On Monday at 6 p.m., TV personality Ted Allen and Crocs-wearing superstar chef Mario Batali will take the stage at New York's Lincoln Center to host what has come to be known as the Academy Awards of food. The James Beard awards date back only to 1991, but as with the much older Oscars, which debuted in 1929, taking home a prize means lifetime bragging rights and, in many cases, greater opportunities and more lucrative projects for the winners.
For the first time in eight years, Florida has no finalists in the competition, although Tampa fared especially well in the semifinals: Greg Baker of the Refinery and Chad Johnson of SideBern's each were nominated in the Best Chef: South category, Joey Redner of Tampa's Cigar City Brewing received a nomination for Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Professional, and Bern's Steak House was nominated in the Outstanding Restaurant category. The rest of Florida received a total of five semifinalist nominations.
The only year Tampa had a James Beard winner was 1992 when Bern's Steak House sommelier Derrick Pagan won for wine service. Despite promising semifinalist nods in recent years, is Florida — and more specifically the Tampa Bay area — destined to be always a bridesmaid and never a bride?
Perhaps, but the reasons are complicated. The judging system itself may make it difficult for local chefs and restaurants to emerge victorious, but it might also be argued that Florida restaurants haven't competed as ably on a national stage. Both gloomy assertions, but many local restaurateurs are bullish about the direction things are going.
"I think just the sheer fact we had four semifinalists this year in Tampa shows that, yes, things are changing," says Michelle Baker, co-owner of the Refinery.
But before we start counting our gold medals festooned with the bald pate of American chef and food writer James Beard, we should understand the system.
How it works
Early each year, a national online call for nominations is open to everyone, this year netting 38,000 entries. From this multitude approximately 20 semifinalists in each category are chosen by a James Beard Foundation-selected Restaurant & Chefs Awards Committee (which this year included the Tampa Tribune's Jeff Houck). After that, semifinalists are winnowed to finalists, and finalists to winners, by a committee of 600 past winners, restaurant critics (critics of which I am one), magazine editors, food journalists and cookbook writers spread evenly across the awards' 10 regions. Every vote counts equally, and the one with the most votes wins.
Sounds fair. And yet ...
"Voters must (have eaten) in your restaurant to vote for you, not a festival or a private dinner," Baker explains. "They must physically be in your restaurant, eating your food. Not many people understand this. And there are only 600 of them, not a whole lot of voters for the more than 900,000 restaurants in the United States. That is why the big tourist destinations get the most attention. Voters go there. New Orleans, the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, New York City, Chicago, Charleston and so on."
A number of local restaurateurs I spoke with sounded like Realtors: It's about location, location, location. And maybe also marketing, marketing, marketing.
"I think our chefs do have to work harder to make a name for themselves outside of the area," says Suzanne Perry, co-owner of Datz, Dough and the soon-to-open Roux, all in South Tampa. "Although Tampa Bay press are rabid advocates of local chefs, we don't have a steady stream of outside nationally recognized writers visiting Tampa (that I'm aware of, anyway) the way New Orleans or Chicago do."
Curtis Beebe, owner of Dade City's Pearl in the Grove, says, "It's a lot tougher to have people make a swing through Florida like they do in New Orleans. Orlando is doing a really good job of incorporating their dining scene into their tourism marketing message, but I don't see that coming from any other region in Florida. Our tourism arms are not focused on our culinary options, and it's Pinellas tourism versus Tampa, Tampa versus Pasco. Until we get a decent regional messaging thing it's dysfunctional."
Notice how New Orleans came up three times in a row?
New Orleans, a.k.a. Goliath
The awards are not static. New awards have been introduced and redistricting occurs from time to time to reflect changes in the industry. For the 2013 awards, Puerto Rico was added to the Best Chef: South category and Nevada moved from the Southwest region to join the new Best Chef: West category (previously Best Chef: Pacific) with California and Hawaii.
But the change that really affected Florida took place in 2007, when Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas got peeled off from the rest of the Southeast to become their own category. By then, parts of New Orleans were still decimated by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina but one thing was clear: New Orleans restaurants were coming back with a vengeance.
Always a city passionate about food, the city marshaled its resources and called in its chips, with some stalwart local restaurateurs capitalizing on inexpensive leases and available investment money to parlay single restaurants into mini empires. The Lower 9th Ward is still a grim place, the city's total population is smaller, but 500 new restaurants have opened post Katrina and it is estimated the city has 70 percent more restaurants than it did before the hurricane and subsequent flood.
But it's not just quantity: The city has attracted dynamic, ambitious chefs and restaurateurs who often traffic in regionally specific food. This year, four out of five finalists in our region were chefs in New Orleans. We were trounced because that city's chefs are better known, their restaurants more often patronized by the people who matter (Beard voters), and also because they are often doing more exciting and envelope-pushing work.
'Our due diligence'
"I think our time is coming, but let's face it, how many restaurants deserve a nod in Tampa?" says Ferrell Alvarez, chef-owner of the dynamic new Rooster and the Till in Tampa's Seminole Heights. "Maybe two or three. Orlando and Miami have more. It's a matter of Tampa catching up with the rest of the U.S. We need to do our due diligence."
There are a number of theories about why we aren't further along, and all of them ring true.
For the Refinery's Baker, who sees things like the Gasparilla Music Festival, the Repeal Day Party and the local craft beer scene as "blowing up on a national scale," our culinary past is still a liability.
"The Tampa Bay area was long a hot spot for chain restaurant launches: Outback, Hooters, Red Lobster. There was not really a culinary 'style.' "
Perry echoed the sentiment about being an incubator for chain concepts, but thinks ownership has something to do with the situation.
"We have a small collection of independents. And some of those, like mine, are more owner-driven than chef-driven. Not a recipe for a James Beard."
What does this mean? Perhaps that an owner who is not a chef may focus more on bean counting than on preparing the best beans money can buy.
And then there's who's in the kitchen preparing the beans.
Keith Sedita, managing partner of the soon-to-open Ulele in Tampa Heights, thinks "culinary schools drive creativity in the community that they're in." He says our area lacks a major cooking school, although he points to increasingly great work being done at Steinbrenner and other area high schools.
"What might push the needle on a big level is if we were fortunate enough to get a great culinary school," Sedita says.
Finally, the beans themselves: It has only been in the past few years that Tampa Bay area chefs and restaurateurs have begun working closely with farmers to source local, sustainable foods. Produce purveyors like Urban Oasis in Tampa, pork farmers like Nature Delivered in Sumter County and delivery middlemen like Suncoast Food Alliance have enabled a small group of Tampa Bay area chefs to embrace the locavore movement that has swept so many other cities.
"In other cities, that's just how things are," Alvarez says. "There are no more deep-fried frozen Sysco chicken breasts. It's about people having the education in knowing where their food comes from."
And once you start preparing what can be grown or raised locally, an interesting thing happens. Regional culinary identity emerges. In this place, at this time, local chefs are working with these ingredients. What makes cooking an art and not a craft is how differently, and deliciously, those ingredients can come together under the hands of a skilled chef.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.