clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Photo by Kent Miller/courtesy the James Beard Foundation

Filed under:

How the James Beard Awards Began

An insider explains the early days of one of the most prominent awards in the restaurant world

The year was 1990. The Quilted Giraffe was serving caviar-filled beggars purses. Restaurant-goers were learning that “tapas bars” and “topless bars” were different destinations. The American Culinary Revolution led by Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Larry Forgione, Jonathan Waxman, and Michael McCarty was in full swing. There was no Food Network. Tweeting was for the birds.

The first iteration of the James Beard Award medal, affectionally nicknamed "the Joker." "Fortunately," Young says, "Mr. Beard had a facelift to the more elegant bronze medallion in following years."

In various locations around New York — including my apartment — plans for the first James Beard Foundation Awards were underway. I served as the awards director from 1990 to 2006, working with the Foundation to create the awards structure and programs, secure sponsorship, produce the events, and manage countless other moving parts that took a year to plan. It was a small group in the beginning that included a few hired staff and many volunteers.

We all knew the Awards were going to generate a lot of attention. In an Eater article last year, then-Restaurant Awards Committee Chair Providence Cicero, who was not part of the original committee, commented that "an effort of complete transparency" started in 2006 under new Foundation leadership. But transparency was important from the start. Now, as tonight's James Beard Awards ceremony marks the 25th anniversary of the program's launch, it's the opportune moment to share the story of how the Awards were started and how they've been shaped over time.

The Awards Take Form

The James Beard Foundation Awards were born from earlier programs. In 1990, the prestigious book-oriented Tastemaker Awards, established in 1966 by R.T. French, was seeking new sponsorship. The same year, Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, with Champagne Perrier-Jouët, approached the JBF with an offer — and seed money — to help the Foundation create a larger awards program for chefs, restaurants, and wine and spirits industry professionals.

Meanwhile, Cook's Magazine Who's Who of Cooking in America, created in 1984 to recognize the nation's most influential leaders in food and beverage (including James Beard, Julia Child, and Peter Kump), had ceased publication in 1990. I had been a PR consultant for the Who's Who for two years, and the magazine's owner, Bonnier Group, asked me to help find a buyer for the rights to the Who's Who program. A call from food writer and former New York Underground Critic Jane Freiman, who was a contributing editor for Cook's as well as a member of the Book Awards committee, set up that first meeting with Peter Kump.

Kump, the founder of the James Beard Foundation and his own eponymous cooking school, was a man of seemingly unlimited energy, and it was bursting out of his small walk-up office when we met. For a few years, the Foundation had quietly recognized "Great American Chefs," which Kump references in the first JBF Awards program. The acknowledgement wasn't quite an "award" — recipients earned a knife and a certificate of recognition — but the program was nothing along the lines of what was to become.

Kump's vision was to create the nation's greatest honors for culinary professionals, launching the JBF Chef and Restaurant Award program. That initiative included bringing back the Who's Who of Cooking in America. The Foundation sealed a deal with Bonnier Corp. to take over Who's Who of Cooking and renamed it the James Beard Foundation Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America to give it a broader representation of the industry and its leaders. (This year's Who's Who inductees include Wylie Dufresne, and Allan Benton, Dale DeGroff, Nathalie Dupree, and Maricel Presilla, and I still feel an induction into the Who's Who is one of the highest culinary honors.)

The plan was to present the Chef and Restaurant Awards around James Beard's May 5 birthday, and that first year, we barely had nine months to pull it off, including the process of raising more sponsorship money. Journalism Awards were added in 1992; Broadcast in 1993, and Restaurant Design in 1994.

In the Beginning

The first Awards ceremony took place on the M/S New Yorker dinner cruise boat May 6, 1991. Peter Kump kicked off the ceremony by announcing that "Tonight marks a milestone in our culinary world. For the first time, the most prestigious commendations in our profession are being recognized in one unforgettable ceremony." The ticket cost $150 for Foundation members ($65 for culinary students). Champagne flowed thanks to presenting sponsor Perrier-Jouët. Journalist George Plimpton and actress Jill St. John were co-hosts. Oklahoma chef John Bennett oversaw the Awards reception, whose chefs included 1990 nominees Emeril Lagasse, Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton, Stephan Pyles, Jacques Torres, and Charlie Trotter.

