Chances are you have never eaten at one of James Beard’s restaurants. Perhaps that’s because the man who exemplified all things foodie never owned a dining establishment and is remembered by many as a sellout who for pimped Green Giant corn, Shasta soft drinks, and Omaha Steaks.
A Francophile best known as a teacher and bon vivant ersatz food celebrity, Beard—both the name and the foundation he started—has morphed into a somewhat meaningless, overhyped symbol of a bygone era characterized by the three-martini lunches and pupu platters at Trader Vic’s. Nonetheless, for restaurant insiders (and those who aspire to be) the annual James Beard Awards—2015’s are happening tomorrow—are a time for self congratulating and paying tribute to those who have the ability to merge good food with even better PR.
The James Beard Foundation added new media to its awards in 2013, with winners generally coming from bigger names in the food industry or from established distributors such as PBS and the Cooking Channel. The two-pronged category devoted to Web video includes “Video Webcast, Fixed Location and/or Instructional” and “Video Webcast, on Location.” Given current video production techniques, the naming convention is an awkward tip of the foundation’s naive hand, classifying a video solely by where it was filmed. There must be better ways to parse food and cooking videos—short form versus long form or even by type of cuisine.
Still, that’s the way the cookie crumbles at the JBF, and we bend to its clunky nomenclature by making these picks for tomorrow’s winners.
Handicapping the nominees
In the category “Video Webcast, Fixed Location and/or Instructional,” my pick is You’re Eating It Wrong with host Dan Pashman. The show airs on the Cooking Channel, with each online segment distilling one of the 30-minute episodes into a bite-sized segment.
What makes this show work is that fact that Pashman is a journalist who brings a level of inquisitiveness and desire to go against the grain. I particularly like the webisode in which he tells the owners of a New York falafel shop they need to serve their fare without a pita. If looks could kill…
The other two nominees in this category are Thirsty For and Chef Steps. Thirsty For, from Tastemade, was the 2014 winner in this category. It’s interesting to note that of the three finalists, only Pashman’s show includes live narration. A cooking video without narration? Seriously?
In the category “Video Webcast, on Location,” my choice is Food Curated, a webseries that delves into emerging trends and rising entrepreneurs making a difference in the U.S. food scene. Perhaps a bit too focused on New York, the show nonetheless balances the show-and-tell aspects of culinary storytelling.
Last year’s winner here was The Perennial Plate: Europe and South Asia, a show featuring chef turned filmmaker Daniel Klein. It returns as a finalist in 2015 (this time with Americas and Africa) with Kitchen Vignettes from PBS as the third in this trio.
Introducing the competition
While these six finalists are fine representations of the growing list of food-related Web videos, seeing the same shows pop up in consecutive years smacks a bit of Meryl Streep receiving an Oscar nomination just for showing up. For the James Beard Awards to be nothing more than a venue for the snoozy tried and true, the foundation needs to broaden its selection process to include some content a bit more daring, and even a few video works that satirically bite the hand that feeds them.
If the powers that be at the Beard Foundation need some suggestions, here are some food/cooking shows to consider for next time:
Started by a group of friends in the U.K. , this five-year-old series is one of YouTube’s top international food channels. The boys went their separate ways when they went off to university, but they would get together to eat, drink, and be merry. It was Ben Ebbrell who became the cooking and food expert, studying the craft in school, but each member of the team pitches in to create a show that deftly mashed up good-natured humor and adventurous, accessible food preparation.
The stuffy people associated with the Beard Awards would prove the have some cred if they were to push this food series—produced by the iconoclasts at Vice—that focuses on food and the personalities that inspire new trends. Rough and raw are certainly two adjectives to describe Munchies, and while some of the episodes are pedantic and self-important, they are uniformly entertaining and always push the culinary envelope.
Raw. Vegan. Not Gross.
I am not favoring this series because I am a vegan; I like this show because the host, Laura Miller, is funny and talented and has the ability to make plant-based diets seem accessible to all. She has solid cooking skills, knows her topic, and the producers at Tastemade add some first-rate production values to the show. It’s probably not in the spirit of James Beard to honor a food show that deals with healthy cooking, but it’s time to celebrate alternative diets and tastes.
Screengrab via Cooking Channel/YouTube