Tampa Bay is not in the conversation when the nation's restaurant elite get together to hand out honors.
The James Beard Foundation awards were held last week in New York, and Florida was mentioned only once, with a Palm Beach chef nominated in the Best Chef: South category. And he didn't win.
That's why it was a big deal when the Refinery in Tampa was listed as a semifinalist in the Best New Restaurant category. Semifinal nods are rare, but often as good as it gets for cities that aren't New York, New Orleans or Las Vegas, along with a few others.
The nomination process starts in the fall, when the foundation puts out a grass roots call for nominations. Anyone can go to the Beard website and nominate chefs and restaurants. From those nominations, foundation panels select a few dozen semifinalists. In recent years, Zack Gross of Z Grille and Jeannie Pierola, then at SideBern's, made it that far in the regional Best Chef category. Bern's Steak House made this round recently in the Best Restaurant category.
That list of semifinalists goes out to a national panel of judges, made up of food writers, industry people and former winners. A first round of voting winnows the field to five finalists per category, and another round of voting selects the winners.
A great challenge for a restaurant in an area like Central Florida is that voters have to have eaten at restaurants they vote for. This makes obvious sense, but it gives restaurants in dining destinations an advantage. More people who are likely to be voters have probably been to New York, Chicago, New Orleans or Miami than, say, Tampa, Orlando, Dallas or St. Louis.
And the bloc of industry and former winners tends to create natural cliques. People might be more inclined to vote for people they have relationships with, and can help campaign for them. In fact, Florida's lone finalist, Zach Bell, works for New York chef-restaurateur Daniel Boulud. Bell is deserving of the nod, but those ties can't hurt.
As an example: The restaurant that won the category that the Refinery was nominated in was ABC Kitchen, owned by chef-restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten. It is a restaurant in New York City, run by an internationally celebrated chef with more than a dozen high-end restaurants around the globe.
Another thing that holds back bay area chefs is bay area diners.
National recognition, like James Beard nominations and awards, goes to chefs and restaurants that challenge diners with new and unusual ingredients, combinations and techniques. Word travels fast in the food world. When someone is doing something new and different, there are people who will go out of their way to try it. And that includes planning a restaurant destination vacation.
But, for better or worse, the bay area is known as an incubator of chains, which celebrate consistency and known entities. The trickle-down can make it dangerous for the independent restaurant pushing a menu that doesn't include chicken fingers and Caesar salad.
A cook at one restaurant told me she had never lived anywhere that people would drive 20 miles out of their way to go to a Chili's before. Another described getting complaint letters when the club sandwich was removed from the menu.
Ultimately, it's in the best interest of the restaurant to offer food customers want. And if we want the Caesar salad and chicken fingers, that's what we're going to see.
We have chefs capable of challenging us. We just have to make it worth their effort. Maybe then the James Beard voters will notice us.
Jim Webster can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8746.
. James Beard winners
Here are some of the winners of the 2011 James Beard Foundation restaurant, chef and media awards announced last week. For a complete list, go to jamesbeard.org.
Best new restaurant: ABC Kitchen, New York
Outstanding chef: José Andrés, Minibar by José Andrés, Washington, D.C.
Outstanding restaurant: Eleven Madison Park, New York
Rising star chef of the year: Gabriel Rucker, Le Pigeon in Portland, Ore.
Regional chef awards
New York City: Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune
South: Stephen Stryjewski of Cochon, New Orleans
Southeast: Andrea Reusing of Lantern, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Southwest: Saipin Chutima of Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas and Tyson Cole of Uchi in Austin, Texas
Cookbook Hall of Fame: On Food and Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee
Cookbook of the Year: Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy by Diana Kennedy
American cooking: Pig: King of the Southern Table by James Villas
Baking and dessert: Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole-Grain Flours by Kim Boyce
General cooking: The Essential New York Times Cook Book: Classic Recipes for a New Century by Amanda Hesser
Healthy Focus: The Simple Art of EatingWell Cookbook by Jessie Price & the EatingWell Test Kitchen
TV food personality/host: Alton Brown
Television program (in studio or fixed location): Top Chef: Season 7
Television program (on location): Avec Eric on PBS (with host Eric Ripert, chef of Le Bernardin in New York)
Food culture and travel: Rick Bragg (formerly of the St. Petersburg Times), Francine Maroukian and Robb Walsh, Garden & Gun: "The Southerner's Guide to Oysters"
Food section of a general interest publication: San Francisco Chronicle
Group food blog: Grub Street New York
Humor: Ruth Bourdain (on Twitter at @ruthbourdain)
Individual food blog: Politics of the Plate, Politicsoftheplate.com by Barry Estabrook