The Side Dish: Taking Awards With A Grain Of Salt

Everyone seems to be chiming in on the business of awards during this post-Beards week, from rants on financial backgrounds to thinly-veiled backlash from not winning. Over the past few years, I guess I’ve come to accept awards to be exactly what they’re perceived to be – a bit of a popularity contest tossed together with a smidgen of research and validity. As someone who covers different awards, I’ve had more than one “official” admit that this restaurant was never actually visited or that that nominated chef “technically” didn’t fulfill award requirements. My curiosity had been piqued, after all, during a post I wrote way back when on a completely fabricated restaurant receiving a respected Wine Spectator award.

The Beard Awards, are for many, often held in higher respect however. The awards, deemed repetitively as the “Oscars of the food world”, where everyone across the cutting board gathers in their finest attire, hopeful that the “right guy” is going to win.

This year seems to have brought louder complaints, both with a tie here, a mind boggling win there – even a sponsorship by a company with questionable restaurant-related results. Most chefs I’ve spoken to about the winning such nominations, while always grateful to be recognized and attend with the possibility of taking home a medal, seem to have accepted that industry awards have become little more than an opportunity to make their name even more well known. Disappointingly, the Beard journalism awards are even essentially a pay-for-play deal, with a general $100 application fee making repeat names more common each year – and not always the real journalists in the group.

I think the greater tragedy of the awards is, for me, twofold. It is the winners, the Tim Carmans, whose shiny and visually prestigious medal may receive less recognition from his peers because due to the distain within the industry over voting processes or because his name is listed alongside faked folks like Ruth Bourdain on the winner roster. It is also those who go home empty handed, the Hank Shaws, after patiently resubmitting for a handful of years only to be topped repeatedly by competitors with bigger books and better connections.

It is, without a doubt, the chefs who win deservedly, like Alex Young who, in his position at a long-revered, family-owned restaurant business in sleepy southeastern Michigan, should command more respect than an apathetic reference to his award.

Can we hope for a change in award integrity or are we doomed to popularity contests with the same names always appearing? Maybe it’s time an Independent Culinary Awards. Will it still be black tie?

~Jennifer Heigl

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