Traci Des Jardins, the San Francisco-based chef at Jardinière, Mijita, Public House and Manzanita in the Ritz Carlton at Tahoe, has put the Bay Area in good standing as a constant survivor on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef: Masters.”
But co-hosting the James Beard Foundation Awards Monday night in New York’s Lincoln Center was not enough to give her fellow Bay Area chefs a bump on the national stage: New York largely ruled the night -- taking top national awards in six of 10 categories.
The Bay Area’s lone win Monday night was in the category of Best Chef Pacific, where Michael Tusk of the modern French and Italian mash-up Quince took home the award after being nominated five of the past six years. Chefs or restaurants from the Bay Area were nominees in seven out of nine competitive nationwide categories.
Tusk’s competition for the award included Los Angeles’ Providence and three fellow Bay Area chefs: Christopher Kosto of The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena; Daniel Patterson of COI; and Richard Reddington of Redd in Yountville.
“I don’t feel that I am better than anybody else, but it feels pretty special,” Tusk said afterwards as he clutched his medal for photos. “After having been through this five other years I was way in the back this time…the bleacher seats if you will... and that’s why I kind of had a feeling.”
The awards and tasting capped the formal part of a four-day weekend that has grown over the years from a modest affair to a foodie version of the Oscars. Celebrities and chefs dressed in their best walked across the “red carpet” — in this case a green carpet — making a grand entrance to the clicks and flash of the fooderati.
Thomas Keller, whose French Laundry in Yountville has been honored by foodies everywhere, took home a James Beard Award for his New York restaurant Per Se, this time for Outstanding Service nationally.
Before the awards, he embraced Grant Achatz, the cutting-edge Chicago chef, who began charting his path as a young cook in the kitchen at French Laundry. Keller arrived in a navy tuxedo and shoes emblazoned with "Death" and "Glory." They were a gift from the owner of British shoemaker Barker Black, a long-time customer. “It seemed like an appropriate night to wear them,” he said.
Other highlights included White House chef and food advisor Sam Kass arriving with the night’s Best Chef winner Jose Andres of Washington D.C.
Charles Phan of Slanted Door in San Francisco was honored for his contribution to the country’s diverse cuisine. Giving him the medal, Tom Colicchio commended Phan for his focus on techniques and top-notch ingredients that have put him on the “cutting edge of Vietnamese cuisine in San Francisco.” The theme of the 2011 awards was “Unique Melting Pot.”
Talking about her own James Beard Award for “Best Chef Pacific” in 2007, Des Jardins joked that her medal sits in her kitchen to remind her son that “I am a good cook and that he should eat his greens.”
This year’s lifetime achievement awards went to wine writer Kevin Zraly, who was wine director of Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center for 25 years before its destruction in 2001. In one of the more serious moment of the night, Zraly said he did not want to talk about the September 11 attack while accepting the honor, but said that with the killing of Osama Bin Laden he felt he had to remark.
“The last week, many, many things have happened,” he said. “The wicked witch is dead, ladies and gentlemen. I say that for 72 coworkers and friends of mine who were killed.”
The weekend kicked off Friday with awards in the non-chef food world — journalism, books, restaurant design — with the Bay Area placing well. The San Francisco Chronicle's Food section, a longtime Beard champion, won for consistently outstanding coverage while Aidlin Darling Design was honored for its design of Bar Agricole. Local writer Jordan Mackay and Michael Mina group sommelier Rajat Parr won for their "Secrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World's Top Wine Professionals," published by East Bay-based Ten Speed Press. Harold McGee’s revered reference book “On Food and Cooking” was inducted into the cookbook hall of fame.
But outside of that, the national awards were almost a clear sweep for New York. NYC's Eleven Madison Park took home the Outstanding Restaurant Award, beating out San Francisco’s Boulevard among others.
Portland chef Gabriel Rucker beat out Bay Area chefs Aaron London, of Ubuntu, and Thomas McNaughton, of Flour + Water. Jean Georges Vongerichten took Best New Restaurant with ABC Kitchen, beating out San Franciso’s Benu.
Phan, who was nominated for Outstanding Chef Award nationally, came up short against Washington D.C.’s Jose Andres who won for his six-seat minibar.
“I came to America as an immigrant 21 years ago,” an emotional Andres said as he accepted the award. “Thank you very much. America has received me with open arms.”
Keller said it was not a completely fair comparison.
“Everybody complains that the Beard Awards are New York-centric,” Keller said. “You have to remember that New York has thousands more restaurants and people. If there is anything the board committee can do [to combat that] it’s to have the awards ceremony outside New York.”
Pervaiz Shallwani writes for The Wall Street Journal and is a contributing editor to The Week.