Last week, the James Beard Foundation announced its list of “semi-finalists” for the exhaustive, annual list of chef and industry awards. Routinely called the “Oscars” of the food world, the Foundation began handing out awards in 1990. But curiously, it only started announcing these “semi-finalists” last year. Usually, the chefs and restaurateurs have to wait along with the cookbook authors and journalists - until March 21 - when the nominations come out. Not surprisingly, the food media/blogger/Twitter universe has picked up on this premature news, and blasted it around the internet as if it matters. It doesn’t.
Why has the Foundation decided to get the ball rolling in mid-February? Maybe it’s because we’re approaching FAF (Food Award Fatigue). It’s hard enough to compete with the movie industry’s Golden Globes, People’s Choice, SAGs and the Oscars this time of year (none of which, by the way, release a list of “semi-finalists” ahead of the regular nomination announcement). But when you throw in all of the regional and local food awards that have sprung up over the last few years, maybe the folks who put on the Beard Awards feel like they’re in danger of getting drowned out, and God forbid, becoming irrelevant. Am I overreacting? Consider the local food/chef awards in Chicago now up for grabs: Time Out’s Eat Out Awards (presented at a gala at the MCA last year), the Jean Banchet Awards (presented at the black tie Grand Chefs Gala at the Fairmont two weeks ago), the Good Eating Awards, the Eater Awards; not to mention similar recognition by editors or readers in The Reader, New City and Chicago Magazine. On the national level, Bon Appetit has its own awards event, as does Food & Wine - although now, in addition to the “Best New Chefs” announcement in April, it was just announced there’s going to be a “People’s Best New Chef” competition (thank goodness, it’s just not fair the professionals have all of the fun in voting, those Yelpers should have a say too!) Oh, and then there’s the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” Awards announced in London in mid-April (full disclosure: I’m the Regional Academy Chair for the mid-USA/Canada).
I’m guessing the Beard folks realized that their event might be getting drowned out by all of these annual accolades within the industry. That would be unfortunate, because for more than 20 years, the Beards have remained above the fray, even through the embarrassing scandal in 2004 that put then-President Len Pickell in jail for grand larceny and forced the resignation of the Board of Directors. By releasing this list in mid-February, it dilutes the brand - and the impact of the nominations - taking much of the excitement away from the highly-anticipated nominee announcements on March 21. I’ve got a few of those medallions at home, and I still remember the giddy thrill of hearing my name called the third week of March, along with the other nominees, knowing that I would be in New York City the first weekend of May for the Gala. The truly unfortunate result of this premature “rough” list is that many chefs and restaurateurs will feel like they’ve lost something on that day, when they never should have gotten their hopes up in the first place.