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Chefs Weigh In on the Influence and Importance of Awards

Welcome to Hot Topics, in which food industry people chime in on a major issue in food.

Eric Lebofsky

Today, chefs and restaurants have just a ton of opportunities to win awards. Over the course of the last six weeks, the restaurant industry has celebrated Food & Wine's Best New Chefs class, the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, and the James Beard Awards. Beyond that, there's the steady stream of Michelin announcements around the world. But how much do any of these awards matter? What kind of effects do they have on a restaurant? And how accurate can they be in an inherently subjective industry?

Here now, chefs and restaurateurs Dave Beran (Next, Chicago), Jon Shook (Animal, Los Angeles), Cathal Armstrong (Restaurant Eve, Alexandria, VA), Cara Stadler (Tao Yuan, Brunswick, ME), and Daniel Patterson (Coi, San Francisco) weigh in on the issue.

Dave Beran

dave-beran-514.jpgNext, Chicago
2014 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: Great Lakes; Food & Wine Best New Chef class of 2014

What did the James Beard Award win mean for you?
It's one of those awards that obviously you've wanted since you started cooking. My first job was at mk in Chicago. We'd always do James Beard fundraisers and I never knew what it was. And it was always such a big deal when the chef there was nominated. It started to resonate more and more. Then I went to Tru, and they had already won all the awards by the time I got there, so you'd see all the plaques on the wall. I got to Alinea, and I was there for all of our wins. I really started to understand what it means.

Something like that is really an award that is judged by your peers, all the people who either influence what you do or are just generally a part of your career. So it's a really exciting thing. I looked at the people I was nominated against and Curtis [Duffy], I worked for him at Alinea, he was chef de cuisine when I started there. [Paul] Virant and [Andrew] Zimmerman I've known forever as chefs from Chicago. They're guys that I've looked up to for a long time. So it's really an exciting thing just to be standing in their company.

I bet. What do you think is the influence of all the big awards, James Beard, 50 Best, and Michelin? Which ones are the most important?
It's all different. World's top 50 is really an exciting thing to be a part of because there are only 50 restaurants in the world that are on the list. The time I got to go with Chef [Grant Achatz] was when we got number seven in the world with Alinea. It just struck me as an opportunity for like-minded people to celebrate what they've all accomplished and what they've been doing. We had dinner one night as a table of eight, and it was myself, Thomas Keller, Daniel Humm, Will Guidara, and significant others. It's an opportunity to spend time with these brilliant minds.

You can look at it from the business perspective and say the better you do on the list, the more people that are aware, the more they're going to fly in. If you get 20 on the top 50 list and then all of a sudden you jump up to 10, the momentum hits you. But for me personally, it's exciting to get the number, but more exciting to stand in the company of such brilliance in the culinary world. James Beard is the same way. It's different because it's all within our country. This year, I looked at the nominees and a lot of them are people that I've cooked with in various restaurants. You see your culinary family growing up with you.

Did you find a noticeable difference in moving up in the 50 Best?

Obviously, my experience with the 50 Best pertains to when I was chef de cuisine at Alinea. I do remember that right after that would happen, all of a sudden the phones would just start going crazy. Especially when we got best restaurant in North America, there's a catching wind of someone defining — whether it's correct or not — what is the best restaurant in the country. It was almost jarring. All of a sudden that news comes out and the next day our phone system goes down because we're overloaded.

That 50 Best news comes out and the next day our phone system goes down.

And as soon as we got three Michelin [stars] the first time, it was overwhelming. I think in Chicago or in the US, Michelin stars are, to some extent, more of a personal thing for a chef. As opposed to in Europe, [where] I feel like the guide has more of its original intent as a traveler's guide. I don't think it's been in the US long enough to have that same resonating effect with most American travelers and diners yet. I don't know if someone flying in from Texas is going to pick up the Chicago Michelin Guide. But it's still exciting.

I want to ask you, too, about the subjectivity of these things. I know Chef Achatz has talked about geography playing into Alinea's place on the 50 Best, Michelin has offered explanations for not rating Next.
The thing that I understand with Michelin and Next is… I'll use previous menus as examples. When we did the Sicilian menu, everything was family-style. In my honest opinion, I thought our food level was certainly a one-Michelin quality meal. However, we go onto the elBulli menu, and we're doing absolutely everything we can to replicate a three-Michelin-star restaurant. And elBulli helped us. We basically got their seal of approval saying, "You are doing our food." And, inherently, that should be a three-Michelin meal. In theory.

