I spent a few hours over the weekend working on my entry for the 2014 James Beard Awards, which will be held in May. The deadline is right after the first of the year, and the nominations come out on March 18th. But a few years ago, the Foundation started releasing the semi-finalists, that is, all of the chefs, restaurants and regions that received more than a couple of votes (there are no semi-finalists in the cookbook and broadcast categories) which means the PR machines will have a few weeks headstart so they can start generating buzz. Why did they start this practice, when, for years, we just waited until mid-March for the official nominee list? Perhaps it has something to do with the recent flood of awards programs that continues to dilute the process.
There are so many awards now, I’ve lost track. Eater just had its awards program. Time Out Chicago has a Best Of Awards and so does Chicago Magazine; Bon Appetit has its Best New Restaurants; Food & Wine has Best New Chefs. The Tribune’s Good Eating section used to have an annual awards program (cancelled?) and of course there’s also the Jean Banchet Awards held in January, which I’ll be presenting, but not serving as a voter. I stopped that practice years ago, after the award for Best Neighborhood Restaurant went to Bistro 110.
Let’s not forget the coveted Michelin stars (paging Crofton on Wells, but not Next) and the San Pellegrino “World’s 50 Best Restaurants (of which I’m on the judging Academy for North America – Central) and you have a seemingly yearround self-congratulating culture of Best New this and Rising Star that, turning each new Award event into a yawn. But let’s be honest, the awards are as much about the organization sponsoring them as they are about the people being honored. When a publication or organization holds an awards ceremony, the sales department gets to go get it underwritten and raise some money. The web team gets to promote it on their website, and the social media team – calling out the Twitter handles of the restaurants being honored (thus virally promoting the event) – gets to build a small wave of momentum and add more Unique Visitors to their website. Or could it be that our culture, which bestows awards for just “participating” is encouraging editors and publishers to keep handing out awards even if the material is thin? Can you imagine the shit I’d get if I created a Hungry Hound Awards, or worse, The Dolinsky Awards?
It used to be, you’d send out a certificate (and maybe a headshot), and the restaurant would give you some free, easy publicity on its walls. That led to stickers that the publication encouraged the restaurant to place in its front window. Now we have full-blown awards ceremonies designed to drive traffic to websites, profits to beleaguered sales departments and goodwill among chefs and restaurants. Do chefs really put this stuff on their resumes/bios, and in the scheme of things, is there now a weighted value to a Rising Star Beard Award vs. an Outstanding Chef from Eater? I’m all for honoring the accomplishments of the talented and hard-working men and women who stand on their feet all day to feed us, but it’s hard not to be a little cynical when every organization with a website claims it’s about the chefs, and not them. Am I the only one who sees this?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.