Los Angeles is a city with conflicted feelings about the James Beard Foundation Awards. While a win undeniably offers national recognition to a city that has long been on the forefront of American dining, more often than not the decision-makers themselves behind the medals have decided to leave Los Angeles largely alone. This year LA came home with one James Beard, a well-deserved win from Caroline Styne of the Lucques Group for Outstanding Restaurateur. Here are some rapid reactions from Eater editors Matthew Kang and Farley Elliott.
The Bright Side of Life
It’s easy to see last night’s near-strikeout as yet another big miss for the city of Los Angeles on the national stage. LA has been held to one of fewer James Beard Foundation Awards in three of the past four years, while sister city San Francisco (to say nothing of New York City) continues to rack up medals. In a town without a World’s 50 Best Restaurants presence and no Michelin guide, it can feel demoralizing for fans and the kitchen and front of house talent themselves to not earn a bit more recognition among well-regarded media peers — especially when every restaurant group and chef from some other city is either dining here on vacation, or moving in entirely.
In years past, the argument would have followed that LA is a different kind of dining utopia, a place where Koreatown and Thai Town and East L.A. own the local conversation over larger, glossier restaurants in hipper parts of the city. I had dinner at a pop-up last night inside a San Pedro longshoreman’s diner, and the chef had never heard of Bestia before. It’s just that kind of big, messy, sprawling dining town sometimes.
And yet, despite feeling bummed out about LA’s continued lack of national dining media representation (can the NY Times ever actually get an LA neighborhood right?), I actually feel pretty heartened by what this city and it’s incredible culinary talent pool has been able to accomplish. The James Beard Foundation Awards see LA for what it is, at least on one level: an amazing city brimming with female talent at every level. Those who have managed to take home medals in the past decade have almost all been women, from Nancy Silverton and Sherry Yard in 2014 to Dahlia Narvaez and Suzanne Goin and, now, Caroline Styne.
Margarita Manzke will get her hardware eventually, and Kismet’s Sarah Hymanson and Sara Kramer have much more to give to (and receive from) this city as well. The majority of Los Angeles’s street vendors are women, and their pathway to vendor legalization is more clear than it ever has been before in the history of the city. Perhaps that’s the main thing the James Beard Foundation does manage to get right about Los Angeles year after year: This is a city where women rule. —Farley Elliott
A Win Is a Win and It’s Well Deserved
Caroline Styne has long deserved the award for Outstanding Restaurateur. Along with her partner and chef Suzanne Goin, who won her own James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in 2016, Styne has been opening and running some of LA’s best restaurants in AOC, Lucques, The Larders, and Tavern. They’re quality establishments with great wine, cocktails, and food, and LA should be proud to have brought home this award, especially against strong competition like Chicago’s Boka Restaurant Group. However, for many of the James Beard Award categories, it’s mostly about how many times a person gets nominated before they finally win, and Styne had been a frontrunner for years in this category. And it should be noted that AOC hosted last year’s JBFA finalists announcement.
What’s problematic about LA trying to win awards, and therefore, national recognition, is that the odds are stacked against us. The Best Chef: West category must be shared with all of California, plus Nevada and Hawaii. Meanwhile, cities like Boston, Chicago, and New York, have much less competition to deal with, and more often end up with James Beard awards in their cities.
Perhaps the solution is to split LA and SF to create a Northern California plus Hawaii region, then pair LA and San Diego with Las Vegas. It’s not elegant but it does a better job of bifurcating two regions in the Best Chef category so that long deserving chefs like Michael Cimarusti can finally earn a silver James Beard medal. In the last two years, San Francisco chefs took the award from a mostly LA chef field (Corey Lee of Benu won last year, and Dominique Crenn won this year). And while it was awesome to see both Felix and Kismet as finalists in the Best New Restaurant category, it’s entirely possible that visitors split their votes.
LA had plenty of nominations for the coveted Rising Star Chef, Best New Restaurant, and Outstanding Pastry Chef categories and it’ll only be time before the city lands one of them again. LA’s culinary gravity has expanded significantly in past years, and with everything from the already-opened Majordomo, Dialogue, Bavel, and Vespertine to impending restaurants from Mei Lin, Adam Perry Lang, Wes Avila, Jessica Koslow, and Jessica Largey mean that LA’s award dominance could only be a few years away. —Matthew Kang