On the flip side, something we were joking about when we opened the Chinese menu is what if we roped off the dining room, didn't have any seats, had someone at the front door taking tickets, someone in the middle handing people to-go bags, and then people would just walk out the back door. We'd do 1,000 covers a day as just a walk-through Chinese takeout.

Now, what if Michelin had judged us on elBulli and gave us three stars, but then we had Sicily right after, which was a one Michelin. And now you have a restaurant that has three Michelin stars serving one Michelin food or a one Michelin serving three Michelin food. Or, the worst-case scenario, what if they split the difference and gave us two [stars] and then all of a sudden we're a takeout restaurant?

I guess I've justified what I think their logic is. Which ultimately makes sense. I wouldn't want to put out a guide that says this restaurant has one, two, three Michelin stars when all of a sudden we decide to be a hoagie shop. That just ends up being silly. Maybe that's not their logic, but I get it. And I don't think any of us in the building really crave that affirmation.

How about 50 Best?
As far as 50 Best, chef Achatz has made reference to geography because New York is obviously a much more ideal location than Chicago for something like that because it's easy for Europeans to fly into. But I don't necessarily know that it's the world's 50 best restaurants. I mean, can you argue that The French Laundry should be as low as it is on the list? I don't know. Maybe, maybe not. Is it better or worse than Noma? I don't know how to judge that.

The top 50 is a very good snapshot of the relevance of restaurants and the current state of the culinary scene.

I will say, though, that top 50 is a very good snapshot of the relevance of restaurants and the current state of the culinary scene. Look at 2000 through 2007 when elBulli was right at the top the whole time. If you look around the culinary scene and the direction that it was going, most of the top restaurants were going toward that genre of cuisine. And now if you pick up any popular food magazine or name your favorite restaurant, how many restaurants now are interested in finding boutique, unique, local, one-off plates and serving a dish that's skewed slightly to the left in a north/south presentation with a little foamy sauce around it? That was jumped into the forefront by restaurants like Noma. So that list has definitely represented a skew in the style of cooking in the culinary world at the moment.

I think that's really the importance of the world's top 50. It's not truly an argument of what is the best restaurant in the world because what if, hypothetically, John Shields opens Riverstead, and everyone who eats there is so blown away it genuinely becomes the best restaurant in the world, like, there's no one in the world doing what he does. The fact of the matter is, he's in the middle of nowhere and he's doing 14 covers a day. Will enough people be able to get there to see it, to eat it, to enjoy it, to make him number one on that list? I don't know. So it's tough to say what truly is the best restaurant in the world.

Should we be calling things the 50 best restaurants in the world? Do you care?
I know we as a company have at times been frustrated with where we've landed on the list and wondered how we ended up there. There's been times we've been really excited, and there's been times we've just taken it with a grain of salt. I think any time that you receive an accolade like that it's exciting. At Next, starting with the whole challenge of Michelin, we've started to realize as we've matured that it really comes down to how proud you are of what you're doing. As long as you're constant in what you're doing and proud of it and aware of what everyone else is doing, then you're able to rate and compare yourself if you so choose. I think that's a really important thing.

[Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

Jon Shook

jon-shook-514.jpgAnimal, LA
2014 James Beard Award co-finalist for Best Chef: West

How much do all these awards matter?
The thing for me and the awards is that it's usually your peers. To be honored by your peers in any way is super amazing. I never really got into cooking to try to get awards. There are some guys that have, and it's a totally different game for them. I see when I talk to them in the awards ceremonies the way that they think about it and approach it. That means the world to them. Every day, I wake up and I strive to just do my best at work. It's amazing to be recognized and to have had so much great press. I'm psyched to even just get the kind of recognition that we've gotten here in LA. For me, it's just unbelievable, all of it.

To be honored by your peers in any way is super amazing.

Yeah, I hope one day I win a James Beard. But it's just amazing I'm even on the list. When we opened it wasn't like we're opening this restaurant to get a James Beard. But it helps put people in your seats. Even doing this article will help put people in my seats. And that's why people pay a ton of money to have PR. We don't have PR. Before, when Animal first opened, I had all the time in the world, so if you emailed me, you'd be talking to me direct. Now there are so many restaurants. We have 111 employees; we're going to have 160-something by the end of the year with the stuff that's opening.

