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Melanie Young, founder of M. Young Communications, is the producer behind the James Beard Foundation awards, the behemoth event that starts with an awards show and ends with a food extravaganza where 37 chefs cook for more than 1,600 guests. Dubbed the "Oscars of the food world," the event will draw everyone who's anyone in the American restaurant and food industry--from Danny Meyer to Ruth Reichl to Bobby Flay--to the Marriott Marquis on Monday, May 6.

BiZBash: What has been different about planning the James Beard awards this year?

Young: The event is always about celebrating the industry, yet we also have to celebrate and remember the lives of those who are no longer with us. Fourteen people passed away this year--we usually have 5 or 6 at the most--plus [we lost] Windows on the World, so the memorial tribute will be a somber part of the ceremony. We will address it because we have to, but also because we want to celebrate and recognize that this industry pulled together to do quite a bit to help, because it is such a caring and nurturing industry. But in all, [the event's purpose is] still to celebrate achievements and contributions. We also want to be sensitive to the fact that there will be people in the audience who were severely affected, so we're doing it in a very sensitive way.

Aside from the theme, what will be different this year?

The format is the same: It's a two-and-a-half hour ceremony. And then there's the big party. The theme is the Spice Connection, which is basically a tour of the flavors of the world. We did a lot of research to figure out where each spice originated, and assigned each guest chef one spice to feature in his or her dish. The awards stage and the foyer of the fifth floor Westside ballroom is going to look like a spice market with a big tent and beautiful fabrics. It will be very colorful and very sensuous, with lots of smells.

Overland Entertainment does the staging for the ceremony, and they're also doing the d?cor this year for both the journalism dinner [on May 3] and the gala. Sight Effects does all the graphics. This year's invitation was designed by John Kneapler, who came up with three or four concepts, and then everyone voted. We love working with him: He works with a budget, and he comes up with some really creative ideas.

We're doing spice music. I read in [Lifetime Achievement award recipient] George Lang's bio that he loves Mendelssohn, so I told my video producer Dot Giraldi that I want Mendelssohn in the background of the video. Exit music is also important. I want Mellow Yellow to get everybody in the mood. We try to touch all five senses at the party.

What about entertainment?

This year Drew Nieporent and Michael Lomonaco are performing two numbers with their Overtime Blues Band. Our host is Lisa Ling of The View. We try to get a celebrity who's not in the food industry who loves food. I've been on the phone with William Morris to get a few celebrities to help present awards. My goal with the press part of the Beard awards is to have it jump off the food pages and into the news and entertainment media. And we've successfully done that in the past several years as chefs have become more celebrity-oriented.

Who determines the theme?

On Tuesday, May 7, at 2 o'clock, I'm meeting with the James Beard awards board, and we set the theme for the following year, confirm the date, and discuss who will be [honored for] lifetime achievement. So that's all done the day after the awards. There's no rest. Next year--2003--would have been James Beard's 100th birthday, so I'm hoping the awards will revolve around that.

Are the Beard awards your company's biggest event?

In terms of profile within the industry, yes. But our biggest client is Bon Appetit magazine. We produce six Bon Appetit Wine and Spirit Focus events around the country, plus a culinary weekend in Scottsdale. Beard probably does take a lot more of my personal time because I was part of the team that got it off the ground, and it's very near and dear to my heart. And as the Beard awards grew, my company grew.

Chefs and restaurateurs host people every night. Are they a tough crowd as guests?

When you're doing a culinary event, particularly for the James Beard Foundation, you've got to make sure that you're not going to run out of food and you're not going to have long lines. We try to have adequate signage, we try to have good floor plans you can follow, but after that, it's a feeding frenzy. The feedback is usually all positive. Some people say it's too crowded. One year we had a heat wave and it was too hot--that's not something I can control.

It will be crowded. The secret to eating at the Beard awards is to go around the perimeters first. You've got to get in the room and go to the left or the right before you go to the center. We give a lot of thought to the floor plan. We know the first stations are going to get slammed, and we want someone who can handle that, and then we want strong chefs in the corners to draw people out of the center.

Because you work with food and restaurants a lot, do you eat out a lot?

Yes. I don't eat lunch. Last week I ate out four nights. This week I'm giving my stomach a rest. I try to do one week heavy and one week light--otherwise I'd go nuts. I don't cook. Why cook when you can eat out?

Posted 04.25.02

Read our coverage of last year's James Beard Foundation awards gala...

Read our coverage of last year's Bon Appetit Wine & Spirits Focus...
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