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Too Old to Be a James Beard Rising Star

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nominated for the James Beard rising star award for the second time in a row, Octavio Becerra of Pinot Bistro in Studio City and Downtown’s Cafe Pinot thought his chances for winning were pretty good this year. Instead, he got dropped from the competition.

After the nominations had been announced and the ballots sent out, the restaurant awards committee, a 15-member panel of food and wine journalists from across the country, discovered Becerra was too old. To be eligible for the rising star award, a chef must not be older than 30 at the time of the nomination--Becerra is 31.

“He told us he was 29,” says program director Melanie Young. “We had three people call to verify his age because we are so paranoid about it.”

But Becerra flatly denies he lied about his age. “I don’t know where they got the information,” he says. “They certainly didn’t talk to me. I didn’t even know there was an age requirement. . . . It seems a bit silly. You could be a rising star without having to be young. Maybe they should have a rising star over-the-hill chef award.”

Not surprisingly, the Beard committee wanted to hush up the gaffe. One member says when the awards were finished, someone raised the question of Becerra’s being too old and that committee chair Bill Rice responded, “We are not even going to discuss this among ourselves.”

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“I have no recollection of saying that,” says Rice, a food and wine columnist for the Chicago Tribune. “I never made any move to squash anything.”

According to Young, next year’s fact-checking will require star chef nominees to show proof of age. “We don’t want to become a police brigade,” she says, “but we are learning these are coveted awards.”

Beard Bashers: One food pro couldn’t care less about winning a Beard Award--an Oscar of the food world. “My customers don’t need to see a James Beard plaque in the entrance before they decide to eat at one of my restaurants,” says Pino Luongo, the New York restaurateur who owns nine restaurants, including Le Madri and the fabulous Coco Pazzo.

Luongo and Tony May, the Neapolitan owner of New York’s sophisticated San Domenico, got miffed when the awards committee selected a Mediterranean menu for this year’s awards banquet. One year the menu was American, another time it was French. (Next year it will be hotel chefs.) And Luongo and May felt that it should have been the Italians’ turn this year.

The Beard Foundation thought differently, partly because the Italian Trade Commission refused to help underwrite the event. (“Spain donated in a very big way, Greece in a very small way,” says Young, which helped tip the choice toward the Mediterranean.)

And so Luongo and May stayed away in protest. “They’ve got a very snotty attitude,” says Luongo. “No employee of mine will ever be involved in any Beard event again.”

“I think it’s very unfair,” adds May. “By slighting Italian cuisine, they’ve discriminated against the most popular ethnic cuisine in America.”

“There was no discrimination,” says Young. “I’m sure by the end of this decade there will be an Italian event.”

Menus: To celebrate its first anniversary, Descanso in Hermosa Beach is offering its frequent dining members double points at lunch. . . . The Riverside Cafe in Burbank is featuring a strawberry menu through June 14. Dishes include lamb with strawberry mint sauce, grilled whitefish with strawberry salsa and strawberries and cream. . . . Yeung Koon-Yat, a.k.a. “The Abalone King of Hong Kong,” will be guest chefing at Harbor Village Restaurant in Monterey Park June 12-16. A six-course pre-set dinner for two, which includes double-boiled superior shark fin with silky chicken, pan-fried quails in spicy pepper-salt and braised egg noodle in abalone sauce costs $600, including tax and tip. . . . Thought you’d seen the last of City Restaurant? Think again. City’s cookbook, City Cuisine, was revived in paperback after the restaurant closed. And now Border Grill in Santa Monica offers City favorites the first Wednesday of every month.

For more restaurant coverage, see Sunday’s Los Angeles Times Magazine and Thursday’s Food Section.


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