Handicapping the James Beard Awards: Part 2

Yesterday, I started off this handicapping project by discussing two of the really big categories of awards for which the James Beard Foundation just announced their list of semifinalists. Outstanding Restaurateur and Outstanding chef are two of the huge national awards given out each year. And this time around, Seattle has a dog in both fights: Tom Douglas for Restaurateur and Jerry Traunfeld for Chef. Of the two, I thought Traunfeld and his restaurant, Poppy, had the best shot at moving on to the finals (which will be announced in March), but if you're curious about the line on these two competitions, check out yesterday's scouting reports and then call your bookie.

Today, I'm going to start off with what, in my opinion (and the opinion of most right-thinking Americans) is the biggest of The Bigs: Outstanding Restaurant. To use an Academy Awards analogy, if Outstanding Chef is like the Best Actor category and Outstanding Restaurateur is Best Director, then Outstanding Restaurant is Best Picture--an award that speaks not just to one individual performance, but rather the presentation as a whole, encompassing everything from the room and the wine and the silver to the service, the food and the talents of every single player in the ensemble. Like at the Academy Awards, this is a category that leans heavily in favor of the serious and dramatic. Unlike at the Academy Awards, the winning restaurant is sometimes even one that actual people have been to and enjoyed. So let's look at the state of play, shall we?

Award: Outstanding Restaurant

Local Favorite: Canlis, which stands as one of Seattle's classic old guard restaurants with more than half a century behind it

The Competition: Babbo and Daniel in New York, Bouchon in Yountville, Vetri in Philadelphia and Delfina in San Francisco--do I need to go on?

The Field: This year's field for the semis is actually a bit more wide-open than I expected. Despite the serious weight at the top of the list (Babbo, Daniel and Bouchon), the nominating committee has also spread things out nicely and chosen excellent restaurants from all over the country. Birmingham, Milwaukee, Chapel Hill, North Carolina--all represented here. And the Pacific Northwest actually has a nice face-off going with one Seattle restaurant (Canlis) going up against one from Portland (Higgins Restaurant and Bar). There is, to my mind, no clear-cut lock here for the finals. Part of it is because I'm unfamiliar with a lot of the betwixt-the-coasts choices, but part of it is also that there's just no runaway cinch bet like Momofuku or Jean George of years past. As far as Canlis' chances go? This is what Jonathan Kauffman had to say about the place back in 2006, shortly after he arrived in Seattle: "It's hard to think of Canlis as revolutionary, but back in 1950, when Peter Canlis moved from Hawaii to Seattle, he created a formal restaurant that defied all the conventions of formality: The chefs didn't hide back in the kitchen but grilled--grilled!--steaks where the customers could see them. Instead of tuxedo-clad waiters parading in French formation, Canlis staffed the floor with Japanese women wearing elegant kimonos. Not only did his Asian-influenced food capitalize on America's post-Prohibition fascination with tikitude, but Canlis turned out to be a master restaurateur. He, and then his children, ran a restaurant so well that they were able to transfer it to the third generation. In the restaurant world, that's practically immortal." And while immortality is nice, it's really only enough to get you to the semis. At least for the past couple years, the finalist slots (and the eventual award) have been heavily favoring New York City restaurants. I just don't think this trend is going to change. The one thing Canlis has going for it is that this award also tends to honor history and weight (see Gramercy Tavern in 2008), and Canlis has been up and running through three generations of owners and sixty years.

Moving On To The Finals: The New Yorkers, plus one from outside the city, likely Bouchon or Vetri.

Final Odds: 15-1 to show, 50-1 to win. But if Canlis somehow clears the field and makes it to the finals, I put the odds to win at a much more reasonable 3-to-1 against.

Award: Rising Star Chef of the Year

Local Favorite: None. The closest we come is Matthew Lightner from Castagna and Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon, both in Portland.

The Competition: Rising Star is my personal favorite category because it rewards the up-and-coming white jackets and guys who are still young enough to be risk-takers and envelope-pushers. A lot of these guys are relative unknowns, but this year has a definite favorite: Kevin Gillespie of Woodfire Grill in Atlanta--a Top Chef Las Vegas finalist and Fan Favorite winner (he was the guy with the beard).

Who I Want To Win: James Rugile from Venue in Denver. He's a fantastic chef who served me one of the greatest meals I had in a year full of really good ones and also happens to be a really nice, incredibly committed guy with a weird talent for being able to walk the line between tradition, innovation and regional flavors without ever blurring it.

His Odds: Sadly, not good. Denver has fared reasonably well in the Beard Awards over the years, but rarely wins in the big categories. I would put my money on Gillespie as the prohibitive favorite.

Award: Outstanding Service

Local Favorite: Cafe Juanita in Kirkland

The Competition: Alinea in Chicago, The Compound in Santa Fe... It's actually more surprising this year to see who isn't nominated. Where is Le Bernardin? Where is Charlie Trotter's?

The Field: I'm going to take a pass on this one because I haven't yet been to Cafe Juanita and, personally, don't judge service all that well. Formality of that sort just kinda creeps me out and, for the most part, I prefer something a bit lighter and more casual. Still, I will say that, since Cafe Juanita has won previously (Best Chef Northwest for Holly Smith in 2008), that gives it a leg up over any competitors that haven't when it comes to making the finals.

Final Odds: 5-1 to show, to win is a toss-up.

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