Before the internet, nominees were notified by telegram, and many people weren't sure what the James Beard Foundation was. Some honorees thought I was referring to a "beer" association when I contacted them. Then we used fax machines, lined up in a row in my apartment (which served as the first "Awards office"), to notify nominees, eventually graduating to e-blasts. (Journalists received embargoed lists of winners to make the Wednesday food section deadlines.)

The James Beard Foundation Awards moved to Lincoln Center in 1992, when the ceremony took place at Alice Tully Hall and reception at New York State Theatre. Lincoln Center was a glamorous step up from a boat, but proved logistically challenging with high facility costs. There were no professional kitchens, no running water, no refrigeration and minimal electricity to warm food. After 1992, the Awards moved to the New York Marriott Marquis to provide better kitchen facilities for the reception chefs.

For a few years in the 1990s, the Awards were on Food Network (then TVFN) thanks to a multi-year agreement. The first broadcast was 1994. The network eventually cancelled the contract, citing lack of audience interest. For several years produced live webcasts. But in the beginning, most chefs stayed in the kitchen and didn't cast for fame. New York City chef André Soltner didn't want to leave his restaurant, Lutece, to receive his Lifetime Achievement Award (we sent a car for him). We called the JBF Awards the "culinary Oscars" until the Foundation received a letter from lawyers for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. After that we referred to them as the culinary industry's equivalent to the "Oscars" (always in quotes).

Integrity Was Key

Maintaining the transparency and integrity of the Awards was key from the beginning. An Awards Committee, separate from the Foundation Board, was established to oversee management. Awards program committees and regional judges were carefully vetted for both their knowledge in the industry and eligibility that year. Judges were asked to sign affidavits to confirm they had no conflicts of interest. Foundation members and staff did not vote. Every committee had bylaws and procedures to follow.

An independent accounting firm was retained to advise the Foundation on structuring the voting procedure and to tabulate ballots. We took great efforts to state the voting process on entry forms and press materials. Over the years, we refined the wording and the process to address any questions or concerns as the program expanded.

Not that everyone read or listened. People frequently asked if cooking at the James Beard House or hosting a fundraiser increased chances for a nomination. People asked if they could campaign for an award or rally colleagues to submit entries to earn a nomination. People who were not nominated would complain the Awards weren't fair; they were just a popularity contest or a buddy network. There are always the naysayers. But in all my years running the Awards, I never heard from a "sore winner."

Over the years we were approached by sponsors ready to write large checks to move the awards to other cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles. We turned the offers down; New York was the James Beard Foundation's home. But this year, the Restaurant and Chef Awards will take place for the first time in Chicago. (Earlier this spring, the Foundation confirmed the 2016 and 2017 installments will also take place in Chicago.) I have only attended three Awards ceremonies since 2006. People tell me "It's not the same. It's a spectacle. It's too commercial. Too expensive to attend."

Times have changed. Attitudes change. The industry is bigger and bolder with higher financial stakes and more celebrity focus. Social media impacted how the Awards are presented and communicated. You may not like the circus, but you have to respect the people whose work is being honored. No matter what has changed, what has remained the same is the mission we established in 1990: "To recognize culinary professionals for excellence and achievement in their fields."

Fun facts from the ’90s JBFAs:

Each year, the Awards theme showcased different cuisines and industry trends, and the roster of reception chefs was overseen by an appointed executive chef in an honorary role. The “parade of chefs” took place at the start of each show so everyone could head back to the kitchens. Here now, Young provides more glances from behind-the-scenes:

1992: Executive chef Anne Rosenzweig (of NYC’s Arcadia) led “A Salute to Women Chefs.” Host Phyllis George, a former Miss America winner, was booed for promoting her “Chicken by George” food line from the podium. Bobby Flay and then-fiancée Debra Ponzek were both nominated for Rising Star Chef of the Year. Bobby called me asking to withdraw his nomination to not compete against Debra. I told him, “We can’t change voting results.” The next year, Debra presented the Rising Star Chef Award to Bobby.

