at culinary Oscars
N.Y. foodies love Helena'sBy Betty Shimabukuro
Prestigious award brought
pressure to Wong, Yamaguchi
NEW YORK -- It's not for nothing that the James Beard Awards are so often compared to the Oscars.
It's a black-tie night in a ballroom dripping with chandeliers, this year at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Winning names are kept in sealed envelopes -- placed there by the accounting firm Deloitte and Touche -- until opened with the Oscar-like flourish, "and the award goes to ..."
Last year's winners come back to present this year's awards. And photographers backstage urge the winners to lift their awards high -- not gold-plated statuettes, but magnums of champagne.
Monday's ceremony even had its flashy nonconformist -- the pony-tailed chef Mario Batali, who showed up in tuxedo coat and shorts-plus-sneakers. And a Hollywood team, Paul Sorvino and Marisa Tomei, served as hosts.
Len Pickell, president of the James Beard Foundation, said the event has grown over its 10 years in proportion to the starpower of today's chefs -- "as the food and restaurant industry has exploded."
This year, a record 1,700 filled the seats.
"Food has become fashionable and fashionable people have moved into the food business," Pickell said.
So whodaguy, this James Beard?
Born in 1903, Beard was a caterer, cookbook author, syndicated columnist, cooking teacher, one of the founders of Gourmet magazine and host of the nation's first TV food show, "Elsie Presents James Beard in 'I Love to Eat!' " -- Elsie being the cow from Borden's, the show's sponsor.
Beard's name is an indelible part of the history of American cuisine. He died in 1985, but his non-profit foundation remains, dedicated to "establishing gastronomy as a recognized art and bona fide profession," according to its official description.
The James Beard House, a brownstone in Greenwich Village, houses a library and archive and offers classes, tastings and exhibitions. It is also a showcase for "emerging" chefs invited to Beard's kitchen to prepare elaborate signature dinners for paying guests.
The awards ceremony is held on the first Monday in May to mark Beard's birthday. It is surrounded by pre- and post-parties at the toniest of New York restaurants.
To earn one of these culinary Oscars is to prevail in a nationwide selection process that begins nine months before the awards ceremony.
Entries are collected by the hundreds. Professionals from the James Beard Foundation and throughout the food and wine business are polled, but literally anyone can suggest a favorite restaurant or chef as a nominee.
A Restaurant Committee made up of 16 restaurant critics from all parts of the country then narrows that huge list to 20 nominees per category. A network of non-voting regional panelists provides information on chefs and restaurants unfamiliar to the committee.
"The intention of the Beard Foundation is that this be a democratic exercise," said William Rice, food and wine columnist for the Chicago Tribune and chairman of the Restaurant Committee.
This even though committee members can't possibly know every restaurant nominated or travel the country to check them all out. "There's more of a chance they've been to a restaurant in New York City than, say, Kansas City," Rice said.
"There was a fear in the beginning that this would be a homage to New York," he adds, but through the regional panelists a dedicated effort is made to reach beyond the big cities. "We've had tiny restaurants from tiny places recognized."
But getting back to the process: The names of the 20 semifinalists are placed on ballots sent to some 450 critics from national media, including the Honolulu Star-Bulletin; previous winners and other culinary professionals. That voting yields a final five names per category. Then comes a second round of voting by the same 450 people -- and those winners collect the "Oscars" on the big night.
A national reputation is critical. Yvon Moller, awards coordinator, says chefs are not allowed to submit menus or testimony supporting their culinary skills. "If you are going to stand any chance of winning you are going to have to be known."
Rice says Hawaii is at somewhat of a disadvantage -- "you're sort of pasted onto the Pacific Northwest" -- and sheer distance makes the restaurants hard to evaluate.
The state has made its mark, though. In the 10 years of the awards, two chefs from Hawaii have won the region.
Committee members are professional foodies, after all, and are well-traveled, Rice says. "Because Hawaii is a vacation destination it's surprising how many of our committee will have visited these restaurants.
Prestigious awardBy Betty Shimabukuro
The prestigious award of best chef in the Pacific Northwest has gone to two Hawaii chefs. Neither went to New York to claim his prize. One was too busy, the other too shy.
Alan Wong was so certain he didn't have a chance against the other nominees that he turned down a friend's offer to cover all the expenses of a trip to New York.
"It was my shy and conservative nature that told me, 'Nah, I not going win,' " Alan Wong recalls five years after the fact. "Even when I won, I couldn't believe it."
Roy Yamaguchi was opening his second restaurant in Japan at the time of the 1993 ceremony. Two weeks before, he got a call from the James Beard Foundation. "They said, 'You really have to be there,' and I said, 'I can't.' One week prior they called again and said, 'You REALLY have to be there,' "
Perhaps that was a large, unofficial hint, but Yamaguchi didn't take it.
Both chefs found out about their wins second- or third-hand, a day or so later. Both described themselves as happy, but stunned.
In the aftermath: national recognition, yes, and a boost for the restaurants, but also pressure to continuously prove that their work merits the praise.
"What it really did for me is it made me actually go nuts," Wong says.
"You don't want to be all hype -- all show, no go. You want to dig deep and show that you deserve it."
A year after his win, Yamaguchi was invited to make a presentation at the awards ceremony, and this time he did go.
It was an extremely formal and strait-laced event. Yamaguchi was supposed to read from a script -- "serious comment," he recalls -- but not being very good at that, he gave a sarcastic reading of the prepared words.
He can't remember exactly what he said, and you probably had to be there to appreciate it, but the audience, he says, found it hysterical. "We couldn't get them to stop laughing."
Everything was too deadly serious, anyway, he says. "I thought I was the best part of that show."
Of course, "after that they never asked me back."
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