That's crazy. You said it puts people in your seats, but do you have any sense of by how much?
Any time you get press, it obviously helps. So many new restaurants are opening all the time so it's just great to have your name mentioned because it's in people's minds. That's why all these chefs do television now. The bigger your outreach is, then the more opportunity there is for bigger sponsorships. And bigger sponsorships lead to potentially more money. The restaurant business is a hard business. Most people make minimum wage, especially when you factor in all the chefs in New York that work 80 hours a week at $40,000 a year. They're working for less than minimum wage. They're basically like sweat laborers.

There's not really an exact number that I could be like, "Oh every time you get a magazine, this is how much it gives you." It's also regional. In LA, James Beard, some people know what it is, but most people don't. They're like, "What do you mean you've got to go out of town for James Beard?" But in New York, it's a big deal.

Which awards are the most coveted or do you covet the most?
I think they're all coveted in their own way. It's what's important to you because there are local awards and there are national awards and there are international awards. Some people that get great international press don't get any press locally — and the locals are the people you need to support your business.

For me, just being recognized in any publication is good. Hopefully it's in a good light and people aren't reading, like, oh you're screwing somebody over. We got LA Weekly, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Angeleno, those are the local awards, those are important. And to be recognized on a national scale, that means your food is impacting a national interest. They all tie together. And we've had great reviews and bad reviews. Food is opinionated. You might come to Animal and say, "I love Animal, it's amazing." And somebody else who comes here is allergic to gluten, they'd be like, "Fuck those guys, they wouldn't change a dish for me." Literally that little bit could change their opinion about us. People are nuts. We're nuts.

In a business that's so subjective, is it possible to have a best restaurant or best chef?
I think you have a better opportunity to compare a dish, but even that, think about a hamburger: I love thin patties. 98 percent of the time, I'm going to choose the thin patty. That's a personal preference. You might hate thin patties. So food is opinionated. That's part of the reason why I don't do a lot of competition television because what's good to me might not be good to somebody else and I don't want somebody to tell me, "Hey, I didn't like this." Well, who are you to tell me you didn't like it? I liked it.

So does it matter, the accuracy of these awards?
I think it's great. It's great for our business, it creates good camaraderie between other restaurants. I don't take it as seriously as some people. I was super honored to be a James Beard finalist. I went there, I had good times at parties, and I'm back here in LA trying to play catch up for being gone for the last four days. I'll be psyched next year as well if I get the opportunity, but even if I don't, it was still an amazing experience to get to go this year.

How can you compare this to another Michelin restaurant when they don't even come here?

And I don't think there's one award that's more… Everybody has different things that are important to them. Some people say it's James Beard, some people say it's Food & Wine, some people say it's Bon Appétit, some people say it's Michelin stars. Michelin doesn't even come to LA. How can you compare this to another Michelin restaurant when they don't even come here? And are they sending the same Michelin person to all the restaurants? So I just try to come in and do what I think is the best possible quality food every day and enjoy myself. I feel very fortunate that I get to do what I do. To get recognized by any award in your restaurant is great. It doesn't hurt.

[Photo: Eater]

Cathal Armstrong

cathal-armstrong-514.jpg

Restaurant Eve, Alexandria, VA
2014 James Beard Award finalist for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic

What influence do these awards have on a restaurants?

I think they probably bring an element of business and, more likely, traveling business. Especially the [awards] on the national level. For me anyway, I think an award is a personal thing. It's a sign of achievement and an indication of how dedicated or committed you are to your craft. Obviously, I don't know of any award that I've received in the restaurant business for something that I did personally. Every restaurant is a team, and anyone that denies that is crazy.

Every restaurant is a team, and anyone that denies that is crazy.

But like the James Beard Awards, the rules are that if you're going to vote for a restaurant, you have to eat in it. So that in and of itself is going to bring business to your restaurant. The same is going to apply to Michelin. We've been pretty successful with the local restaurant association awards, and it's hard to gauge that. It always surprises me, you get a good amount of people that talk about it. Even our regular guests will come in and say, "Oh, sorry you didn't get the James Beard Award," or "Congratulations on being nominated." There is a good amount of chatter about it. Sometimes I'm like, "Oh, no one pays attention to it." But that's probably not true.

