Food Oscars : Ruth Reichl’s report from the first James Beard Awards

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When the first Emmys were handed out in 1949, a Los Angeles critic complained that the ceremony at the Hollywood Athletic Club looked like a Union City fish fry--”raggedly timed and boringly slow moving.” That first year only six Emmys were awarded--and only 600 people attended.

The first James Beard Awards were presented in 1991--and things were a little different. Yes, it was raggedly timed: Most of the attendees could have done without emcee George Plimpton’s jokes. (Example: Julia and Madonna were going to be co-presenters, but then they would have been Madonna and Child.) And it was a little slow-moving--too many songs, too many celebrities, too many speeches.

But 30 awards were handed out, 1,000 people attended and if the M.S. New Yorker, on which the ceremonies were held, had sunk, it would have taken American cooking along with it. Standing on the decks of the ship was the largest gathering of American chefs, restaurateurs, winemakers and cookbook authors ever assembled in one place.


Humanitarian of the Year To Bill Shore, who started Share Our Strength in 1984, an organization of chefs dedicated to ending hunger.

May 16, 1991

“I came from Boston because this is the Oscars of the food world,” said Lydia Shire (of Biba in Boston), waving a glass of Champagne and gesturing vaguely at the people who had come together for the James Beard Awards. “It’s the one time you’re guaranteed to see all your compatriots in one place.”

She looked up and gave a little gasp. “There’s Jean-Louis (Palladin, of Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington),” she said. “I respect him so much. To see him in the flesh is so exciting. And of course I’m really hoping that Jasper (White, of Jasper’s in Boston) will win best regional chef in the Northeast. I’m his biggest fan.”

What distinguished these particular awards from the Oscars or the Emmys or the Obies (besides the extraordinary food that was served) is that everybody seemed to be everybody else’s biggest fan.

At the Oscar ceremonies, people thank their wives, their agents and the heads of the movie companies; at the James Beard Awards, chefs thanked each other. Jasper White did win in the Northeast--and he thanked Lydia Shire. When Stephan Pyles of Routh Street Cafe in Dallas won the Award as Best Chef in the Southwest, he thanked the two other nominees, Mark Miller of Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe and Robert Del Grande of Houston’s Cafe Annie.

When the chefs weren’t thanking each other, they seemed embarrassed about their will to win. Jean-Louis Palladin strolled up to accept the award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic, grinned broadly and said somewhat sheepishly, “I’m sorry for Bob (Kinkead of Twenty-One Federal) and Roberto (Donna of Galileo), but they’re younger than me.”

Not everybody was there to stand up and accept the accolades--and the no-shows often had unusual stand-ins. Imagine that Jeremy Irons hadn’t been able to make it to the Academy Awards this year--and had asked loser Robert De Niro to accept in his stead. And that De Niro also came carrying Kevin Costner’s speech, and was prepared to stand up and accept for him too. It’s difficult to imagine that it could happen at the movies; it did actually happen at the James Beard Awards.

When Square One Restaurant in San Francisco was announced as the winner of the award for Outstanding Wine Service, loser Larry Stone of Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago came forward to accept. “We’re a tight-knit group,” he said.


Later he admitted that he also had the acceptance speech of the other nominee, Jeff Prather of Seattle’s Ray’s Boathouse, in his pocket.

Like the Academy Awards, the Beard Awards are judged by professionals in the field. In this case the judges included the 120 members of the Who’s Who of American Food and 100 food and wine journalists and cooking teachers selected by the James Beard Foundation. “You’re being judged by your peers,” said Alfred Portale of New York’s Gotham Bar and Grill, “so it’s really an honor to be nominated.”

The James Beard Foundation (which was started by Julia Child in 1985) began by combining the three most prestigious food awards in the country--The Who’s Who of American Cooking (started by Cook’s magazine in 1984); the Food and Beverage Book Awards (started by the R.T. French Co. in 1966); and the James Beard Chef Awards, which were initiated by the Foundation in 1986. Then they got as much star power as they possibly could. “James Beard got his start in the theater,” said Peter Kump, president of the foundation, “and this seemed like the perfect way to honor his memory.”

Like every awards ceremony, this one had its moments of controversy. Madeleine Kamman, who was sitting in the front row, shuddered visibly when Nancy Silverton was awarded the prize for best pastry chef over Albert Kumin, the dean of American pastry. “Albert Kumin changed pastry in this country,” Larry Forgione of New York’s An American Place, said later. “His achievement should have been recognized. And if Chef of the Year was for career achievement,” he went on, “why wasn’t Andre Soltner (the legendary chef/owner of Lutece) nominated?” The answer seems to be that, unlike the conservative Academy Awards, the Beard Awards are centered on the food revolution that has swept America. Age was a factor--with the exception of the Lifetime Achievement Award, awarded to writer MFK Fisher, and the award that went to Robert Mondavi, all the awards went to people under 45. So it should come as no surprise that Chef of the Year went to America’s highest-profile young chef, Wolfgang Puck.

