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NEW YORK The James Beard Foundation's annual awards, often called the Oscars of the food world, returned to Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall Monday night. This year's theme, “Ultimate Melting Pot,” celebrated America's diverse cuisine with an array of globally inspired dishes. “[Beard] championed cooking with regional, in-season ingredients long before it was fashionable,“ said foundation president Susan Ungaro. “What’s more, as someone who traveled internationally, he loved to celebrate and write about the cuisine of chefs who came to this country and created successful restaurants out of their heritage.”
The award ceremony, hosted by chefs (and past winners) Tom Colicchio, Ming Tsai, and Traci Des Jardins, drew a packed house of more than 2,000, as well as a wide audience of people watching via the awards' first-ever live Web cast. Winners included José Andrés (of Washington's Minibar) for Outstanding Chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's ABC Kitchen for Best New Restaurant, Eleven Madison Park for Outstanding Restaurant, and Gabrielle Hamilton (Prune) for Best Chef New York City.
Afterward, guests flooded the venue's lobby and grand promenade for the gala reception, which featured dishes from 25 chefs. (As in past years, the three-hour award program always makes for a hungry—and eager—crowd.)
The foundation worked with gala co-chairs José Andrés, Susan Feniger, and Floyd Cardoz to curate this year's lineup of chefs for the gala reception. “Selecting the chefs is always hard, because there is so much talent out there,” Ungaro said. ”[This year's chefs] are the very definition of American cuisine, inspired by their family traditions, immigrant roots, or international travels and training.” Dishes ranged from banh mi with pork belly (by Octavio Becerra of Glendale, California's Palate Food & Wine), to arroz a la cazuela with braised rabbit, chorizo, and lobster (by Jose Garces of Philadelphia-based Garces Restaurant Group), to sweet and savory steamed Thai rice cakes (by Andy Ricker of Portland, Oregon's Pok Pok). As culinary coordinator, Susan Wilber handled behind-the-scenes logistics.
Although the focus of the Beard Awards is food, sponsors have always had a strong presence throughout the event. Stella Artois returned with its beer-garden-style café, coffee company Lavazza replaced longtime sponsor Illy with an espresso bar, and Mercedes-Benz placed cars inside and near the arrivals area.
This year also saw the addition of Groupon, which worked with Mark Stephen Design and Production to create three distinct branded areas: a green arrivals carpet (inspired by the company's signature color), the press room, and a lounge on the terrace. The press room, which usually has a few bars and food stations from sponsors but not much in the way of decor or seating, was significantly made over, with green lighting and sleek white tables and chairs. The room also had a workspace for bloggers, espresso and cocktail bars, and a meatball station courtesy of restaurant the Meatball Shop and sponsor All-Clad. The terrace lounge, a popular spot during the reception, had a photo booth, cupcake station, live music by Two Man Gentleman Band, and a bar—not to mention a major bonus for high-heeled guests: plush carpeting.
“Overall, people are stepping up their activations for a better guest experience. Marketers are looking to cut through the clutter and touch people in inventive, interactive ways,” said David Bowen, who again produced the event with his team at Bowen & Company. “It's hard to stand out amid the big-name chefs and people. It's a pretty serious evening of food, and [Groupon] provided some humor and fun.”
Sponsorships extended to behind-the-scenes areas, as well. Another new addition was Mercedes-Benz's “Victory Lane” in the backstage photo room. “They brought in carpeting, branding, and furniture to create a nice, sexy environment for our winners to enter as they come off the stage to have their photos taken,” Bowen explained. While the majority of the attendees couldn't see this area, it lent the event a V.I.P. feel and the branding will live on in the photos of the winning chefs, posted on the foundation's Web site and other places.
Perhaps the most popular guests of the evening (and the cleverest branding idea) were two pigs, dressed in tuxes. The animals, Mortimer and Mauve, were there to promote whiskey brand WhistlePig. A handler kept them on a short leash all night as they walked the green carpet and hung out at WhistlePig's station, posing for photos with the black-tie crowd.