In terms of the local versus the national awards, which level is more important or has the most influence for you?
Our local awards are attended by our local clientele, which we greatly depend on in the months of January, February, March, July, August, and most of September. So, from a business perspective, I would say that the local awards are more important. And, even from a kudos perspective, they hold their own level of importance because you're going to get more of our local clientele talking about that.

From a personal perspective, winning an award on a national level obviously is the ultimate reward for what we strive for. Definitely being nominated for a James Beard Award, winning a James Beard Award, is really something that I think all serious chefs strive for. Everybody wants to win.

No kidding. But with the James Beard Awards, you brought it up that the judges have to eat in the restaurant before they vote. Is that tricky in the sense of not knowing how often people are even able to come into the restaurant?
Yeah. I mean, I've been nominated I think seven, maybe eight times. If I told you that I was not a competitive person, I would be lying. Obviously, I would like to win a James Beard Award as well as be nominated for one. There is that element of disappointment when you don't win. We talk amongst ourselves about why didn't we win and you wonder if Alexandria is too remote to be taken seriously enough. Who knows. It's impossible to tell with these things. At the end of the day, just being nominated is really phenomenal.

There is a marketing advantage to not winning.

There is an advantage to being nominated and not winning because then you have the opportunity to be nominated again for the same award the following year. Which means you get to go back up [to New York], and you get to be talked about again, and your name is still up there in the lights. If you win, chances are you're years away from being nominated for anything again. So there is a marketing advantage to not winning. [Laughs] We try to take it in stride. But at the same time, of course it's disappointing not winning.

My colleague Paula Forbes was crunching some numbers from the recent years and found this is just the case across the board where people would be nominated for five or six years and then finally win.
Yeah, it's pretty common. Exactly. Wylie Dufresne was nominated 10 years in a row before he won it, so whatever, it's great to be nominated. It's a fun event to go to. It's a weekend for us in New York, which is always a blast. And then we come back hungover and get back to work.

Obviously we don't have Michelin here in the DC area and probably won't, but is that something you would like to see?
I don't know that our audience really pays that much attention to Michelin. I think that is probably more just for kudos than anything else. Michelin has been very successful in Europe. I think they're probably 50 years away from being successful in the United States because, if they want to run a fair program, they have to assess the entire United States. To say that a restaurant in New York is three-star Michelin and the Inn at Little Washington is not kind of does misrepresent what the whole system is about.

Before the general public in the United States is going to take Michelin seriously, it has to be nationwide.

So I think before the general public in the United States is going to take it seriously, it has to be nationwide. And I don't know if that's in their plans. It's obviously not an inexpensive prospect. At the moment, I think it isn't as relevant and it doesn't mean as much to me, certainly, as a James Beard Award would. Having said that, if somebody came to me and said, "You've been awarded three Michelin stars," I wouldn't turn it down. [Laughs]

[Photo: Official]

Cara Stadler

cara-stadler-514.jpg

Tao Yuan, Brunswick, ME
Food & Wine Best New Chefs class of 2014; 2014 James Beard Award semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year

Congratulations on the Food & Wine Best New Chef nod. How was finding that out?
It was just a huge shock. It's a huge honor. We're super excited and honored and flattered.

I know it's still been just a short time, but have you seen any effects from that yet on the restaurant and for you personally?
There's definitely been some new customers who haven't heard about us who come in, which is great. Otherwise, I don't know what other effects there would be. Things are pretty much going the way they were. But the press is huge because we don't do any advertising or anything, so it's brought a lot of people who never read about us in.

Right after the announcement, we had a huge bump. We also get more adventurous eaters.

Are you able to quantify that at all? In terms of reservations or number of nightly covers?

No. We're definitely busier. Especially right after the announcement, we had a huge bump. We also get more adventurous eaters, which is kind of fun, too. Because, you know, people who are paying attention to the food news are more inclined to be more interested in trying new things. So we can sort of put some more fun things on [the menu].

Are you having more people going out of their way to get to you?
We have people coming from a little farther, too. We're sort of in the middle of nowhere, so everyone ultimately has to travel some amount of distance.

