When Nancy Silverton was named Outstanding Chef of the year by the James Beard Foundation on Monday night, she floated onto the Lincoln Center stage in an edgy white jacket and sunglasses. It was fitting that when Southern California finally broke its long drought in receiving the industry's highest honor that it would be done in such an L.A. way.
For the last couple of years, Los Angeles chefs, though numerous among the semifinalists (the long list of 20 candidates for Best Chef West and the many national awards) and nominees (the five finalists), haven't managed to get one of those coveted giant James Beard medals.
Especially frustrating and something of a mystery, since if you ask almost any chef where he or she would like to eat most right now, it's Los Angeles.
But something else was going on Monday night.
It turned out to be an incredibly strong night for female chefs and restaurateurs, with women taking home four of the 10 regional Best Chef awards, something that would have seemed inconceivable even a few years ago: Naomi Pomeroy of Beast in Portland, Ore. (Best Chef: Northwest); April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig in New York (Best Chef: New York City); Sue Zemanick of Gautreau's in New Orleans (in a tie, shared the award for Best Chef: South); and Ashley Christensen of Poole's Downtown Diner in Raleigh, N.C. (Best Chef: Southeast).
Also, Boston's Barbara Lynch of Barbara Lynch Gruppo sashayed up to the podium to receive her award as Best Restaurateur. And longtime former Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard was inducted into the Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America.
And those are just the women who won last night. Among the five nominees for each award were, by my count, 15 more women, including Caroline Styne of Lucques, Tavern, et al, up for Best Restaurateur.
"I don't know how many years ago it was, maybe 20 years ago, [at one JBF awards ceremony] they had young women cooks and chefs dress up as can-can girls - as background to the awards ceremony," says Anne Rosenzweig, nominated as Best Chef NYC in years past for her now-closed iconic American restaurant Arcadia.
"I remember that year I was a presenter and I said something as I presented an award, I don't remember what it was for, I said I hope in the future women chefs will be getting awards and not dressed up as adjuncts to the main event. And now women are rock stars!"
Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema rushed up to me after the awards and shouted out, "Women rule!" For female chefs, this night has to be a great vindication after Time magazine's notorious November story "The Gods of Food" did not include a single female chef.
On this night, Silverton stood regal, the queen of them all, representing both the importance of women in professional kitchens and the bounty of excellent dining in Los Angeles at the moment.
This year, as in previous years, California had some strong contenders. As the regional chef awards were given, Best Chef West (which includes California, Nevada and Hawaii) was toward the end. And with two candidates from Los Angeles--Michael Cimarusti of Providence and the chef team of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal - went up against three from San Francisco. But lose we did, to San Francisco's Daniel Patterson of Coi.
The trouble with these awards, is that all the nominees are worthy of winning. Outside before the ceremony, I ran into Suzanne Goin of Lucques, up for several years in a row for that biggest award of them all, with her mother and her husband chef David Lentz of Hungry Cat in tow.
But this was Silverton's night. And one that was richly deserved.
"She's so generous with her time. She's always available, she's the ultimate mentor. She's trained so many people," says former Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl, a close friend of Silverton for many years.
"And she's also the ultimate great boss. She thinks of her team as her family. And her team includes anybody who's ever worked for her. She is queen Nancy, but she's earned it."
Thanking her team, especially chef Matt Molina and pastry chef Dahlia Narvaez, Silverton said that her main strength as a chef was picking very good people to work with her and if she inspires them, then she's doing her job.
She also let slip that she's 60 years old, and then turned around and scolded Mario Batali, master of ceremonies for the event and her business partner in the Mozza restaurants, that she hadn't gotten her medal yet.
Slipped over her head on a wide silver ribbon, it looked like the accessory her white jacket had been missing.
As the mostly restaurant industry crowd filed out of the David H. Koch Theater at the Lincoln Center, Silverton was surrounded by well-wishers. She stood, a column of calm, in the frenzy.