Never have I enjoyed a Beard Award Gala as much as the 20th anniversary celebration last night. From the moment I stepped onto the red carpet at 5:45 to the moment I went dashing out at 11:30 to beat the crowd pouring out of the Metropolitan Opera to grab a taxi and telephone a full report to my friend and colleague Lisa Yockelson in Washington, D.C. it was one happy moment after another.I remembered back 19 years to the award ceremony in New York when I won book of the year for the Cake Bible. The awards were hosted by the Seagrams Co. and though certainly ranking as one of the happiest moments of my life, there was no where near the drama of last night’s black tie event held at the most appropriate of all possible venues: Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. It perfectly reflected the evolution of food in this country. Chocolate Sculpture and Desserts Presented by Le Cordon Bleu International
I arrived early so as not to miss a moment of the “this is Our life” event. The first person I recognized in the huge crowd was one of my favorite colleagues Nancy Silverton, in town to promote her newest cookbook. Seconds later along came another brilliant baker—Emily Luchetti who was one of the award presenters. Then I got to greet Nach Wachman and his wife (of the renowned bookstore Kitchen Arts and Letters) and then it was impossible to keep track—Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso of the Silver Palate, restaurateurs Drew Nierporent and Danny Meyers, Art Smith (who most deservedly won the Humanitarian of the Year), the incomparable Jacques Pépin, one of my favorite chefs, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, who went on to win the Outstanding Restaurateur Award, Robert Steinberg of Scharffenberger chocolate…. It was a veritable smorgasbord of favorite people, colleagues, friends. I don’t know how the ushers managed to get us seated only 30 minutes late as no one wanted to leave the meet and greet area! As press I got to sit in a box in the second tier and regretted not having brought binoculars or at least my little ocular to peer down into the audience. The only person I could recognize from way up there was Phyllis Richmond, the former restaurant reviewer of the Washington Post, with her shock of white hair. Then to my total delight my friend Jill Santopietro, who works with Amanda Hesser at the New York Times, found me so we got to enjoy the entire presentation together. It was hard to focus at first as she announced her engagement of two days to one of the most delightful young men I’ve ever met (no exaggeration). He’s not a food professional but knows more about baking than many and is going to make their wedding cake. Jill and I got to comment in full abandon because up in the rafters there was no possibility of disturbing the rest of the audience that for the most part sat in rapt attention. The ceremony lasted three hours and although we were pretty hungry by 10:00 we never had to break into the little bag of peanuts experience has taught me to bring. Just knowing it was there kept me from desperation. Sometimes I think Mammy had the right idea telling Scarlet never to go to the barbecue hungry! I was delighted that the editor of seven of my books Maria Guarnaschelli’s books: “Cradle of Flavor” and “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook” both won—the later winning book of the year as well. And editor of my upcoming book Pam Chirls won for Marcus Samuelsson’s “Soul of a New Cuisine.” I was also delighted that my long time friend Lorna Sass won for “Whole Grains Every Day, Everyway.” Years ago Jacque Pépin, at an event honoring him at the French Culinary Institute, said that when he started his apprenticeship and worked under Charles DeGaulle, no one expected a cook or chef to do anything more than stay in the kitchen and cook but that now one had to be a performer as well. How prophetic—every acceptance speech was beautifully presented and entertaining. But most moving and powerful was that of Marcus Samuelsson's, when he talked about going into a book store before writing “Soul of a New Cuisine” and discovering that there was not one book that represented the cuisine of a billion people—Africa. I didn’t have a machine to register applause (and was so glad there was no hooting or whistling this year—must have been the distinguished venue—as I forgot to bring ear plugs) but there was no doubt that the loudest applause of the evening were for Michèl Richard of Citronelle in D.C. as Outstanding Chef. He and his cuisine are loved by all. When I complimented him on his stunning and original new book he whispered into my ear “It doesn’t compare with your books.” This will give you an idea of how humble he is. And two seconds after the medal was hung around his neck he pulled it off saying it was for his wife! On top of all his other talents he is father to five children! The lifetime achievement was given to Barbara Kafka who started her acceptance speech by saying that the most important thing to her was her family—her husband of over 50 years, her daughter, son, and daughter-in-law. I don’t know if she realized, however, just how large her extended family is—she has been “mother” to many aspiring young chefs and cookbook authors including me when she introduced me to her editor many years ago. And I had the privilege of making Barbara’s mother’s 80th birthday cake many years ago. She let me choose and it was the Chocolate Oblivion with a half gallon of raspberry sauce. Later in the evening I met Drew Nierporent’s assistant who told me that she made her reputation on that very cake! I promised a photo and managed in the crush of people to get three good ones including one of David Carmichael, pastry chef extraordinary of Gilt Restaurant. His little strudel cone filled with Marionberry and Muscovado Granité was perfectly exquisite. Also from Gilt, Chef Christopher Lee’s Smoked Wagyu Beef Tenderloin was meltingly tender and my favorite savory of the evening. Gold Plated Almonds from Gilt As a perfect finale I finally found my beloved Batterberrys of Food Arts Magazine and had a cappuccino at the Illy booth which kept me awake long enough to get home exactly at midnight.