Tonight, the illuminati of America's food and beverage scene will gather at Chicago's Lyric Opera for the 25th Annual James Beard Foundation Awards Gala. The list of nominees is pretty much a who's who of the hottest chefs and restaurateurs in the country right now, so the eyes of America's culinary world will be focused there tonight. But unless you just really care about the sometimes incestuous machinations of the American culinary landscape, you (like me) might find yourself asking if these things really matter.
Short answer: Not really.
I mean, not in the way that, say, the Oscars, Emmys, or Golden Globes, etc., matter. The ceremony itself (you can watch it here tonight at 6PM CDT) won't be the subject of nationwide water-cooler arguments or supermarket checkout-line discourse tomorrow. So if you miss it, no biggie.
Honestly, it's like watching the Tony Awards used to be when I was a kid. You know that these folks are at the pinnacle of their field, but barring a trip to New York or L.A., I was never going to experience what they were patting each other on the back over.
Long answer: Quite a lot.
Yes, the chefs, restaurateurs, and establishments nominated tonight are grounded in physical spaces where you probably don't live. So unless you live in a culinary mecca (I don't, though my hometown of Birmingham does boast an impressive nomination in the Outstanding Restaurant category) or make a habit of food-based travel (I do, and I've only been to handful of places that are up for awards tonight), chances are that you're not ever going to eat any of the food on which these chefs and restaurants have built their reputation.
But it doesn't mean that they don't have an effect on the way you eat. Or at least will in the not-too-distant future. The American culinary landscape is shaped by a variety of factors, and one of them is the ideas that percolate down from culinary luminaries that tend to populate these types of events. Many of these chefs have platforms beyond just their restaurants—they contribute to magazines like ours, they have or will have cookbook or television deals, or they just have a massive social media presence on their own—and many of their ideas will trickle-down like so much Reagan-era wealth to restaurants, groceries, and tables throughout the land.
The proliferation of farmers' markets around this country, efforts to cook sustainably, and the amplification of ethnic flavors on menus at every level of dining are maybe not directly traceable to a specific restaurant or chef (though I can't walk past the now ubiquitous clamshell of baby arugula in the produce section of every grocery store around without thinking of Alice Waters and her love of tiny lettuces), but they are ideas that lived in the Beard-level chef/restaurant space long before they gained mainstream acceptance.
So do the awards themselves matter to folks like me and you? I would say that unless you work on the tourism board of the city where one of these places is located, not too much. But if you are interested in trendspotting potential culinary developments that lie just over the horizon, a quick poke around the internet to check out the nominees and winners and what they've done and what they have planned may be of interest to you. Or at the very least you might be able to find a place to get a good meal on your next vacation.
One Nominee We Are Particularly Rooting For: Rich Landau is a dizzyingly talented chef putting out some of the best food in the country at his Philadelphia-based Vedge restaurant. It's now pro forma in any Vedge writeup to give the big reveal: Landau is a vegan, and Vedge is an exclusively vegan restaurant. There's a lot at stake for Landau at tonight's James Beard Awards—he's up for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. But a win for Landau (and he truly deserves it) would mean a win for the American palate, and a win for the future of American cuisine. When virtuosity with veggies stops being a neat side trick and starts to be something Americans desire and expect from their chefs, that's something we can all take pride in. (Try our recipe for Vedge-Style Vegetable Stock.)