"This is a crazy business" was the line most often repeated by those accepting James Beard Awards on Monday night, May 5, at the annual gala honoring the stars of the industry. And while those stars did shine, they also displayed visible humility as they thanked their teams—the sous chefs, line cooks, hosts, managers and others who toil in the front and back of the house.
It's no surprise to anyone who works in the industry that it takes a dedicated and loyal staff to make a chef and his or her restaurant successful. But I got the impression from the winners’ acceptance speeches that they are really good at training, managing and relating to their teams. And this relationship building takes precedence in their day-to-day operations.
Charles Phan, winner of one of the top honors, Outstanding Restaurant, now operates seven Slanted Door concepts based in San Francisco. The first location opened twenty years ago, and some of those original team members are still with him. Much newer to the industry is Jimmy Bannos Jr., the chef at Chicago’s Purple Pig, who shared an award for Rising Star Chef with Blaine Wetzel. It wouldn't be possible without his team of cooks, he said, who make him look good as they crank out 500 to 700 covers a day from a tiny electric kitchen. And April Bloomfield, top toque at The Spotted Pig and winner of Best Chef New York City, brought two of her female team members up on stage with her to acknowledge the importance of “girl power” to her success.
There was mention of mentors, too. Industry veteran Nancy Silverton, chef-partner in L.A.’s Pizzeria Mozza and winner of Outstanding Chef in the U.S., gave a shout-out to Jonathan Waxman, also a nominee and her first boss when she started cooking almost 40 years ago. She thanked him for mentoring her—a gift that jumpstarted Silverton’s career and helps her inspire the people who work alongside her today. When Barbara Lynch took the stage to accept her award for Outstanding Restaurateur, she expressed genuine gratitude to “all my mentors, friends and colleagues in the audience.”
The James Beard Awards are often referred to as “the Oscars of the food world.” But unlike the dog-eat-dog movie industry, the “crazy” restaurant business demands collaboration—both in the kitchen, the front of the house and with the entire restaurant community. Sure, the winners also make incredible food, but you don’t just go into the kitchen every night and cook to reach the top and be recognized as best or outstanding. Long hours and countless weekends spent away from families and loved ones are part of the job description. It's a business where teams, peers and mentors become second families. Ryan Prewitt of Peche Seafood Grille in New Orleans, who shared the award for Best Chef South, summed it up during his acceptance speech: “Many people’s hearts and souls go into making a restaurant successful.”