The Side Dish: We’ve Lost Our Way With The Culinary Awards

The finalists for the James Beard Foundation Awards were announced yesterday, and there were, unfortunately, a lot of heavy hearts left in the list’s wake, including mine. When I stepped into my role here at Daily Blender, I was certainly still a bit of a newbie to the culinary world, despite writing the book and running the catering business. Initially, I viewed the Beards as revered awards, indications of high marks, quality, the top of the restaurant game. I wrote a few pieces about my excitement – how anyone could win, how young culinary up-and-comers had such an opportunity for exposure and recognition when it came to the awards. In fact, I just had to attend one year, securing a press pass to the black-tie ceremony in New York, frantically typing away on my tiny phone keyboard from the frenetic press room behind the stage at Lincoln Center as every culinary big name went roving passed me, generally with a medal in hand.

I couldn’t however, shake the ambivalence I had heard in chef Tom Colicchio’s voice when I interviewed him the night before the event. “And the Beard awards? Tell me all about them!” I inquired with great excitement as we started our interview. “Well,” he started, “They’re the Beard awards.”

Now, of course, I understand. Over the past few years, I’ve watched as the always hopeful list of semifinalists is whittled away to the same, repetitive names each and every award season – often those with the best public relations teams. Restaurants whose dishes I wouldn’t deem worthy of a feature, let alone an award. Chefs whose egos and tyrannical personalities often outweigh anything they’ve done in the kitchen – if they’ve set foot in the kitchen at any time in the last year.

And the laughable “journalism” awards. I had toed that line so optimistically once, sending along my best piece and the required $100 application fee for consideration, despite previous mentors instructing me to never pay for an award nomination. I remember being so hopeful when that list was announced, only to hang my head in sincere disappointment as so many others who lacked any kind of professionalism were named to that final list. The Eaters of the world. The ones who thrive on berating and gossiping, penning posts on social media updates and press releases, disrespecting the very names who have made the culinary world great. The Josh Ozerskys of the world, “professional” writers for whom disclosure is an afterthought. It’s all in the terms, I suppose. It’s not a nomination, it’s an award purchase. The list of final “nominees” only leaves me heartsick for those up-and-coming writers who have paid hundreds of dollars to be considered – both those who made the cut and those who didn’t. Writers who can’t afford to apply year after year like others at well-funded publications. Writers who are left despondent over the possibility of winning such a “prestigious” award.

It’s the greater impact of these “awards” on the culinary community that concerns me, however. Every time an online poll bestows a best new chef title based on how many people can click a button or text a message – thousands of “voters” never actually tasting any dishes, restaurants shamelessly offering up freebies for votes. Every time a website tells you to vote for a meaningless title in a thinly-veiled attempt to get you to provide press for them (and you do!). What kind of message does it send to the culinary students, the line cooks, the barbacks out there working so hard to be recognized?

As a community, it is our responsibility to set the path for the future. This is not an industry of average day-jobbers – it is a congregation of people who have dedicated their lives to an art that has spanned  hundreds of years, lifetimes spent in the kitchen perfecting dishes and holding the knife just right. So many have traveled the road before you, taking their spot in the kitchens of the world with great honor, commanding respect, offering the highest hospitality to their guests. Why would any chef dedicate his life to this career, hone his skills, commit his life’s work to this age-old craft, if the most recognized awards in the industry don’t actually recognize hard work or real talent? We have fallen profoundly off-course in this respect… but what can you do personally to get it back on track?

Make your voice heard. Respect yourselves and your craft. Don’t play into the public relations machine. Be the best chef, sommelier, bartender, writer that you can be. Your determination and hard work may never be recognized with an award, and that’s ok. Awards aren’t worth much. Your integrity, the legacy you leave behind, is of much greater value.


~Jennifer Heigl

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