Why The Industry’s “Most Likely to Succeed” List is Even More Historically Significant than You Might Think
[Editor's Note: This piece was first published on April 9, 2010, on the original, 1.0 version of Toqueland. Thought I'd re-post it today for a few reasons: (1) The Jonathan Waxman interview referenced herein was the very first interview I conducted for what has become my just-announced book project; (2) Food & Wine unveils its 2012 Best New Chefs class on Tuesday, with party to follow; and (3) if more than a dozen people read this during my first, halfhearted attempt to run my own site/blog, I'd be shocked (didn't realize what I was getting myself into that time). As the waiters say, "Enjoy."]
APRIL 9, 2010; NEW YORK, NY – Food & Wine Magazine staged its 22nd annual Best New Chefs party Tuesday night at the Four Seasons restaurant in midtown Manhattan. And I do mean staged: Just before the recitation of the names (you can’t really call it an announcement as the news broke online earlier in the day), dancing girls decked out in hot pants, top hats, and feathered wings—getups worthy of a Bob Fosse fever dream—danced along the brink of the shallow fountain in the western dining room. It was fabulously over the top – one of those moments that you sometimes see in movies about New York and think, “There aren’t really parties like that in New York.” Only Tuesday night there was!
The event, as always, was one of the best food industry events of the year—almost comically packed with both top chefs and, owing to the magazine’s relationship with the show, Top Chefs (i.e., past cheftestants and winners from the Bravo TV production).
As I say, the BNC class of 2010 was announced earlier in the day Tuesday. The inductees were:
Roy Choi, Kogi BBQ truck, Los Angeles, California
Matt Lightner, Castagna, Portland, Oregon
Clayton Miller, Trummer’s on Main, Clifton, Virginia
Missy Robbins,A Voce, New York, New York
Jonathon Sawyer, The Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland, Ohio
Alex Seidel, Fruition, Denver, Colorado
Mike Sheerin, Blackbird, Chicago, Illinois
John Shields, Town House, Chilhowie, Virginia
Jason Stratton, Spinasse, Seattle, Washington
James Syhabout, Commis, Oakland, California
The whole scene–peppered as it was with bloggers (many armed with digital still and video cameras) and tv stars (Sarah Jessica Parker plus food-world tv celebs such as Tom Colicchio and Kelly Choi)–got me to thinking about how much things have changed in toque-land over the past few decades, and made me want to take a moment here to reflect on Best New Chefs’ place in the relatively young history of the modern American restaurant chef as we understand that term today. Because amidst all the glam and glitter Tuesday night, one might easily forget how very significant the awards were when they were first rolled out a little more than two decades ago.
I recently interviewed Jonathan Waxman of New York City’s Barbuto restaurant. Jonathan started out at Chez Panisse back in the 1970s, then rose to prominence at Michael’s in Los Angeles, and then JAMS in New York City. We were discussing the formative days of modern American restaurant food in general, and the California school in particular. When I asked who he was following outside of his immediate circle (Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Wolfgang Puck) back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he floored me with his answer: Almost nobody.
This had nothing to do with Jonathan’s curiosity about what was going on, which was considerable–he and Michael’s owner Michael McCarty would hang out after service in those days and talk about food until the wee hours–but rather with the fact that he had no idea there was much of anything going on Out There. Oh, sure, he’d met his good buddy Larry Forgione, but only once or twice at that point, and he’d heard of Paul Prudhomme (one of our first celebrity chefs, really). But, as he reminded me, in the late 1970s, there were no food sections in the papers (even the New York Times relegated its weekly restaurant review to a lonely page at the back of the Friday “Living” section until the mid 1990s), no coverage of chefs in major food magazines, and of course no such thing as Food Network (or cable television for that matter) and no food blogs (or the Internet for that matter). In other words, there was virtually no way for chefs to learn about each other except by word of mouth, the way people once heard tell of gunslingers and bank robbers.
When McCarty tasked Jonathan with organizing a fundraising event for the American Institute of Wine and Food (AIWF) in 1983, the chef had to sleuth around to find enough chefs to fill the bill, and that was how he first discovered now legendary figures such as Bradley Ogden and Jimmy Schmidt. When they all got together and prepared the sort of collaborative, multi-course benefit dinner that happens every night somewhere in America these days, it was galvanizing, one of the first such comings-together of chefs from around the country. And when they all got to talking and cooking in tandem, Jonathan realized that as he and his colleagues had been forging a new style of food in California, others were doing the same thing in their cities and regions. “We were all having the same acid flashback at the same time,” he said.
If this is what it was like for chefs back then, imagine what it was like for food enthusiasts. Only the most inside and most well traveled diners had a hope of having a clue as to the depth of what was transpiring across this republic of ours, and nobody really knew where it was all headed.
This was the backdrop against which Food & Wine Magazine introduced its Best New Chefs awards in 1988. That’s two years before the James Beard Foundation began handing out prizes to chefs, and just one year after the first, prototypical modern Beard House dinner, cooked by Wolfgang Puck in 1987. (The House now hosts about 250 such dinners a year, welcoming chefs from all over the country.)
In other words, the Food & Wine Best New Chefs awards were at the forefront of recognizing chefs in a way that had the power to connect rising figures in the industry and tip a growing and passionate fan base on to where to eat next. The inaugural crop of BNC honorees was auspicious, to say the least, counting among its ranks a couple of crazy kids named Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. It also recognized a few other chefs who would go on to do pretty well for themselves, including Rick Bayless of Chicago, Gordon Hamersley of Boston, and Joanne Killeen of Providence, Rhode Island.
Now, here’s an interesting footnote: The following eligible whisks were not inducted in 1988: Alfred Portale and Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York City; Charlie Trotter in Chicago; and Judy Rodgers in San Francisco. In fact none of them would ever make the list, although all were already making an impact on the industry.
That list of BNC also-rans points out the delicate balancing act the editors of Food & Wine have to pull off every year. There are surely—now, as there were then—deserving chefs in certain of our biggest cities who get bypassed in the name of geographic diversity when the BNC list is selected. But it’s all in the interest of the greater good: namely that chefs outside of major media markets get the kind of national exposure that, even in the Internet age, might othewise elude them.
“Two from Virginia?” exclaimed somebody standing behind me when the BNC roll call was read Tuesday night.
To which my answer is: “Damn stright.” Those chefs have more to gain than a Manhattan chef who already turns up on national monring shows and Nightline‘s Platelist periodically. In truth, for guys like Rocco Di Spirito, Scott Conant, David Chang, and Paul Liebrandt, to name just four Gotham-based BNC honorees of the past ten years or so, the award was more of a confirmation than a game changer. But for chefs from markets outside our top media hubs, becoming a BNC can change your life overnight. Case in point: the very day after he was named in 1998, Laurent Tourondel, then working in Las Vegas, began hearing from would-be investors, a game of telephone that eventually led to his return to NYC at Cello restaurant.
We diners have more to gain from the BNC representing all four corners (and the center) of the US, too. I already knew where to eat in New York City, but now I know where to go in Clifton and Chilhowie, or the next time I fly into Oakland instead of SFO, or if some piece of business takes me to Cleveland or Portland. That’s why I care about Best New Chefs. That, and the party. Gotta be honest. Love the party.
PS If you worked in a major American restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s (kitchen or front of house), I'd love to hear from you and possibly interview you for my forthcoming oral history of that era. Please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.