Food News

Inside the James Beard Awards

On Monday, four Portland chefs and two cooking scribes made the final ballots for the 2011 James Beard Foundation awards. With winners announced in May, the heat is on and all bets are off.

By Karen Brooks March 23, 2011

Monday, the Oregon Culinary Institute: in a room as tense as the stock market floor, a sea of stern-faced semi-finalists, relaxed past Beard winners, tweeting food writers, hopeful PR folks hovering like stage mothers, and white-jacketed culinary students from the Oregon Culinary Institute stand at attention, dreaming of their own delicious future, waited to hear who made the final cuts for the Oscars of the food world. Between now and May 9, secret Beard judges from around the country will vote on the final ballots (for the complete list of award nominees, click here).

Some of Portland’s best-known chefs were already in a pool of semifinalists for Best Chef (Northwest). Portland also had an impressive two semifinalists in the early running for Rising Star, the prestigious national category aimed at hot-shots under 30: Le Pigeon’s Gabriel Rucker (in the ring the past three years) and Castagna’s young gun, Matt Lightner. Winners in this category are often under the wings of superstars like Thomas Keller and David Chang. That Portland logged two semifinalists was a hopeful vote for chefs cooking on their terms in small independent restaurants.

This was also Portland’s debut as the “announcement city” for Beard finalists. Honchos from the foundation’s New York headquarters, following an eating blitz around the city, proclaimed it “the epicenter of America’s food world,” much to the delight of the crowd, who bobbed heads in agreement. Meanwhile, Nostrana’s Cathy Whims, hoping for her third finalist spot, looked frozen and positively pale—like a patient bracing to hear the worst.

The roll call began—and so did the finger-drumming, as categories like “Best Audio Webcast or Radio Show” unfolded with the drama of Oscar’s “Best Achievement for Makeup.”

The room woke up with the cookbook category. Local salt hero Mark Bitterman, owner of the Meadow” on N Mississippi Avenue, will compete with other scholarly tomes in the Reference and Scholarship category with his impressive Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes.

Kim Boyce also scored a nomination for her Good to the Grain: Cooking with Whole Grains in the Baking and Dessert category. The LA pastry pro is a Portland newcomer, prompting several whispers of “Who’s Kim Boyce?” (Answer: she’s currently snooping around for a space with her star-chef husband Thomas Boyce, but you can sample her treats at Coffeehouse Northwest on W Burnside Street or Ristretto Roasters on N Williams Avenue.)

Portland dominated the Best Chef (Northwest) list, as it did last year, with three of five nominations. Christopher Israel (Grüner), Cathy Whims (Nostrana), and Andy Ricker (Pok Pok) will compete against Seattle’s Matt Dillon (Sitka & Spruce) and Ethan Stowell (Staple & Fancy Mercantile), brother of Oregon Ballet Theatre honcho Christopher Stowell. This is Israel’s first nomination, Ricker’s second, and Whims’s third.

This will be a fierce competition, with no clear frontrunner, as all have strong track records and followings. Portland also dominated last year’s ballot but still lost to Seattle’s Jason Wilson (Crush).

No one looked more relieved than Whims, who couldn’t wait for the lunch to end, bolt back to Nostrana, and break out something major from her Italian wine cellar. “I’m nervous being here,” she said. “I want to be with my staff. It’s really about them. I remember Vitaly [Paley] saying what it means to win, business-wise. You struggle in this business to make it work. We’re just hitting our stride, and it’s our fifth year. It’s hard not to want it. I employ 50 people, you want it for them.”

Then came news that Rucker, once again, landed a coveted Rising Star finalist spot on the ballot. This year’s competition will be tough as always—Rucker will battle it out against the likes of New York pastry innovator Christina Tosi of the famed Momofuku Milk Bar. But four could be a charm for the brilliant Rucker, as his reputation continues to soar.

While Castagna’s Lightner didn’t crack the finals list, his star is also shooting, and I suspect we’ll see him in future Beard competitions. Confided Beard Foundation vice president Mitchell Davis: “Right now, Matt is one of most exciting talents in the country.” He’s not alone in that assessment.

Celebrations were low-key, just like Portland. Israel planned to break out Champagne at some point…but the day’s goal was to tweak new menu items led by bright green sorrel soup. “It may not feel like it, but today is the first day of spring, and we need to show that.”

Ricker says he’s celebrating by “opening a new restaurant,” a sign that he’s buried in headaches as he prepares to open Pok Pok Noi in few weeks at 1460 NE Prescott St.

Rucker seemed mostly excited to head back to New York with his merry band of Le Pigeon regulars, Andy Fortgang and Eric Van Kley. “Win or lose, it’s a really big honor to be nominated,” says Rucker, always the vision of laid-back cool. “These things always bring new people into the restaurant, and we get to serve them food. That’s what we live for.”

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