Journalist Eric Barton writing for Flaming Magazine asked some questions about if those of us in Florida should still care about the annual James Beard Awards. It is a lengthy piece with an examination of the highly esteemed awards now coming under fire from some quarters. You can and should form your own opinions. Overall I still think there is great validity in them. And not only because I have been so fortunate to have received two and been nominated for a number. To illustrate why I feel this way still let me share a little as to why I think this way.
I was watching a ‘Chefs Table: BBQ’ show a few nights ago on the life story (thus far) of barbecue pit master Rodney Scott. It was a beautiful and sometimes lonely portrayal of his life. Mr. Scott learned barbecue from his father who evidently was a stern taskmaster. Rodney was an only child and lived his life in near solitary ways. He dreamed big though as he cut the wood for his fires, shoveled hot coals, turned whole hogs over on his pits, lived in a world of smoke in his eyes, cooked by hand, worked without sleep often and was even belittled by some classmates on his high school graduation night. One young woman’s remarks were especially biting as she estimated he’d be ‘cooking hogs down the street for his entire life’.
Tim Carman writing in The Washington Post put aspects of Mr. Scott’s life succinctly, “He grew up in a rural, largely African American county that was so poor that, by the early 1980s, residents were either fleeing the area or getting arrested just to have a hot meal in jail. Optimism was not a commodity frequently traded among the agrarian residents who remained in Williamsburg County”. But Rodney Scott had toiled on.
Remarkably one day he got contacted by prize winning food writer John T. Edge. Mr. Edge has a keen curiosity about our Southern foodways and wanted to come observe Mr. Scott’s world of barbecue. And it came to pass. John T. Edge writes for a number of publications of excellent repute. The story he wrote on Rodney Scott’s barbecue was for ‘The New York Times’. It changed Rodney’s life. People began to come and experience his cooking and deep flavors from far and wide. But Rodney kept working and working not letting this new fame change his work ethic. Then a few years later he received notice from the James Beard Foundation that he had been selected as a finalist for a James Beard Award. He traveled to Chicago for the black tie and Champagne ceremony. I have sat in an audience such as the one he did. It is an unforgettable feeling. Despite tough competition it was Mr. Scott’s name that was called out as the winner. When that scene played out on our television screen I shivered with electricity going through my body. It moved down my spine, across my neck and into my hands. I was so happy for him. He strode to the stage and with a mix of humility and pride he accepted his award. The audience jumped to their collective feet applauding for all they were worth. Validation for our work is a human need. It is imperative that the validation is bestowed to any and all people who are so dedicated as Mr. Scott.
A few weeks ago I wrote on this site about a number of chefs in the 305 who I feel are doing the kind of work that certainly deserves the attention of the James Beard selection committees. Please check it out if you like. As a previous winner I receive a ballot every year. The rule is that you cannot vote for a candidate if you have not actually eaten the chef’s food or been to a restaurant etc. that is on the ballot. As I understand it this is the way the Oscars are essentially also organized. That is why the Beard Awards are often considered the hospitality industry’s equivalent of receiving an Oscar. For a few years I was on the Beard Foundation’s Board. It was during a time of re-shaping the Beard Foundation’s governing processes to be more equitable, professional and transparent. I was mightily impressed with the other that were part of the two years I worked with them. The work and legacy were taken very seriously. During the time I was on the board I was ineligible for an award, which I felt was only fair. Not only was I ineligible but so was any employee of our restaurants during my involvement. After two plus years I sadly resigned for the sake of my team but I knew that others would take my place that would be exceedingly qualified to do what I tried to do.
The photo attached to this piece is a photo of the James Beard Award I received as I was honored to join the ‘Who’s Who of American Food and Beverage”. It is sitting in our home on our late mother’s desk. That is fitting. Without her there would be no award for me to hold. She was a waitress when she met the man who became my father and adored the restaurant ‘families’ she became a part of over her life. She taught me that ‘work is a form of love too’.
There are things to do regarding the Beard Awards. Isn’t it the case for so many systems? But there are programs and scholarships that would be lost without them. And like for Mr. Scott’s night I look forward to jumping to my feet and applauding when the next Florida based chef wins their rightful James Beard Award. It will be soon and there will be a number of them. The talent here is impossible to make it otherwise.