Overall, California made a very strong showing. All three nominees for best chef were Californians (Michel Richard and Joachim Splichal were the other two), as was Best Pastry Chef Silverton. Silverton bested New Yorkers Kumin and Jacques Torres of Le Cirque. Torres, who has already won France’s most prestigious cooking award, Meilleur Ouvrier de France, was anything but blase about the honor. “I was so excited when I was nominated,” he says, “that I immediately called my mother in France.”

And then he set to work. For the ceremonies themselves, Torres created an extraordinary display of desserts--tiny tiramisus, seductive cremes brulees and the most beautiful little marzipan cakes in the shape of Deco buildings. “I made 3,000 pastries,” he said. “I worked on them for a week. And then moving them onto the boat from the restaurant, the driver dropped eight cases.”


None of the 12 other chefs who catered the awards reception had such bad luck--but they all worked equally hard. And it showed: It is safe to say that no awards banquet anywhere has ever had such wonderful food. Representing all parts of the country, the combined offerings created a sort of sophisticated smorgasbord of American food that ranged from Pyles’ dried corn-habanero tart filled with crabmeat and black beans to Emeril Lagasse’s Louisiana crawfish etouffe to Bradley Ogden’s homey salt cod stew with polenta. The simplest presentation came from Wayne Ludvigson of Ray’s Boathouse in Seattle, who set up a miniature Market Place with fresh oysters, clams, scallops and chilled asparagus. The most elegant was probably from Charlie Trotter of Chicago, who offered smoked eel wrapped up in little crepes.

The awards ceremony lasted a couple of hours, the eating a couple more. The cookbook authors, winemakers, food writers and food fans ate their fill and went home. The chefs, however, were only starting the evening. By 2:30 in the morning, 50 of the best in the country had crowded into New York’s Chefs and Cuisiniers Club, doing what they do best. Eating.

While they ate, they speculated on next year’s awards. “Did you hear,” asked one, “next year the ceremony is going to be at Lincoln Center?”

These are recipes from awards nominees from throughout the country.


1 chicken leg-and-thigh quarter or 1 large breast half


2 small boiling potatoes, halved

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut in 1 1/2-inch lengths

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 to 4 canned chipotle chiles, seeded and thinly sliced

1/4 small onion, finely diced

4 large romaine lettuce leaves, sliced in 3/8-inch strips, plus several whole leaves for garnish

1 avocado, peeled and diced

1/4 cup oil

1 slice onion, broken into rings

Bring 2 cups water to boil in medium saucepan. Add chicken and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Skim off foam that rises as water returns to boil. Partially cover pan and simmer over medium heat 23 minutes for dark meat, 13 minutes for breast.

Cook potatoes and carrots in boiling, salted water to cover until just tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Rinse under cold water. Strip off potato skins, if desired, then cut potatoes and carrots in 3/8-inch dice. Place in large mixing bowl.


Skin and bone chicken. Tear meat in large shreds and add to potato mixture.

Skim off fat on top of broth, then measure 3 tablespoons broth into small bowl. Stir in vinegar, oregano and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Pour dressing over chicken mixture and add sliced chipotles and chopped onion. Stir, cover and let stand 45 minutes, refrigerated or at room temperature.

Shortly before serving, mix sliced lettuce and diced avocado into chicken mixture. Drizzle with oil and toss lightly. Season to taste with salt.

Line serving platter with whole romaine leaves and spoon on chicken mixture. Decorate with onion rings. Makes 4 servings.


1/3 cup water

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon grated tangerine zest

1/4 cup tangerine juice

1 tablespoon grated peeled ginger root

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 dried Scotch bonnet chile

1/4 teaspoon five-spice powder

4 quail

1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns

1 teaspoon dried green peppercorns

1 teaspoon pink peppercorns

3 to 4 cups peanut oil

Kosher salt

Combine water, soy sauce, tangerine zest and juice, ginger, garlic, sugar, chile and five-spice powder. Add quail and marinate 4 hours. Remove quail and pat dry.

Lightly toast peppercorns in dry skillet until fragrant. Coarsely grind peppercorns in spice mill.

