As posted earlier today, the venerable James Beard Foundation today released the names of their Restaurant and Chef Awards semi-finalists. And man, was it a Seattle-heavy list. Seriously, I've been tracking these things for most of a decade, and for one city (that's not Manhattan, Los Angeles, Chicago or, sometimes, San Francisco) to be so amply rewarded, even just in the semi's, is a rare thing indeed.
The horse race begins now
In the Best Chef: Northwest category alone, we've got six nominees. And beyond that, in the "Outstandings" (the national awards for Chef, Service, Restaurant, New Restaurant and the like, not broken down by region) we have seven horses in the running--eight if you count Canlis twice, since it got tagged for both Outstanding Restaurant and Outstanding Wine Service.
That's a nice spread. And because Seattle is so well represented this year, I've decided to break out my green eyeshade and scratch pad and do a little handicapping for this year's race.
First, though, a word about how the James Beard Chef and Restaurant Awards work. The big fun starts way back in the fall when the James Beard Foundation puts out an open call for nominations online. Anyone can name their favorite restaurant (or their own restaurant) and get that name tossed into the hopper. Once the open call is done, things get a bit more secretive and official. According to the James Beard Foundation's own rules, "The Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee produces a ballot with approximately 20 semifinalists in each category. This ballot is distributed online to a voting body of 308 previous James Beard Restaurant & Chef Award winners; 200 to 250 panelists divided evenly among 10 regions...and 17 members of the Restaurant and Chef Award subcommittee. All votes count equally and are tabulated by the independent accounting firm Lutz & Carr."
That's where we're at now: the semi's. All the names included on the ballot are sent out to the voting body and, at roughly the same time, are released to the public so the lucky nominees can party and slap backs and believe they have a shot at the Big Dance in May. Unfortunately, the vast majority of nominees will get no further than this round. And while it is still an incredible honor just to make it into the semi-finals and be listed among the twenty or so best chefs/restaurants/pastry chefs/what-have-you, where everyone on that list wants to be is among the finalists.
This list will be announced in March, made up of the three highest-ranking nominees in each of the many awards categories. That ballot will then be distributed again to the same voting body as above, a new round of voting will take place, and the one overall winner will be chosen and announced at the super-cool, tux-and-tails awards ceremony that takes place every year in Manhattan in May. The journalism awards (also called the Media Awards) are a completely separate thing, given on a different day, at a different location. Think of them like the Technical Awards at the Oscars--still awesome, just not quite so glamorous because no matter how hard you try, no one is ever going to be able to make a room full of food journalists look glamorous. Or sober.
Anyway, enough with the background. Time to get to the meat of this thing. And to get things going right, let's kick it off with one of the biggies: Outstanding Restaurateur.
Award: Outstanding Restaurateur
The Competition: Everyone, really, as this is one of the big awards of the night. There are no weak entries.
The Field: This one is all over the place because it is an award handed down to the Big Fish--multi-unit operators and guys who own and run restaurant groups with anywhere from a few to hundreds of locations. There are big, recognizable names (like Roger Berkowitz from Legal Sea Foods in Boston and Steve Ells, the man who founded Chipotle), others that are less well-known outside local foodie circles (like Donald J. Madia who runs a bunch of great restaurants in Chicago, Frank Bonanno who does the same in Denver and Douglas here in Seattle), and then strange one-offs like Jim Pihakis who runs the Jim N' Nick's Bar-B-Q chain out of Birmingham, Alabama (a great BBQ chain, by the way, in case you're interested). Some of these noms (like the one for Pihakis, sad to say) are likely just recognition for being amazing at one thing. Others are like credit being given for having a serious and lasting effect on the food industry as a whole (Steve Ells). But the big prize is probably going to go to someone taking the middle path--an incredibly successful restaurateur who has not (yet) grown so big that he is essentially running a chain operation.
Moving On to the Finals: Madia for sure, mostly on the strength of his pork-and-beer joint, The Publican. Keith McNally, too (who has Balthazar, Lucky Strike, Minetta Tavern, Morandi, Pastis, Pravda, and Schiller's Liquor Bar all in NYC). Maybe Stephen Starr from Philadelphia. And I'd love to see Bonanno, just because I think it might finally be his year. As for Douglas? I just don't know. I haven't been around town long enough to get a true read on the guy, but in my book, he's a long-shot for the top three.
Final odds: 10-1 to show, 30-1 to win
Award: Outstanding Chef
Local Favorite:Jerry Traunfeld, Poppy
The Competition: A veritable who's-who of super-famous and incredibly talented chefs. Like Jose Andres, for example, and Mark Peel, Tom Colicchio, Gary Danko and Marc Vetri.
The Field: Because this is the big mixer category (not narrowed by region), the competition is simply between the greatest chefs working that year. In this case, it truly is an honor just to be nominated, because even if you're twentieth-best here, that makes you twentieth-best out of a field of tens of thousands, and with only nineteen guys better than you. Not bad. That said, though, I actually think Traunfeld has a shot here. Why? I'll tell you. Because at this point, it's no longer about the food, it's about style and impact. And Poppy happens to hit right in that sweet-spot of being edgy and innovative without being too edgy or too innovative. His notion of making daily thali menus is one of those things that a lot of the chefs and owners in the voting body will wish that they'd thought of first, and that can often be a path to the finals. Of course, I don't think he has any shot in the world of actually winning.
Moving On to the Finals: Jose Andres, Michael Mina, Mark Peel, Suzanne Goin (of Lucques in Los Angeles), Paul Kahan (Blackbird, Chicago)--none of these would surprise me. I think Colicchio is overexposed and that hurts him. One of the smaller names (maybe Scott Peacock or Michael Smith) from an out-of-the-way place (Decatur, GA and Kansas City, MO, respectively) could make a showing here, just so the judges can prove that they ain't all about the big cities. And you know what I think about Traunfeld.
Final Odds: 5-1 to show, 1000-1 to win