At the James Beard Awards bacchanal, from vol-au-vents at Avery Fisher to hot dogs at Eleven Madison Park
9:08 am May. 9, 2012
“Can’t they just get some pizza in here?” grumbled one food writer as she nibbled listlessly on a mini vol-au-vent filled with D’Artagnan foie gras.
She surveyed the room, taking stock of the woman casually adjusting her feather boa and the caviar station next to the champagne bar (perks for the journalists). “What time is this thing over?” asked another writer.
It was 5:45 p.m. at the James Beard Foundation Awards, the so-called “Oscars of the food world,” and we were huddled in the press room, a boxcar-sized space backstage in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. The Awards were set to begin at 6, at which point the press room would fill up with journalists and photographers, packed sardine-style around a handful of tiny closed-circuit TVs, but for the moment, things were relatively quiet. Chefs like Grant Achatz and David Chang were still arriving on the rainy red carpet, back-slapping each other and filtering into the auditorium.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Awards, arguably the biggest food event of the year and the highest honor in the industry. Early on, the Beards were reserved for stodgy, white-tablecloth establishments, but in recent years, as food culture has stepped to the front of the popular imagination, the Foundation has loosened up a bit.
Awards go out to younger chefs who aren’t as buttoned-up as their forbears, and the press coverage has increased accordingly, with food blogs tweeting along to the ceremony in real-time, Instagramming candid shots of chefs.
The ceremony is tightly controlled, but the possibility for an unexpected, unpredictable moment is palpable, particularly given the rowdy nature of so many young chefs.
By 6:15, the ceremony, hosted by food-nerd favorite Alton Brown, had officially begun, though you wouldn’t know it in the press room.
“I can’t hear anything,” everyone stage-whispered, straining toward the monitors. A crew of live-bloggers sat along the wall closest to the screens, glued to their laptops, headphones on, typing furiously as they glanced upwards and refreshed the official James Beard website.
The first award given was for Rising Star, a category for young chefs “likely to have a significant impact on the industry in years to come.” Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar, who is best known for creations like Cereal Milk and Crack Pie, took the prize.
Backstage, things kicked into high gear as soon as she finished her speech.
Each of the winners are corralled offstage, moved through an assembly line of official photographers, then led down a narrow hallway and released into the gauntlet that is the press room. There they are swarmed by the press for quotes, tape recorders shoved wildly in their direction while their handlers try to keep the bum-rushing to a minimum.
“Christina, your dress is great! I’m only used to seeing you in your chef whites!” said one reporter.
“I know, I usually look like a lesbian cafeteria lady,” Tosi replied.
From that point onward, the room got louder, its inhabitants drunker and more antsy.
“I could not be less comfortable right now,” said one editor, jostled by the crowds rushing toward Jim Meehan of PDT, who took home the first-ever award for Outstanding Bar Program. “I need to find my wife,” he murmured as he was positioned for photos and handed a cocktail.
“I need to get some more bullshit quotes,” said a writer, stationing herself near the entrance to the press pen. “The more I do now, the easier my life will be tomorrow morning.”
The Awards barreled onward, with a strong showing from New York establishments: Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional went to Paul Grieco of Terroir, Outstanding Service to old-school classic La Grenouille, Best Chef NYC to Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern, and Outstanding Chef (nation-wide) to Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park. Humm’s win was particularly good news, as it solidified Eleven Madison’s place on the scattershot afterparty circuit. (more on that below)
By 9, the Awards ceremony was winding down, and the crowd (both seated and behind-the-scenes) was growing restless and hungry, eager to escape the auditorium and descend upon the lobby, which was filled with food and drink stations from big-name chefs like Jonathan Waxman (Barbuto) and Andrea Reusing (Lantern, in North Carolina).
Several journalists had already ditched the press room early, slipping into the reception before the ceremony was over to steal bites of duck borscht and heirloom beans before the place got too crowded.
“We’ll get the press release with a full list of winners in an hour anyway,” said one reporter as she put her recorder away.
When the show was finally over, Avery Fisher was turned into a bit of a free-for-all, the well-heeled masses swarming the lobster ceviche and downing impressive amounts of bourbon punch, with air-kisses and handshakes all around.