Heat peanut oil to 375 degrees. Fry quail, skin side down, until mahogany color, about 5 minutes. Drain and cut in halves or quarters. Sprinkle with pepper mixture and kosher salt to taste. Makes 4 servings.



2 lemons

4 large fennel bulbs

Kosher salt

4 to 6 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1/2 cup Italian parsley leaves

6 to 8 tablespoons virgin olive oil

Cut 1 lemon in 4 to 6 wedges. Squeeze juice from second lemon. Set aside.

Cut off feathery leaves and fibrous stalks of fennel. Trim root end and discard. With sharp knife, cut fennel into paper-thin vertical slices.

Place 1/2 fennel in 4 to 6 individual salad bowls. Sprinkle with salt to taste, cover with layer of cheese shaved directly over salad with vegetable peeler and garnish with 1/2 parsley leaves. Repeat with remaining fennel, salt, cheese and parsley.

Drizzle salads with olive oil and lemon juice. Garnish each with lemon wedge. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: Fennel leaves may be reserved and used as fresh herb. Stalks are not tender enough to eat, but will lend delicate flavor and fragrance to homemade chicken stock.


1/4 cup olive oil

1 stalk celery, diced

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

1 large onion, diced

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 jalapeno chile, seeded and chopped

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 (3-ounce) piece prosciutto or pancetta, finely chopped

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 1/2 cups lentils

1 1/2 pounds imported spaghettini or linguine fini

1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut up

1 red onion, finely chopped

Heat olive oil in small heavy stockpot. Add celery, carrot, diced onion, garlic, chile, red pepper, prosciutto and kosher salt. Gently saute, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender and aromatic, 15 to 20 minutes.

Add lentils and 5 cups water, bring to boil and simmer until lentils are tender but not mushy and falling apart, 18 to 22 minutes. (Recipe may be prepared to this point and chilled in refrigerator until ready to use. Reheat sauce slowly over low heat.)


Bring 5 quarts salted water to boil in another large pot. When lentil sauce is hot, drop pasta in water and boil until al dente. Drain pasta, then add to sauce with butter. Toss pasta in sauce and serve topped with chopped red onion. Makes 6 servings.


12 ounces orecchiette pasta

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Dash red pepper flakes

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped or crushed

1/4 pound broccoli rabe, cleaned, trimmed of tough bottom stems and cut in 1-inch pieces

12 ounces tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced 1/2-inch

1 cup canned tomato puree

1/4 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese

Salt, pepper

Cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain.

Heat olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Add and saute red pepper flakes and garlic, but do not allow garlic to brown. Add broccoli rabe and allow to wilt and become tender.

Toss in diced tomatoes, tomato puree (add small amount water if too thick) and cooked pasta. Stir well, heating ingredients thoroughly. Sprinkle in pecorino Romano and salt and pepper to taste. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Canned tomatoes may be substituted for fresh.


1 sweet red pepper, cut julienne

1 sweet yellow pepper, cut julienne

1/2 pound daikon radish, peeled and cut julienne

2 tablespoons oil

1/2 pound cooked crab meat

Orange-Ginger Vinaigrette

2 bunches spinach, cleaned

1/2 cup toasted almonds

Pickled ginger

Saute peppers and radish in oil in large skillet until tender. Add crab and heat through.

Add dressing and bring to boil. Pour mixture over spinach in large bowl. Toss well. Place on plates and garnish with toasted almonds and pickled ginger. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Orange-Ginger Vinaigrette

1/4 cup orange juice

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 shallot, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped ginger root

6 tablespoons oil

1/2 teaspoon sambal oelek (ground chile paste)

Salt, pepper

Place orange juice, wine vinegar, garlic, shallot and ginger in small mixing bowl. Slowly add oil while whisking constantly to emulsify. Mix in sambal oelek. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 3/4 cup.

Note: Dressing will keep up to 2 weeks in refrigerator. Sambal oelek (ground fresh chile paste) is available in Asian markets.



2 1/2 pounds Japanese eggplants

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 tablespoon chopped ginger root

3 tablespoons dark soy sauce

2 1/2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Finely minced green onions

Sesame seeds

Cut each eggplant in quarters, then cut each quarter lengthwise in half.

Heat vegetable oil in skillet and saute garlic and ginger. Add eggplants to skillet and saute briefly.

Combine soy sauce, sugar and vinegar and stir into eggplant mixture. Cook about 35 minutes over medium heat until eggplant is very tender and most of sauce has cooked away.

Turn off heat and stir in sesame oil. Serve garnished with finely minced green onions and toasted sesame seeds. Makes about 3 cups.

Note: May be served on thin toasted slices of baguette.