One has to wonder, were he still with us, what James Beard would think of his eponymous awards gala, held for the 25th time on May 7 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, NYC. Having sprung initially from Beard’s food obsession, his famous cookbooks and small parties at his fabulous West Village townhouse, the event (sponsored by his epicurean foundation) is now as much a media feeding frenzy as it is homage to the master and the spirit of well-made food. Truly the Academy Awards for chefs and other foodies, it has grown from a simple evening in one man’s dining room to a cavernous, standing-room-only extravaganza. The ceremony revolves around a broad and varied national cast of inventive cuisine-makers, women in long silk dresses (or short, tight ones) and feather boas, men looking uncomfortable in their tuxes, a host who tries to compete with Billy Crystal, run-on or much-abbreviated acceptance speeches and, finally, after the last prize is awarded, a stampede over the many samplings of the best edibles and drinks to be had anywhere on the planet.

With all the chaos, it’s still fun to hear people in the crowd trade recipes for things like mussels infused with saffron (now very “in,” apparently) and Avery Fisher Hall was abuzz with such food talk. Students from the Culinary Institute of America, white-jacketed for their roles as helpers, scurried around getting the post-awards gala tables set up while the PR people did their best to make sure everyone was where they should be. The press, inclusive of photojournalists and video crews, arrived at the scene a good two hours before anyone else and ran to find their places on the red carpet, were they lucky enough to score a position there. They were followed by literally hundreds of chefs, sous chefs, chefs-in-training, and wanna-be chefs, who all appeared unfazed by the incessant drizzle and nearby noise of the early evening rush hour. In the press room, a kind of army-barracks-like, low-ceilinged space, the writers and bloggers, spread their notebooks and iPads across a table that was placed against one wall and were treated to several different kinds of high end noshes. They got to gorge on everything from specially made silvered bottles of coca-cola to the much more impressive caviar tasting station with five different kinds of caviar and every slice of bread imaginable from the usual blini to rye crisps. The bar offered several kinds of mixed drinks, mixology being the most au courant trend in alcohol, including one lemony mixture that was particularly enticing. Outside, as could be seen on the closed-circuit screens, people like Wolfgang Puck and several of the Iron Chef participants (not to mention Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel) were arriving, chatting with journalists. David Bouley looked stunning with his silver hair against a darkvelvet suit. Camera flashes erupted like lightning every few seconds, making the evening feel, again, much more like a Hollywood event than an evening devoted to the latest in cuisine.

And, in fact, the food world has become a bastion for chefs who like the spotlight, and has turned in the last decade into a much more media-savvy world. As cooks have become huge, recognizable celebrities (think Emeril or Lydia Bastianich or Mario Batali) what they make has often been equaled or eclipsed by their outsized media exposure. There are, quite literally, hundreds of food shows available on regular TV and cable, from Iron Chef to the newer and celebrated Chopped to local girls baking on public access television, addressing everything from the most difficult flambé to myriad variations of the all-American hot dog. And the awards program, in length, depth and breadth, celebrated ALL OF IT.

Speaking of those awards… After a lengthy wait to get into Avery Fisher Hall, people squeezed into their seats until Susan Ungaro, the President of the James Beard Foundation, came onstage to open the evening. In the low-lit auditorium, she waxed breathlessly rhapsodic about the quarter century that the Beard awards have been in place and the fact that the Empire State Building was lit orange and yellow (think tomato and pineapple, the American symbol of hospitality), in honor of the evening. She then presented a scene from a new one-man play about Beard called I Love to Eat, written and directed by James Still and performed by actor Robert Neal. Once it has been around the country (starting with Beard’s home town of Portland) this looks like a natural for an off-Broadway run. And then the awards really began as she turned the show over to emcee, Food Network star Alton Brown.

Despite all the crowd’s enthusiasm, and their antsy tolerance of Brown, most of whose jokes fell flat (it turns out that food just isn’t all that funny), this was a very long (three and a half hour) evening, but not without its highlights. Wolfgang Puck, owner of the long-lived Spago in Los Angeles, gave an acceptance speech for his lifetime achievement award where he basically shared his whole life story and spoke for a half hour — most were struck by the fact that he was actually fired from his first kitchen job in Austria. The most compelling part of the ceremony was the American Classics Series, an ongoing homage to restaurants that have been entrenched in specific locales forever. It was fascinating to see the old world charm (right down to the waiters’ white gloves and dark decor) of the St. Elmo Steakhouse in Indianapolis or the ramshackle warmth of Nora’s Fish Creek Inn (which has a giant fish on its roof) in Jackson Hole, Wyoming where some of the locals have been showing up for breakfast for decades. Outstanding restaurant design went to the New York architecture firm of Bentel & Bentel for re-imagining the classic space of Le Bernardin. One of the newer awards, Outstanding Bar Program, went to PDT (Please Don’t Tell), which operates as a speakeasy in back of Crif’s Hot Dogs in New York’s East Village.

New Yorkers were likewise honored for literary prowess: Gabrielle Hamilton, of the high-end comfort food emporium Prune, also in New York’s East Village, won the literary prize in the book competition for her frank and gorgeously-wrought memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, the story of her evolution as a person and a chef. David Humm, felt to have single-handedly resurrected New York’s Eleven Madison Park, won Outstanding Chef. Seamus Mullen, the chef at the new star Spanish-inflected restaurant Tertulia, was the only New York establishment up for Best New Restaurant, but lost out to Chicago’s super-fabulous NEXT, where you actually buy tickets to a select seating as you would for the theater.

There were constellations of star chefs making presentations, from Thomas Keller of Laundry to Drew Nieporent, and more than one person shed a tear as Charlie Trotter of the famous Chicago restaurant Trotters (now sadly closing), picked up the Humanitarian award for his charity work. But the only time true reverence came over the crowd was when Jacques Pepin stepped onto the stage to award Wolfgang Puck his prize. Pepin, of course, has a legacy that goes back to Julia Child and beyond, and everyone in that audience likely owed him some measure of culinary debt.

Then it was time to eat. One would have thought the crowd had been kept from food for days. The stampede to the charcuterie at one stand and the Campari and soda at the Campari cart, or the butter cookies layered with whipped cream dessert at another, had people reaching hand over fist, standing five and six deep at each, making sure their friends had food passed to them and that everyone got at least one of everything. The food — what we saw of it, which was little — was truly amazing: there was a duck confit that was especially sublime and nothing says summer like a good Campari cocktail. However, as the crowd was formidable and a bit aggressive, it seemed time to head for the door. Of course, one could not leave without some token, and perhaps the best was the most American tidbit available that evening  —  many bags drooped with the weight of bottles of coca-cola that, amid the madness and table upon table of forward-thinking cuisine, provided much more comfort and familiarity, like oatmeal in the morning. We think James Beard would have liked that very much.

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