By Lisa Cericola Posted May 5, 2009, 4:04 PM EDT
The James Beard Foundation returned to Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall Monday night for its annual award ceremony and chef-filled gala reception. Widely considered one of the most prestigious honors in the food business, the event drew about 1,700 people to watch the award show and sample a smorgasbord of food at the reception afterward. In spite of—or perhaps in response to—the lagging economy and struggling restaurant industry, organizers didn't tone down the glamour of previous years, and went with punchy pink decor in tribute to women in food, this year's theme. The event featured an all-female roster of 23 chefs in the grand tasting, as well as women mixologists, wine makers, cheese makers, and other food producers, for a total of 60 stations.
Foundation president Susan Ungaro said the theme was chosen to celebrate the number of female food professionals who have won Beard awards—350 over the past 19 years—and because of the timing of the soon-to-be-released movie Julie & Julia, in which Meryl Streep plays Julia Child, a friend of James Beard and a founding member of the organization. ”[The movie] offered us another opportunity to celebrate one of the great women chefs in history and her link to James Beard,” said Ungaro. Sony pictures created a special trailer of the movie that played during the awards, which were co-hosted by Stanley Tucci (who plays Child's husband, Paul, in the movie), Cat Cora, and Emeril Lagasse.
David Bowen, who again produced the event with his team at Bowen & Company, said the decor was designed to evoke the strength of women working in a traditionally male-dominated industry. “These women are no shrinking violets. They are powerful; they are contemporary; they are strong,” he said. “In terms of direction, we wanted something bold and graphic, so we went with a color scheme that is feminine, but bold.” Bright pink linens topped the tasting stations, which each chef’s team decorated, many incorporating spring flowers such as cherry blossoms and fresh produce. Pink and orange signage created by Florio Design added a graphic note with outlines of cutlery and kitchen utensils in pinwheel-shaped formations.
The award ceremony began at 6 p.m. and ended around 9 p.m., although many hungry guests started trickling out of the theater around 8:30 p.m. in search of food. Local winners included Gabriel Kreuther of the Modern for best new chef in New York City, Babbo’s Gina DePalma for best pastry chef, Jean Georges for outstanding restaurant, Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns for outstanding chef, Momofuku Ko for best new restaurant, Daniel for outstanding service, and Le Bernardin for outstanding wine service.
The food, coordinated behind the scenes by Susan Wilber, remained as plentiful as in previous years, with chefs dishing out bites of their signature dishes throughout the lobby and upstairs in the grand promenade. Seafood was spotted at many stations: April Bloomfield of New York's Spotted Pig and the John Dory served fish ceviche with grapefruit and avocado; Michelle Bernstein of Miami's Michy's made sea urchin Cuban sandwiches; and Carrie Nahabedian of Chicago's Naha served cured Great Lakes whitefish and Door County golden whitefish caviar with crème fraîche, candied Meyer lemon, and Lebanese-seeded fattoush. Sweets included bittersweet chocolate tarts with Mexican vanilla ice cream, whiskey sauce, and white pralines from Rebecca Rather of Rather Sweet Bakery and Café in Fredericksburg, Texas, and warm coconut–cardamom rice pudding with rhubarb and kumquats by Kate Zuckerman of New York’s Chanterelle. Female mixologists such as Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club and Kim Haasarud of Los Angeles’ Liquid Architecture concocted cocktails using spirits from the evening’s sponsors, including Plymouth Gin and Rums of Puerto Rico.
Bowen said sponsorships were a concern this year, after a decrease in attendance in 2008. “It's a balance between sponsors versus ticket sales versus the actual budget. But we managed it well,” said Bowen. “The perception is that the foundation makes a lot of money on the awards, but it is a huge, expensive show to produce.” Some past sponsors, like struggling Waterford Wedgwood, did not participate, but organizers were able to attract a few new sponsors, including Stella Artois, which had prominent presence in a Belgian beer cafe set up in the lobby. Along with different types of ale, guests sampled cheeses made by women, provided by Artisanal, and products from D’Artagnan, which is run by Ariane Daguin.
One part of the event that generated strong interest was the seated V.I.P. section, where guests were served passed hors d’oeuvres and a seven-course menu of selections from the tasting stations. About 180 guests—up from 150 last year—dined in a narrow section of the grand promenade, sectioned off by translucent pink walls. John Yarce of Organica decorated the space with silver linens, chairs, and chargers, save for centerpieces of bright fuchsia orchids on each table.