Five questions to ponder in the wake of the James Beard awards

FIG's Jason Stanhope celebrates an award.

Provided by FIG via James Beard Foundation

By Charleston standards, this year’s James Beard Foundation award ceremony was a rip-roaring success, since our very own Jason Stanhope boarded the flight home with a medal around his neck. But the event raised a few questions worth pondering once the afterglow of victory has faded:

The man who revolutionized Birmingham dining and helped catalyze the Southern restaurant renaissance was inducted into the foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in 2011, the third consecutive year in which Highlands Bar and Grill was nominated for the Outstanding Restaurant award. Four years later, Stitt’s flagship restaurant still hasn’t won the national prize. “Maybe this year was the first year that I felt like, ‘Yeah, we could take this. We could win this’,” Stitt told the Birmingham News on Tuesday. “I thought our odds were pretty good.”

Conventional wisdom held that Stitt would triumph over a field of four New York City restaurants, as a result of Northeastern voters’ conflicting loyalties. But Blue Hill at Stone Barns won out, bringing the city’s lifetime tally to 13 out of 28 Outstanding Restaurant medals awarded, according to Eater’s calculations.

As Eater’s Ryan Sutton pointed out in his wrap-up, the awards are still “a celebration of New York food.” That’s partly because the voting panel of hundreds includes every previous award recipient, so New York winners beget more New York winners.

Plus, New York is a more obvious dining destination than Alabama: If a San Franciscan travels across the country to eat, she’s far more likely to buy a ticket to LaGuardia than Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International. That same New York-centrism no doubt contributed to Sean Brock’s third consecutive loss in the Outstanding Chef category: The medal has never traveled south of Washington D.C.

So what’s to be done? The awards committee, which selects the semi-finalists from a field of names provided by voters and the dining public, includes representatives from each region. Perhaps the national awards should also be decided by a group of voters that’s geographically balanced. After all, it wasn’t just the South that got shafted: Los Angeles and Chicago chefs all lost too.

The bias described above works in both directions: Newly-minted Best Chef Northwest Blaine Wetzel’s restaurant, which can only be reached by ferry, is probably more of a draw for out-of-towners than Joule or The Whale Wins in Seattle.

Wetzel, who last year won Rising Star Chef, makes incredibly accomplished food. “Willows made me feel things I’d never felt about food before when I reviewed it in 2011,” noted Seattle Times’ Bethany Jean Clement. But it exists far outside of the worldly sphere that its competitors inhabit: Wetzel’s team doesn’t acknowledge its patrons so much as amaze them. The composed Nordic-style dishes are either timeless or static, depending on your perspective. And from where I sat (literally, alongside Clement’s predecessor Nancy Leson), the voters’ perspective didn’t exactly line up with the perspective of Pacific Northwest diners.

I get that there ought to be a national standard applied to restaurants. The greatest restaurants should impress someone from Boston as reliably as someone from Bellevue. But I’m always troubled by the requirement that voters only cast votes for restaurants in which they have eaten. There’s no corollary requirement saying voters should only vote against restaurants in which they have eaten.

So if you’ve eaten at Willows, but have never heard of Ox, it’s perfectly legal to back Wetzel for the Best Chef Northwest award. That’s about as fair as declaring a winner in a footrace without allowing four of the five competitors out of the starting blocks.

That voters like barbecue, obviously. But Franklin, like Wetzel, is an outlier. He doesn’t deal with service in the way that his fellow finalists do. Nor is he forced to innovate with what’s fresh at market that morning, or develop a lengthy repertoire of exceptional dishes. He smokes brisket, pork, sausage and turkey, and sells them from behind a counter.

To be clear, I’m in no way minimizing Franklin’s achievements. The question here is what’s meant by “chef.” If it has something to do with producing the platonic ideal of a specific food item, I hope Franklin’s win results in an onrush of nominations for taco slingers and deli men. But I think it’s more likely that the definition of “chef” is just messy, same as the definition of “wine program.”

There are plenty of wine drinkers who would argue that FIG and McCrady’s aren’t even home to the best wine programs in Charleston, let alone the country; they’d no doubt make a case for Charleston Grill, on the strength of its cellar and Rick Rubel’s presence. Personally, I’ve had wonderful wine experiences at both FIG and McCrady’s, but it would be helpful to restaurants and voters alike if the parameters were clearer.

Relocating the Beards to Chicago worked in almost every way: Attendees were happy for new exploring grounds, and the city was thrilled to welcome them. But complaints circulated about the venue, which isn’t quite as grand as Lincoln Center. The tasting party which immediately follows the award ceremony was unbearably crowded, and funneling guests down skinny corridors made it hard to mingle. With two more years of hosting ahead, it will be interesting to see how Chicago adjusts its Beards strategy.

Any guesses?