My Night at the Beard Awards

originally published summer 2004

James Beard Foundation 2004 Nominee Newspaper Feature Writing

James Beard considered fresh, local foodstuffs a birthright and fundamental to good eating. “The triumph of cooking,” he wrote,” is to be able to produce the simple things so that they taste as they were meant to.” The big man might have called it “delicious irony” that the long weekend of celebration in his name took place in a town where fresh and local usually means Chinese takeout from the place on the corner, and the $500 tasting menu constitutes the triumph of cooking.

That celebration was the 2004 James Beard Foundation Awards in May, and it spanned a handful of Manhattan nights filled with congratulatory talk, well-dressed people, free-flowing Champagne, and, of course, food. While some of that food might’ve fallen short of Beard’s triumphant standard, I don’t think it would’ve kept him from enjoying it.

“He loved to eat,” Beard’s childhood friend Mary Hamblett told me once, “plain food, fancy food, anything as long as it was good.”

Well, so do I. I went to New York because I’d been nominated for a Beard journalism award (for Yeast of Burden, WW, January 2003…I didn’t win), but I planned to do some serious eating, too. The Beard events promised plenty of opportunities to sample from name-brand chefs

The flavors of Latin America was theme for the food at the Beard events, and the journalism awards dinner narrowed the focus to the Caribbean. Appetizers included hearts of palm wrapped in ham and coconut beef carpaccio on crispy fried plantains. The little cones of avocado ice cream flavored with chili probably seemed like a good idea, but they sent me looking for something to get the taste out of my mouth. A shrimp and lobster cocktail with roasted tomato and pickled jalapeno did the trick, and the passion fruit gelee hidden at the bottom was a nice surprise. Subsequent courses of guava cured snapper and cumin rubbed skirt steak were good, but the the meringue served for dessert, a strangely tasteless mound of fluff in a chalky red bean sauce, left me wishing for a banana.

The Chefs’ Night Out party sponsored by Bon Appetit magazine at the new Time Warner building offered the most promise for cutting edge food. High profile chefs Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Masa Takayama, and Gray Kuntz have restaurants in what’s basically a very high-priced food court in an equally upscale mall. Kuntz, whose Cafe Kuntz was still under construction, made an effort with scallop ceviche, foie gras pate, and Vietnamese-stlye lettuce wrapped beef. The V Steakhouse apparently offered some kind of meat, but the crush at the door made it impossible to get any. Keller’s Per Se, recently reopened after a nasty kitchen fire, took the clever but easy route with truffled popcorn. Very tasty, but disappointing given the hype.

The chef and restaurant awards gala, often called the “Oscars of the food world,” lived up to the comparison by going on and on. I slipped away before the last awards were announced and headed straight for the food, set up in an adjacent ballroom. Ahead of the crowd, I worked the scattered tables representing the work of nearly 40 guest chefs from across the Americas. I managed to try salt cod pasteles with coconut sofrito, foie gras escabeche with mashed boniato and quince paste, arepa chips with chicken and avocado, yuca rellenos with scallops, Argentinian blood sausage, Brazilian feijoada, Columbia arepas, Oaxacan moles, at least two variations of Cuban whole roasted pig, Mexican cabrito flavored with achiote, and Peruvian potato cakes filled with fresh water prawns before small-plate gridlock set in.

This was seriously good food, but the best meals I ate in New York weren’t part of the Beard festivities. New York has the most diverse collection of ethnic restaurants on the planet, so I’d asked my online friends from eGullet, the food discussion web site, to set up lunch at one of them. At Kang Suh, a midtown Korean restaurant, we ate dishes I’d never seen in Portland. Tteokbokki combines different shaped rice cakes and noodles thick as your finger in a brick red sauce spiked with the hot red pepper paste called gochujang. The Korean version of the scallion pancake includes oysters and the fiery pickled cabbage called kim chee; yuke is raw beef mixed with Asian pear and more of the gochujang. We tossed thin slices of short rib on the table’s built-in grill, than wrapped them in lettuce leaves with shredded scallion, a fermented bean paste called saemjang, and whole cloves of raw garlic.

And I ate with old friends in a little trattoria in Brooklyn that would’ve fit right in here in Portland. At Locanda Vini e Olii we ate fresh fava beans tossed with cubes of pecorino cheese and olive oil, Venetian-style fresh sardines in saor, and fresh pastas made with chestnut flour or flavored with wild dill. The use of seasonal produce in simple preparations that tasted “as they were meant to” reflected Beard’s philosophy more than frozen avocado ever could. I felt like I was back home.