The James Beard Awards’ Chef’s Night Out

I have a secret to reveal: this year, I was a judge for the James Beard Awards.

Whoah, I just heard your collective gasp through the computer screen. Believe me, I gasped myself when they asked me. It’s a pretty gasp-worthy fact, considering that the James Beard Awards are like the Oscars of the food world. At first, I was shocked, then I was terrified, then I was deeply honored and flattered. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what category I judged (that’s a major stipulation) but I can tell you about my reward: two tickets to the big blow-out “Chef’s Night Out” party at SD-26.

We had something of a whirlwind weekend, this past weekend, with our good friends Mark & Diana getting married. (Remember when they got engaged?) On Thursday there was the bachelor/bachelorette parties, on Friday there was the rehearsal dinner, and on Saturday the big affair at which Craig officiated the ceremony. He did an incredible job (I just re-read his ceremony–which, incidentally, he wouldn’t let me, or anyone, read before the affair–and it was really inspired) so by Sunday, Craig had absolutely no energy to join me for the Beard Award party. Plus, these affairs don’t really do much for him as he usually has to listen to my ooh-ing and ahh-ing over chefs and food writers he doesn’t really know or care about. So I invited my good friend from the French Culinary Institute with the best name ever, Leland Scruby, to be my date.

We arrived at 9:30 and after finding ourselves something to drink (Champagne for Leland, white wine for me) we climbed a flight of stairs and peaked down at the room:


As you can see, it was quite a crowded scene. Leland rattled off chef names I didn’t know and then I pointed out the ones I did know: Alfred Portale, Gavin Kaysen, Eli from Top Chef, Brian Voltaggio from Top Chef, Daniel Boulud, and so on.

We nibbled on the SD-26 food as we gawked at the stars: a spiral pasta on the upper platform was pretty tasty, dressed in a simple tomato sauce, and Leland really enjoyed the prosciutto at the sliced meat table. The best bite for me, though, was this extraordinary Neapolitan pizza they passed around, prepared by a pizza chef they flew in from Naples just for this occasion. This may be crazy to say, but it was one of the better pizzas I think I’ve ever had. Or maybe that’s just the white wine talking.

We moseyed up to the front room, where everyone was coming in, and look who we ran into—our blogger friend Pim:


That’s Pim in an action shot: she joined me and Leland at the bar as we waited for more drinks. They never came so Pim being Pim, she grabbed an individual bottle of champagne, twisted off the top and plopped in a straw. It was an inspired moment.

After that, we ran into another blogger friend–a real mentor to me, and one of the first food writers I ever read or admired: Michael Ruhlman. It says a lot about him that even though we only spent a few minutes talking, it felt like we’d had a profound conversation. Plus, he introduced me to one of his fans as a “really good writer.” I was plotzing.

What else to report? Oh, that pig picture at the top was from a “secret room” that a Bon Appetit staffer toured us down to. Really, it was an open kitchen, but you kind of had to know about it. And that pig was mighty tasty.

All in all, it was a thrill to be in a room with so many distinguished figures from the food world (eventually, Thomas Keller made an entrance as everyone genuflected). To think that I was in their company (and that I was a judge!) because of my food blog is a rather inspiring thought, hopefully, for those of you with food blogs of your own. All it takes is a laptop and a dream.

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