“Hollywood has an entire awards season! We have one night of the year to pat ourselves on the back,” said power restaurateur Drew Nieporent, waving around a half-smoked stogie outside Alice Tully Hall, where the James Beard Awards, which celebrate the food industry, were being held on Monday, May 3-a safe distance from the Costume Institute.
Not everyone relishes the now-inevitable comparison of chefs to celebrities, though. “I can’t even say that word! You reach a certain point in your career and the press wants to call you that,” said Craft’s Tom Colicchio, sipping mineral water and batting away the attention of a tanned young woman from Texas inside. “Here’s what I think happened. In the ’80s, when everyone stopped doing cocaine and going to Studio 54, people needed something to do, so the press made us celebrities.” Admitting he had done his part by cooking on TV, Mr. Colicchio continued: “It all depends on why someone wants to be famous. The problem today is people want to be a celebrity without suffering for it.”
He went on to win Best Chef Overall. Best Chef New York, meanwhile, went to Daniel Humm of Danny Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park, beating out Wylie DuFresne, WD-50′s molecule-smashing renegade and a four-time nominee. What is the value of the award? “You’re asking the wrong guy. I never won it!” Mr. DuFresne said. “This year I don’t have to go up against David Chang, though.”
And what of the judging process, which seems to single out restaurants under the auspices of the big three-Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mr. Meyer? “I’m sorry, I don’t have a decoder ring, but the process seems fine to me,” Mr. DuFresne said.
Meanwhile, the éminence grise Jacques Pepin, whose unfussy French cooking on PBS sowed the seeds of the food-TV craze, smiled brightly when asked about his role in readying America for the Food Network and reality TV chefs. “Are you kidding me? Of course I’m proud! But to understand what happened, you need to go back to the GIs coming home from the First World War, and ’60s women’s liberation,” Mr. Pepin said in his mellifluous French accent. “That’s when Americans began looking at what was on their TV dinner trays.”