It was hard to escape “Sex and the City” even at the black-tie 2008 James Beard Foundation Awards Ceremony on June 8th at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery share their James Beard award with the sweetest of their creations. Photo from Gothamist.com
The evening’s co-host was Kim Cattrall, the actress who played Samantha in the movie and TV series. Kim didn’t disappoint her fans, at least in terms of adding glamour to the evening: she wore a short, gold-spangled dress with a plunging neckline. While it wasn’t a particularly body-conscious crowd (too many people who loved food more than fitting into size four dresses), Ms. Cattrall looked terrific.
Less terrific was the silly repartee she engaged in with her co-host Bobby Flay. The chef/restaurateur looked downright terrified by Ms. Cattrall, or perhaps just by her man-eating “Sex and the City” character.
I confess: I loved walking down the red carpet at the entrance of Avery Fisher Hall, with paparazzi snapping photos of celebrity chefs. It was very thrilling, indeed, for a plain old reporter like me. And it was even better to be accompanied by my handsome husband in his tuxedo and my beautiful, supportive sister.
I’d read beforehand that this was an event which Time magazine had described as the Oscars of the food and wine world. It truly was impressive for the sheer culinary and literary talent brought together in one place.
Thomas Keller, perhaps the most famous chef in America and owner of The French Laundry in Yountville, presented a lifetime achievement award to Fritz Maytag, the man who revived San Francisco’s Anchor Steam Brewery, one of the first micro-breweries; invented Maytag Blue Cheese (which I love in a salad I make with candied walnuts and granny smith apples); and now is micro-brewing gin and whiskey, as well. Fritz was one of the most popular speakers at the Moya Library/Ross Historical Society’s Speaker Series, in which I recently participated. I wished I’d been able to attend his talk.
I applauded when Grant Achatz, the founding chef of Chicago’s Alinea and the subject of a brilliant New Yorker profile recently, was awarded outstanding chef of the year, and joined the crowd in giving a hand to Frances Moore Lappé, author of the very prescient Diet for a Small Planet, which I read as a teenager. It made an impression on me that I’ve never forgotten, as did the works of the late Carey McWilliams.
Have I mentioned the food? Even though the after-ceremony reception resembled a football scrum more than a dignified gathering of the stars of the culinary world, the treats were, indeed, sublime. One that I can still taste was Alexandra Guarnaschelli’s salt-cured local foie gras with warm strawberry-black pepper jam and argula. There was a carmelized casing around the foie gras of some kind. Profoundly delicious (and oh-so-unhealthy).
Other stand-outs were Maricel Presilla’s corn tamales (there was a long line throughout the evening to sample them) and Eric Ziebold’s Chesapeake Bay softshell crab tempura with green rhubarb gazpacho. The theme of the evening was “artisanal America” and each of the reception chefs were tasked with offering a small dish that used an ingredient from an artisanal producer. Napa’s Cindy Pawlcyn, for instance, served her famous CB Ranch lamb sliders -- a variation of which I ate regularly at her restaurant in St. Helena while I was reporting The House of Mondavi. The result of this focus on the artisanal: delicious!
The San Francisco Bay Area culinary scene was well-represented that evening. The Slanted Door, one of my longtime favorites, was nominated for an outstanding restaurant award, as was Boulevard. The prize went to Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern, but the friends and supporters of both Boulevard and The Slanted Door were plentiful.
One of the most touching moments of the evening was when another San Francisco favorite, Tartine Bakery, won the year’s outstanding pastry chef award. As husband-and-wife co-owners Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson explained on the podium, they couldn’t find a babysitter, so they brought their infant daughter with them – provoking much oohing and aahing over the course of the evening. I bet their daughter grows up with a wonderful appreciation for food (though perhaps not the heavy demands of running a bakery!).
The House of Mondavi was one of three finalists in the category of books on wine and spirits. Before the ceremony, my husband and I bumped into George Taber, who looked very dapper in his tuxedo and whose book To Cork or Not To Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the battle for the Wine Bottle, was also a finalist in the same category. “My money is on you,” George graciously said, before heading in to find his seat. Well, neither of us won. The award went to Imbibe: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, by David Wondrich. Congrats, David!