Did you see the list of winners for the 2018 James Beard Awards?
If you didn’t, don’t expect any surprises. Save for the deservedly and already lauded Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Ala., every other award was bestowed on a big city restaurant or chef.
Not that any or all of them didn’t deserve it. I haven’t a quibble with any of them. Heck, there are too many to keep up with anymore, so how could I grouse with any degree of accuracy?
Not to mention all these restaurants are competing in the toughest and most advanced restaurant markets in the country. Every day for them is a battle in the big leagues, not Kentucky cities like Louisville, Lexington and Paducah, or Indianapolis or Cincinnati, all of which are near me. Those are AAA and AA markets by comparison.
To the best of my knowledge, no one from any of those towns has won a JBF culinary award. (Louisvillian Julian Van Winkle, III, did win a Beard award for Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional in 2011, which was fantastic, but let’s face it, the Beard awards are first about chefs.)
Will it ever happen that a chef from a city near me will win a coveted Beard award? It’s possible, of course, and I thought certainly Ed Lee, owner of 610 Magnolia and MilkWood had the best shot a local market had in a long time. But for the first time in seven years, Lee didn’t even garner a finalist spot.
Perhaps one way to give smaller markets a chance is to add some new levels to the contest such as judging them by their population, say 250,000 to 750,000, or even 75,000 to 250,000. You have to admit, it does give others a fighting, though admittedly handicapped, chance.
It’s understandable that the Beard Foundation doesn’t want such layers of complexity added to its contest, but what other way will there be to give smaller-market chefs a shot at a Beard?