1993: ”A Celebration of France” was led by executive chef Jacques Pépin. Tongues wagged with criticism when the group of French women chefs came on stage wearing can-can dancer costumes while the male chefs wore whites. The following year, chef’s whites became standard.

1995: A nominee for Rising Star Chef turned out to be too old. Los Angeles chef Octavio Becerra was nominated for the second consecutive year in 1995, despite the fact that he was 31 (Rising Star Chefs must be under the age of 30 to be considered eligible). We quietly withdrew his nomination.

1996: The 1996 ceremony provided us with the opportunity to look back, with the theme “Two Legends, One Legacy — Celebrating 10 Years of the James Beard Foundation and 30 years of the Food and Beverage Book Awards.” And we honored Peter Kump, who died in June 1995, with a Posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award. The last time I saw Peter was at the 1995 Awards, one month before his passing. His health was failing, but he was still the gracious and ebullient man I knew from that first meeting in his office.

1997: Some of the most poignant moments happened offstage as winners were escorted to the press room for photos: Chef-brothers Thomas and Joseph Keller embracing in tears after Thomas was named Outstanding Chef, Alice Waters’ lips quivered with emotion after receiving the Humanitarian Award from writer Adam Gopnik, who delivered an eloquent tribute.

Fun facts from the ’00s JBFAs:

2000: Actors Paul Sorvino and Marisa Tomei co-hosted “A Passion for Italy,” with Lidia Bastianich of Felidia as executive chef. Tomei bungled names of nominees because she didn’t allow time to rehearse her lines, which resulted in some unfavorable press. Sorvino spent some time working with the chefs in the kitchen.

2002: We grappled with how to appropriately address the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks without undermining the upbeat spirit of the evening. The industry had lost more than 100 foodservice workers in the attacks on the World Trade Center, and we crafted a tribute video to honor those whose lives were lost. To start the evening on an upbeat note, Drew Nieporent and Windows on the World chef Michael Lomonaco opened the ceremony by performing Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” with the Overtime Blues Band. That same year, Robert Burck (better known as the Naked Cowboy) was paid $50 to surprise Jamie Oliver (the Naked Chef) on stage as payback for Oliver’s refusal to rehearse. Oliver’s agent said he was “too important” to rehearse. Backstage in the press room, both Naked Chef and Naked Cowboy posed happily for photographers.

2003: The 2003 ceremony marked James Beard’s 100th birthday. The host was Emmy- and Tony-winning actress Swoosie Kurtz, who informed us she had several food allergies. We provided her an escort to taste her food.

2005: The 2005 Awards almost didn’t happen. The Awards Committee voted to cancel the 2005 show in the wake of a criminal investigation involving Foundation president Len Pickell. Many committee members and judges who wrote for news organizations resigned to distance themselves. We managed to recruit the needed quorum of quality judges and negotiate an agreement between the Awards Committee and the JBF Board to keep the show on schedule.

2006: The theme offered “A Tribute to New Orleans” with national TV news journalist and New Orleans native Cokie Roberts as host. This was an emotional evening, since New Orleans had suffered tremendously after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. T<span>his was my final year as Awards Director and bittersweet on many levels. Toward the end of the ceremony, presenter Corby Kummer (The Atlantic Monthly) called me on stage. A handsome man in a white dinner jacket appeared at the podium and made a beautiful speech that ended with a marriage proposal. That man, David Ransom, and I were married in New Orleans at Commander’s Palace in 2007.

Melanie Young continues her work in the food and beverage industry as an advisor and co- host with husband David Ransom of the iHeart radio show “The Connected Table LIVE!” She is author of two books and numerous articles on healthy living.

Sign Up for Dining In, the New Eater at Home Newsletter

The Move

The Best Way to Eat Ice Cream When It’s Cold Out Is a Stout Float

Eater at Home

In ‘Joys of Jell-O,’ There’s Nothing You Can’t Do With Colored Gelatin