After 10 years of going to the annual James Beard Foundation Awards in New York, I'm getting a little jaded. "Yeah, OK, that's Tom Colicchio. Wake me up when Daniel Boulud STOPS dancing on the tables."
But this year's awards outdid themselves in fun potential. This was the first year the book awards were moved out of the overlong and overcrowded Monday night gala. They were added to the media awards on Sunday night, joining the journalism and broadcast awards and making that event a little more crowded and a little overlong, but a lot more fun.
Someone recently said the media awards were "the high school prom of the food world," compared to the gala being "the Oscars of the food world." Now the Oscars has a Golden Globes the night before. Kelly Choi of "Top Chef Masters" and Andrew Zimmern of "Bizarre Foods" were the hosts, and the sit-down dinner featured four courses of spot-on food, from Greg Hirigoyen's perfect first course of poached asparagus spears to Suzanne Goin's short ribs, with flavors that included mint leaves. Who thinks of mint with short ribs? But that's a chef for you, and it really worked.
Monday night was the awards gala at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. Removing the book awards from the presentation made it, oh, maybe 5 minutes shorter. (They used "Star Wars" music as the theme all night, but after 3 hours and 15 minutes, it's hard not to sound like Chewbacca yawning.) Among the highlights, Sean Brock of McCrady's in Charleston won Best Chef Southeast and thanked, among other things, "The South, bourbon and my wife." Tom Colicchio won the big one, Outstanding Chef, and noted "I share a birthday with Julia Child and a hairstyle with James Beard," then went on to salute the incredible contribution immigrants have always made in the American food world. Funny and classy.
Twitter was a new wrinkle this year, a popular way to pass the time. At one point, I discovered that @hollymoore had tweeted this: "Following @ruthbourdain and @kathleenpurvis JBFA tweets is like channel-flipping between Jersey Shore and Lehrer Report." (In the word of Ruth Reichl, whose twee Tweets are parodied by the cheeky and fictious Ruth Bourdain, "Amused.")
The biggest crowd ever hit the food serving stations all at once. Following my usual pattern (eat, shuffle, eat, shuffle), I managed some highlights: Foie gras-filled prunes at D'Artagnan; tender Pear and Fresh Pecorino Ravioli by Fortunato Nicotra of Felidia; Champagne-Poached Prawns With Spicy Cucumber Salad and Green Curry-Coconut Sauce by Mark Franz of Farralon; and Tostidas de Tinga by Priscila Satkoff, Salpicon, an acolyte of Rick Bayless. My very favorite: James Kent of Eleven Madison Park filled lids of caviar tins with a layer of Scottish Salmon Tartare topped with a creamy smoked mousse topped with yuzu and bright pink trout roe.
Balancing-act food seems to be replacing tall food. Kevin Binkley of Binkley's served little cups of hot bacon soup with a tiny spoon of chopped raw scallop balanced on top and a tiny oyster cracker "glued" to the lip. You stirred the scallop into the hot soup and then spooned or drank it up.
And my personal favorite, pictured above, was by Curtis Duffy of Avenues at the Peninsula in Chicago, who trained with Grant Achatz at Alinea: The bottom of the clear cup held king crab chunks in a cucumber consomme. The top of the cup was covered with a clear sugar disc decorated with dabs of floral cream and lemon balm. You broke through the sugar with a spoon and let it all fall together. It looked magical, like a tiny terrarium, and tasted amazing - spicy, cool, sweet and refreshing, all at the same time. Sort of like the Beard Awards this year, actually.