Chefs who live cities apart embraced, congratulating one another, clinking glasses together and posing for iPhone photos. Writers and editors clumped together, exchanging business cards while simultaneously reaching for more food and then peeling off to greet the next familiar face.
In the lobby the most common greeting of all was “Where are you going tonight?” Guests feverishly checked their phones, searching through Twitter feeds and texts to figure out where to go first on the mostly impromptu circuit.
The Beard Award afterparties are the stuff of legend: four-star chefs dancing on bartops, champagne getting sprayed across crowds, strangers making out in bathrooms. The combination of (excellent) alcohol and food-world egos neatly dovetails each May to create a vast celebratory wonderland, a fluid extension of the excess on display earlier in the evening.
Few know for certain where the afterparties, most of them unofficial, will take place, though certain rhythms pervade annually: many revelers make their first pit stop at Bar Boulud, conveniently located across the street from Lincoln Center, where genial, jovial Daniel Boulud is almost certainly guaranteed to supply terrines and desserts to whomever passes through.
(In fact, many in the industry skip the Awards altogether and simply come out for the parties, which usually don’t begin until after service is over; some restaurants will print “closed for a private event” signs to keep non-industry passesrby out, but there's never anyone checking credentials).
After a stop at Boulud began the slow trickle downtown, I joined a handful of journalists, all of us asking each other where to go, what to do, rapid-fire texting with those we had parted with, asking where they were heading. “Boulud,” flashed a message from a former co-worker on my screen. “Bar or Sud?” I responded, but it didn’t matter, because in a moment I was being shuttled into a cab with three colleagues, one of them shouting “Gramercy Tavern! In Gramercy! I’m looking up the cross-street now!” to the driver, and then we were off, heading south without argument.
“Gramercy Tavern will be closed for a private party this evening,” read a printer-paper sign on the door, followed by “CONGRATULATIONS MIKE!!!”
We pushed in and were greeted with champagne and a warm biscuit from consummate host Danny Meyer (“It’s not so bad,” he chuckled, gesturing at the room packed with wellwishers), tuxedoed Awards guests mingling with grease-stained line cooks.
Around 12:30 a.m., talk turned to Eleven Madison Park, a place that has thrown epic, kegger-esque parties for the past few years. With Humm’s win earlier in the evening, it was all but guaranteed that the EMP crew would be going all out, though there was some uncertainty as to whether the party would actually be at EMP or Humm’s swank new restaurant, The Nomad.
The editor of an influential food blog informed us that four-starred EMP would indeed play host once more, as the owners didn’t want The Nomand’s brand-new, custom-made furniture ruined by the booze-soaked masses.
I left Gramercy with a different group from the one I came in with and walked over to Eleven Madison Park, possibly the finest restaurant in the city, where a D.J. was blasting Ol' Dirty Bastard and cast members from “Top Chef” were grinding with Humm on the bar.
Platters of hot dogs were being passed around, broken glass from beer bottles and oversized champagne magnums littered the floor and tables had been pushed aside to allow people to do the Humpty Dance. My shoes got sticky with spilled booze.
When, at 2:30, the D.J. put on Journey and announced through the speakers that we didn't have to go home but we couldn't stay there because they needed to prep for the next day’s lunch service, but partygoers remained desperate to continue on.
The Jane Hotel, where Vice and Momofuku were co-hosting a party? A P.R. person I ran into told me it was clearing out already, she'd heard.
A friend of mine who wasn’t at the Awards but works in a kitchen texted, “HEARTH? Dancing!” and another acquaintance who was with me said something about a karaoke party at Mission Street Chinese Food, a hotly anticipated new opening that’s still under construction.
I went outside without a plan, waiting to be swept into a cab with a group I recognized and deposited at the next party. But after a few minutes of fruitless searching, it became clear that everyone I’d come with had already left, either to go charging forth to the next celebration, or to bed. My phone battery was almost dead and my head was pounding with the sugary ache of too much champagne, and I got in a cab to head home, as, I presume, the party went on somewhere.