You were a semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star award, too. So which awards do you find that you most covet — or do you covet them at all? What's important?
When I started cooking as a young cook, I was like, there are two things in the US that I feel are the highest achievements that you can be awarded. This was not knowing anything about Michelin at the time because I was like 16 and had just started cooking and learning about everything. The two things that you knew right off the bat were James Beard and Food & Wine. They're both amazing. And they're totally different things, too.

And in an area where you don't have Michelin stars, do these awards mean more or do they play into each other like that at all?
I think the best thing is that I feel like, as cooks, we work so hard to do what we do. For all this time and all this energy that we're putting in to be recognized, that's huge for us. It's not really the award. It's more the recognition that what we're doing and all this time we're spending, people appreciate it.

Some people mention that different awards mean different things based on who is judging them — whether it's your peers or anonymous Michelin inspectors. Is that something that matters to you?
I think either is worthy of recognition. Maybe not Michelin because they have a very weird system, but the fact is having someone anonymous [rate you] is great. It means that every customer is taken care of. And that's huge. That's what matters more than anything else.

[Photo: Ted Axelrod/Eater Maine]

Daniel Patterson

daniel-patterson-514-hot-topics.jpg

Coi, San Francisco
2014 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: West; #49 on World's 50 Best Restaurants list; two Michelin stars

What did your recent 50 Best and James Beard wins mean for you?
I think it's great for the team. Peer recognition is always positive. Business has picked up a little bit during the middle of the week and so that's really great.

How significantly has business picked up? Can you quantify those effects that an award has?
We were already busy. I think that the consistency has been better.

How was it after the 50 Best?

That was the biggest change. I can't tell what the Beard Awards did because everything went up so much after the 50 Best that it's hard to tell what's one and what's the other. What's interesting is a lot of people in San Francisco saw 50 Best and then they decided to come in even though we've been there for eight years. They said, "We've been meaning to come in, but now we're going to." But it's great. Anything that brings people in.

A lot of people in San Francisco saw 50 Best and decided to come in even though we've been there for eight years.

And, like I said, it's great for the team. They work hard, they do good work, and I'm really proud of them. I feel like these kinds of recognitions are as much about them as they are about me. First of all, 50 Best is not an individual award. It's for a whole restaurant. And even the James Beard, I don't work by myself. We have a lot of people. That's really a shared achievement.

And how about Michelin, too? What's the influence that Michelin ratings have on a restaurant?
It's hard to say because people don't always tell you why they're coming into a restaurant. We have a lot of international clientele who use the guide, national and international. It's definitely personally meaningful. And, again, it's a great thing for the team. In terms of business, it's really hard to say. There's a great story about, I think it's The Fat Duck, they were so slow when they had two stars and then they got their third star and all of a sudden they were busy.

So it's different for everyone, different in every place. For us, it definitely has an effect. People come in because of it, but how many would be impossible for us to know. But it's the most established rating in the world. In that regard, it has a very widespread footprint.

I've talked to a lot of people, especially in Europe, comparing the effects of the 50 Best list and Michelin and it seems as though the 50 Best is really what's driving business to restaurants now. Is that the case in the US as well?

The 50 Best had more effect on our business immediately than any event...

Yes. The 50 Best had more effect on our business immediately than any event since we've been open except for when we were in the New York Times in 2007 or 2008. I mean, we're not number one. But we saw it happen on a Monday. Even just by Tuesday, our reservations had gone up already.

Finally, I want to ask you about the objectivity of all this. Do you think it's possible to have an objective awards system for something subjective like dining?
Of course not. Every rating system has its own perspective, its own set of values. But, for people who say that the 50 Best and Michelin are very different, I would say look at the top 10 of the 50 Best. It's three stars, three stars, three stars. D.O.M. is not in a place that gets rated. You know? It actually does correspond pretty well. Noma has two stars, but I think they're a three-star level for sure. So it's not like there's no correlation.

But in terms of ratings themselves, I think that if you know what the criteria are for each rating system, and if those criteria match what you look for in a restaurant, then it's valid, it's valuable. So I know what Michelin looks for. 50 Best, I can't say that I particularly have a beat on it, but I've got some idea anyway. And James Beard is a little bit more inscrutable to me. But, to be honest, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about awards. I spend a lot of time thinking about my menu, and my staff, and my customers, and almost no time thinking about awards.

[Photo: Carlo Cruz]

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