The foundation doles out its prestigious awards May 3 at a star-studded gala at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. As foodies everywhere know, they're the Oscars of the culinary world, arguably the highest honor handed out. Categories include outstanding chef, restaurant, pastry chef, restaurateur, wine service, best new restaurant and the career-making rising star chef of the year.
And of the 36 chefs and restaurants named as finalists in those seven marquee categories this year, exactly one is from Los Angeles: Suzanne Goin, of Lucques and Tavern, who is nominated for outstanding chef. By contrast, eight finalists are from New York City, and nine are from San Francisco.
It's easy to see why some in Los Angeles and Southern California feel overlooked. Though it is true that Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich took outstanding restaurateurs in 2008, that award honored the entirety of their extensive restaurant holdings, including the three Mozza properties in Los Angeles.
In fact, you have to go back to 2004 — when Valentino won for outstanding wine service — to find the last time a Southern California restaurant took a major category. The last time a Southern California chef won in a major category was in 2002, when Spago's Sherry Yard was named best pastry chef. Beyond that, the last time the region was singled out for outstanding restaurant was 2001, for Campanile, and the last time it won outstanding chef was 1998, when Wolfgang Puck was honored for Spago Beverly Hills.
Moreover, Southern California has not taken home top honors for rising star chef or best new restaurant since the inception of those award categories, in 1991 and 1995, respectively.
So is this a snub?
Gordon Ramsay, taking a break from shooting his new Fox show, "MasterChef," is among those lamenting L.A.'s failure to have a higher profile among these highest profile awards. He suggests that an East Coast bias is partly to blame.
"There's a lot of backslapping going on in New York," says the Michelin-starred chef, who oversees the restaurant Gordon Ramsay at the London in West Hollywood. He says L.A. should have had a much greater showing among the finalists, and ticked off a few examples — Providence and Melisse — as chefs and restaurants that deserved to be singled out in those top categories. "That's just ridiculous to be overlooked like that."
Campanile's Mark Peel echoes the sentiment — no one can prove it, of course — that the New York-based Beard Foundation tends to cater to the familiar. "It's hard to look at the finalists and not think that there is an East Coast leaning there," he said.
L.A.'s best odds for bringing home a medal this year might come in the best regional chef category for the Pacific Division, where Michael Cimarusti of Providence and Matt Molina of Osteria Mozza are among the five chefs in competition.
It's not just chefs and restaurants feeling the sting. Many of L.A.'s food elite says it's unconscionable that Evan Kleiman's beloved "Good Food," on KCRW has never, ever even been shortlisted for best radio show.
"I just find it bizarre. I certainly think we put out a quality product," Kleiman says. "It is such a disappointment. And now that I'm talking about it we'll probably never make the list."
Peel quips that reasonable minds might be able to disagree over chefs and restaurants but "there's no excuse for overlooking ‘Good Food.' "
The awards process works like this: Each fall, the Beard foundation issues a call to entry. "Anyone can nominate a restaurant, literally," says Los Angeles magazine restaurant critic Patric Kuh, who serves on the subcommittee overseeing restaurant and chef honors. Last year, more than 21,000 people participated in the online submissions.
The restaurant and chef awards subcommittee made up of food journalists, critics and authors sifts through the nominations, setting aside those that are ineligible or ridiculous "like the Hamburger Hamlet chef," said Brett Anderson, the restaurant critic at the New Orleans Times-Picayune who chairs the subcommittee.
The process leads to 20 semifinalists named in each category. That slate is then forwarded to a body of more than 500 people around the country made up of past James Beard winners, committee members and regional judges. That leads to a ballot of finalists. A final vote by that same body picks the winners.
Some critics say the voting process can be part of the problem, adding to the perception that some regions will always come out on top. Chefs who have won before, this line of thinking goes, are most likely to vote for the restaurants they know best, and those tend to be the ones from the same area.
Suzanne Tracht of Jar is also disappointed by the lack of L.A. chefs and restaurants in the key categories but says the blame might lie with those very same Southern California chefs and restaurants. "I think it's a matter of involvement. I think L.A. needs to be a little more involved in the James Beard Foundation and make more of a presence. It's simple: To be involved you have to get involved. There are so many fabulous restaurants that have been opened up, and I think there's a lot to be nominated in Los Angeles."
Kuh says there could be something to that. Kuh, who is also nominated for a James Beard media award for his restaurant reviews, said he could not discuss the internal workings of the chefs and restaurants committee, but he acknowledged that the public's nominations make all the difference.
"I am a big believer in the restaurants here in L.A. and the level of talent of the L.A. restaurants. Had they had more call to entries, had there been more [L.A. chefs and restaurants] represented in the call to entries they would have had a greater chance," Kuh says.
Anderson dismisses any talk of East Coast biases or conspiracies. He also says that though he does not have specific figures, "There was certainly no shortage of nominations from" Los Angeles.
It's anyone's guess who will take the honors this year. Ramsay says Goin richly deserves the James Beard award but added that such honorifics can be overrated.
"The biggest merit and the most prestigious award that Suzanne Goin will ever have in her life is a fully booked restaurant."