s 50 Best. Yet everyone still thinks we have the best food. Where’s the disconnect?
Here’s another feeling I have with the James Beards. It serves the higher end, chef-driven, PR-driven restaurants of big cities. The Foundation is happy to give Who’s Who or Classics awards to family-run places like Guelaguetza, which is certainly welcome. But I wonder if they could diversify the type of the restaurant that can win the award.
Why couldn’t a place like Baroo, with just three people working at the restaurant at any time, win? Why couldn’t a spot like SQIRL, with just breakfast and lunch service, bring home an award? I would be thrilled to see a place like Seongbukdong or Jun Won literally get nominated for a James Beard for Outstanding Restaurant (yes, for the entire country).
Why does every winner have to be a fancy, expensive, Michelin-style affair with pricey wine, white tablecloths, and high-end service? I understand why James Beard supports the highest section of the industry. But it would be cool if the mom and pop, approachable neighborhood restaurant could win something other than an America’s Classics award. After all, Los Angeles is full of them.