This morning, the finalists for the James Beard Awards were announced from the floor of the Palace Cafe in New Orleans--a suitably food-obsessed city, from which many of the awards' big winners have come. And like I promised, here I am to see how my wicked handicapping skillz stacked up against the final tally once the top picks were named.
Into the home stretch...
The short version of this story? Seattle did very well in the opening round of semi-finalists, not so well when it came down to the finals. We didn't get skunked completely, mind you. Our hometown boys put up a helluva fight. But as always happens once the field gets narrowed, we lost some very serious contenders.
Regrets aside, we do still have some dogs in this fight. So let's see how Seattle looks going into the finals.
In Part 1 of my handicapping project, I talked about two of the big categories: Outstanding Restaurateur and Outstanding Chef. Seattle had strong competitors in both of these races, with Tom Douglas (Dahlia Bakery, Dahlia Lounge, Etta's, Lola, Palace Kitchen, Serious Pie) standing up in the Restaurateur category and Jerry Traunfeld of Poppy doing the same for Chef. By my calculations, I gave Traunfeld a better shot than Douglas, simply on the weight of the really original stuff that Traunfeld has been doing lately at Poppy (the thali menus just kill me), and put my money down on Jose Andres, Michael Mina, Mark Peel, Suzanne Goin (of Lucques in Los Angeles) and Paul Kahan (Blackbird, Chicago) taking the top spots, with an outside chance of one of the smaller names (maybe Traunfeld, Scott Peacock or Michael Smith) bumping one of the big ones as a kind of regional wild card pick. I gave Traunfeld 5-to-1 odds of being that small name.
The way things finally worked out? No Traunfeld, but then again, no small names at all. I called two out of the top five, from a field of twenty, and the final board ended up reading Jose Andres, Tom Colicchio, Gary Danko, Suzanne Goin and Charles Phan of the Slanted Door in San Francisco--one New Yorker, Andres from Washington D.C., and three Californians.
In Outstanding Restaurateur I did about the same. I staked my life on Donald J. Madia (who runs a bunch of great restaurants in Chicago) making the finals, and he didn't, but then rounded out my picks with Keith McNally (who has Balthazar, Lucky Strike, Minetta Tavern, Morandi, Pastis, Pravda, and Schiller's Liquor Bar all in NYC), Stephen Starr from the Starr Restaurant Organization in Philadelphia, both of whom did make the finals. What surprised me was that Tom Douglas also made the list. I had him pegged as a 10-to-1 shot to show, and he paid out beautifully, standing alongside Pat Kuleto (who runs a half-dozen spots in San Francisco) and Richard Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago to round out the list of five finalists.
In Outstanding Restaurant, Seattle had Canlis. Canlis didn't make the cut. In Outstanding Service, Seattle (well, Kirkland, really) had Cafe Juanita. Cafe Juanita didn't make the cut. In Rising Star Chef of the Year, Seattle had no one, but I was hoping for a Denverite to take it (James Rugile of Venue), even as I laid good odds on Gabriel Rucker from Le Pigeon in Portland. Tragically, Rugile got shut out, but Rucker made the finals, along with Timothy Hollingsworth from the French Laundry, Johnny Monis from Komi in Washington D.C., Grégory Pugin of Veritas in NYC and Sue Zemanick from Gautreau's in New Orleans. Screw 'em all. I still think Rucker can bring it home to the Pacific Northwest.
Best New Restaurant? There were 31 restaurants in the semi's. Of them, I picked Marea, A Mano, Locanda Verde, RN74 and laid 10-to-1 odds on our local contender, Anchovies & Olives, to make the final list. Unfortunately, Anchovies & Olives didn't make it. Neither did A Mano (which depresses me for a whole variety of reasons). But the finals spread reads Locanda Verde, Marea, RN74, Bibou (from Philly), Frances (from San Francisco) and Flour + Water (out of San Francisco).
We had James Miller of Cafe Besalu in the running for Outstanding Pastry Chef, but even I knew this was a total longshot. He didn't make the finals--which doesn't mean we love him any less. We also got shut out of both the wine awards this year, with Canlis and Alex Golitzin from Quilceda Creek getting semi-final nods for Wine Service and Wine Pro, respectively.
Finally, there was the list for Best Chef Northwest--the category in which locals battle it out with locals and leave all the New Yorkers and Californians to fight it out among themselves. I claimed (rather obviously) that this category was going to be a Seattle-vs-Portland scrap, all the way, and was right: With five finals slots open, Portland took three and Seattle took two. The contest is now between Ethan Stowell from Union and Jason Wilson of Crush representing Seattle, and Naomi Pomeroy (Beast), Andy Ricker (Pok Pok) and Cathy Whims (Nostrana) standing for Portland. None of these are a surprise. And I think it's plain where my loyalties lie.
So basically, what our local commitment comes down to is this: Tom Douglas (for Outstanding Restaurateur), and then Stowell and Wilson for Best Chef Northwest. Oh, and not for nothing, there's also, well...
The TV and Journalism Awards finalists lists were also announced this morning, and I picked up a nomination for Restaurant Criticism (now called the Craig Claiborne Distinguished Restaurant Reviews category). It's my fourth nomination in eight years. I won the thing back in 2003, when I was but an apple-cheeked and wide-eyed young man who had no idea what he was doing. And this year, I'm up against fellow VVM critic Jonathan Gold (writing for LA Weekly) and Patric Kuh from Los Angeles magazine--two Angelenos, and then me, nominated for work I did while in Denver and working for Westword, but currently anchored in Seattle.
Because it's only fair, I figured I would handicap my own chances as well. Patric Kuh is, like me, a former chef turned food writer. He's also a novelist, was a columnist for Salon.com, wrote for Gourmet magazine and won a James Beard award of his own back in 2002. Jonathan Gold is also ex of Gourmet (among other places), has won just about every award given to food writers multiple times and even won the fucking Pulitzer Prize for his restaurant criticism--which is something that no one else has ever done in the history of the Pulitzers. And he deserved it, too. He's just that good.
Me? I write naughty words for money, make dick jokes and often don't get around to actually mentioning the name of the restaurant I'm ostensibly reviewing until halfway through my pieces. I write about zombies and old girlfriends and give recipes for cooking kittens. If given my choice right now, I would spend the entire next year writing about nothing but restaurants in the International District and weird things I picked up at the markets around Jackson Street. I fix my own personal odds at something like 25-to-1 against, though if I was actually making book on my own race myself, I might go with something a bit more reasonable--say 12-to-1--just because I wouldn't want to get screwed on the pay-out if I come in on a longshot win.
Hell, it's happened before. And I've got some pretty strong pieces up this year (including one about the restaurant run by James Rugile, who I mentioned above, a bizarre Alice In Wonderland digression about Polish food that reads like an opium dream and one of the most severe ass-kickings I've ever handed down--to a restaurant that disappointed me at the worst possible moment), so who knows. I'd be damn proud to bring another medal back to Seattle (by way of Denver), but like everyone else, I'm going to have to wait until May 2 to find out the final results.