Chef Tory Miller. Photo by Kent Miller, James Beard Awards
One of the better things that can happen to you when you’re standing in the courtyard of Lincoln Center in New York City taking in the exquisite fountain and about to experience your first James Beard Awards is to have Justin Aprahamian of Sanford Restaurant – one of two Wisconsin chefs nominated for the high honor – call your name from the outdoor second floor balcony. I, with the “Wisconsin Foodie” crew in tow, was queued up for the red carpet scene. If the best meals are multiple courses that take you on a journey, then that’s also what the James Beard Awards is like.
The amuse bouche, then, was the red carpet. Famous chefs and the food media personalities kept coming: David Chang, Daniel Boulud, Ted Allen, Thomas Keller, Rick Bayless, Jacques Pèpin, Andrew Zimmern, Stephanie Izard, Wiley Dufresne, April Bloomfield, Dan Barber, Michael White, Dave Beran, Daniel Humm, etc, etc, and our own Wisconsin boys Tory Miller and Aprahamian.
I took four major things away from the red carpet. Jacques Pèpin is always generous and brilliant. Dan Barber may be the single most enlightened East Coast chef regarding Midwestern farmers and cuisine. David Chang rocks. And lastly, the food-based media monster, which began so many years ago as a side cable channel and few cookbooks and magazines, is well on its way to becoming untamable.
After the amuse, we moved onto the main course. The awards are a three-hour event. It’s a pretty grand thing to soak in, and deservedly is called the Oscars of food. Just off stage was the press/overflow room. It’s that swell little den where members of the press get to corner the winners just after they leave the stage, and the winners get to grab a drink, some caviar and meet their friends. Tory Miller, a good friend and the chef at L’Etoile in Madison, took home the accolade for Best Chef: Midwest. Us Wisconsin-centric audience members went nuts as Tory’s name was called. His speech proved to be one of the best of the evening. (See the video below. You mind want to jump to the 1:05:00 point.) Tory tripped over Jacques Pèpin on the way up, apologized in his speech, thanked his team back home and affectionately called James Beard a “crazy old weird dude.” I agree, respectively, of course.
The post fêtes are something one can only truly experience to understand. The outer balconies of Avery Fisher Hall were chock full of great cuisine from previous years’ James Beard winners. The crowds flooded, bites were taken, drinks were drunk, cheers were made and backs were slapped. It’s a bit like a class reunion at the ebullient part of the night when everyone drops their baggage from high school and hugs, dances and drinks it out, only the food is way better. My favorite moment was when Kenosha-born, winner and Spiaggia chef Tony Mantuano told Racine-born Tory Miller about the rolled joints that used to stashed in the garde manger station 25 years ago at the previous iteration of L’Etoile, the restaurant Tory now helms. Post parties are the best; you can’t make this stuff up. Mantuano and Miller, Wisconsin boys both smiling for our “Wisconsin Foodie” cameras, Tory’s James Beard medal glinting in the Lincoln Center lights. The main course was nearly done, and it had been a good one.
Dessert and the digestive were mad crowed party scenes at Gramercy Tavern, whose chef had won Best Chef: New York; spontaneous shots of tequila at bar called No Idea; and then on to Eleven Madison Park for one of the best smashed-together, overcrowded, dancing on tables, chairs, ledges and everything else old-school rap party I have ever been to at an austere hard-to-get-into fine dining New York restaurant. Champagne was sprit zed, and chefs got their due and partied as if to push back against all sacrifices the job requires: all the missed family moments, all those intense evenings in kitchens where the memorable meals sent out had gone unmentioned. The “last course” went until 5 a.m. and finished with fried chicken and oysters at Blue Ribbon.
That weird old dude would have been proud.