An air of mystery always surrounds the James Beard Foundation Awards, the food and beverage industry’s quirky annual awards gala. Now LA Weekly is starting to dig deeper, asking just how much campaigning a given restaurant needs to do in order to have a shot at taking home a medal.
The piece, published this morning, talks primarily to Piero Selvaggio, the longtime owner of Valentino in Santa Monica and two-time James Beard Foundation Award winner on the service and wine side, and Suzanne Tracht of Jar on Beverly Boulevard. Tracht has never won a James Beard Foundation Award herself, but does believe there is something to the notion of campaigning (and spending money) to get one.
At the heart of the Weekly’s argument is the James Beard House in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. It’s where a never-ending cavalcade of chef teams, many of them from faraway restaurants, come in to cook one-off dinners that, in turn, help fund the Foundation itself.
Selvaggio alleges that, despite a cost of many tens of thousands of dollars, accepting the offer of cooking at the James Beard House confers a kind of higher status for nomination committees when it comes time to vote. At least, that’s been the case historically, he argues:
“There is always the controversy that the Beard House hasn’t been really very friendly to Los Angeles considering the depth of restaurants and talent that is in Los Angeles. But let’s face it, until they moved to Chicago, they were very much a New York institution that was looking at their local boys. For many years, Beard House was basically featuring New York chefs and when it was time for their awards, three-fourths of the awards were given to restaurants in New York,” says Selvaggio.
Perhaps, the Weekly argues, though other media members in New York City remain more skeptical. There have been plenty of discussions over the years about the process of nominating restaurants, about which cities do or don’t deserve to be represented more fully, and about the perception (sometimes justified) of corruption within the organization. But with the full slate of weekly dinners that go down at the James Beard House, it seems to some a far cry to assume a leg up when it comes time to choose award winners.
Still, shining more light on the James Beard Foundation Awards and its internal machinations is always a good thing, particularly for an award that is so beloved within a certain echelon of restaurants nationally. With no Michelin Guide love in many of America’s biggest dining cities (including Los Angeles), plus the many issues with lists like the World’s 50 Best, national awards like the JBFAs carry weight — which means there’s bound to be some scrutiny involved.