Each year, the James Beard Foundation Awards recognizes culinary excellence in categories ranging from food-related writing to design and graphics to the nation’s top chefs. The 2007 awards were announced on May 6 and 7.
With the best chefs in the country finding recognition, and craft beer growing by leaps and bounds, it seems only natural that the top chefs are on the cutting edge of beer. Surely they don’t just do wine? With all the buzz about fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, they must be eager for the next local seasonal beer, right?
As expected, I generally met beer disappointment as I poked around to find out about the beer list at these fine establishments. I took a look at four categories: Outstanding Chef, Outstanding Restaurant, Best New Restaurant and Rising Star Chef.
The Rising Star Chef was awarded to David Chang, of Momufuku Noodle Bar, in New York City. A quick look at their web site revealed what, while short, would go on to be the second most impressive beer list I found. It included a number of sakes, which I expected. The beers on the menu consisted of Stella Artois, and a number of excellent Japanese offerings: Hitachino’s red rice, white ale and weizen, as well as Orion. For a place like this, I found that perfect.
I then ventured to another New York restaurant, the one that nabbed the Best New Restaurant award: L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, owned by Chef Joel Robuchon. Here, I found my worst nightmare: no beer list at all. Wouldn’t at least a bier de garde be appropriate for a patron like myself? Fortunately housed in The Four Seasons, the staff has the freedom to dart across to the hotel’s bar if some cantankerous knucklehead like myself shows up demanding the likes of Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, Amstel Light, Guinness, Heineke-blah, blah, blah, Samuel Adams. I wonder if that Sam Adams would be served in a chilled glass?
Next stop on my beer lover’s food journey: Washington, D.C., where Chef Michel Richard of Citronelle took the Outstanding Chef award. His sommelier, Mark Slater, nabbed the prize for Outstanding Wine Service. I spoke with Slater on the phone, and he explained that they simply serve a more wine-centric clientele. While Citronelle serves no beer on draught, he boasted, “Corona, Sam Adams and that shit…” He went on to mention Old Speckled Hen, a beer I love, as well as Chimay, Delirium Tremens and a few other nice brews. At least they didn’t have to go next door. Despite craft beer’s growth, there’s no interest in embracing beer dinners or faking excitement about beer. This place is for a different clientele. And not for me, despite the few nice beers they have hanging around the cooler.
Finally, I moved toward Chicago, where Chef Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill won the Outstanding Restaurant award. Bayless has been recognized as one of the best in the world of Mexican food, and his beer choices reflected that Mexican element: Pacifico, Corona, Dos Equis, Tecate, Negra Modelo. I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of micros and imports, while talking with Frontera’s Craig Compton. Sierra Nevada, of course, and a handful of Rogue’s offerings, including their chipotle ale, found shelf space alongside Ayinger, Pinkus-Mueller, and finally, something local: Goose Island’s IPA. Even better, Compton didn’t put me on hold to go check a bar menu. He knew the beers he had, and sorely missed the presence of Bell’s, which they carried prior to Bell’s recent exit of the Chicago market.
I’m sorry. I’m a stuck-up beer geek. I don’t dislike wine, but I don’t order it. I love good food, value the marriage of beer and food, and am excited at the direction beer is heading. If these guys are at the top of the food chain, I’d like to see them taking the lead in this regard. Pushing if forward. Some get insanely cutting-edge with their dishes. Why is beer stuck in the missionary position in all too many fine restaurants?
My hat is off to Bayless’ effort, and the next time I have a hankering for noodles in New York, I know where to go. But where is the recognition for New York’s Cafe d’Alsace, the gem that can boast over a hundred beers and a beer sommelier? The mission of The James Beard Foundation is “to celebrate, preserve, and nurture America’s culinary heritage and diversity in order to elevate the appreciation of our culinary excellence.” Both wine and beer in earnest came from European settlers to this land that would become the United States of America. The Mayflower landed due to a shortage of beer, not wine. If that’s not heritage worth celebrating, preserving and nurturing, I don’t know what is.