Backstage at the Beard Awards

A view from above of the James Beard Foundation Awards Gala in Chicago on May 7.
The 2018 James Beard Foundation Awards Gala in Chicago on May 7.

Max Trujillo and Matthew Weiss, hosts of the NC Food & Beverage podcast, give us a glimpse of the most glamorous evening in food

There’s a reason why they’re called the Oscars of Food.

The annual James Beard Foundation Awards has recognized culinary leaders across the country in national categories—including Best New Restaurant and Humanitarian of the Year—and regional ones, such as Best Chef Southeast—since 1991. The coveted grand prize, a Best Actor or Best Actress equivalent, if you will, is Outstanding Chef; this year, Raleigh’s own Ashley Christensen was one of five finalists up for the top award.

As longtime supporters of the North Carolina food scene, we traveled to Chicago to support Christensen, one of three finalists from the state, whittled down from a list of 16—16!—local semifinalists. Spoiler alert: this story doesn’t end with Christensen bringing the medallion home to Raleigh. The honor went to Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune in New York City. But for Christensen, who won the regional award for Best Chef Southeast in 2014, and all the other chefs and restaurateurs, there’s a lot more to it than winning; it’s about a sense of North Carolina pride.

Asheville chef Katie Button was a finalist for Best Chef Southeast, and Kinston’s Vivian Howard, a presenter that evening, was a finalist for Outstanding Personality/Host for her work on PBS’s “A Chef’s Life.” (By the way, Howard won an Emmy for her program the week before the Beard Awards, no small feat!) From chefs to brewers, journalists to TV personalities, our state is making an impact on the food industry, and Christensen is leading the charge. Christensen has always taken a principled stance on equality, made a commitment to community and given a voice to many who haven’t been heard. Receiving a James Beard Award isn’t simply just about being a good cook. Yes, it’s an achievement in culinary excellence, but it’s also an honor of a person’s commitment to bettering humanity.

Kris Moon, Vice President of the James Beard Foundation, spoke to us about how the awards this year reflected both ethnic and gender diversity across the board. Considering the widespread revelations of sexual harassment in the food industry, a person’s character in the kitchen has come to mean even more to those in the food community.

In tagging along with Christensen, Howard and Button, we learned the extent of their devotion to and awareness of others.

For instance, in an effort to bring awareness to eliminating food waste, Button used whey (a byproduct of an Asheville cheese-making creamery) and the ends of bread, which would otherwise have been thrown out, in a dish she was preparing for the awards show.

And there was a touching moment in the pressroom when we were chatting with Howard and she was hoping for a Christensen victory. In other industries, there may be an assumption that these two leaders would be natural rivals, but that’s absolutely not the case here. What was clear in Howard’s sentiments was her recognition of and reverence for Christensen’s talents and humanitarian efforts. And Howard credits Christensen for being among the first to welcome her back to the North Carolina food scene after years of working in New York.

Backstage, we spoke with the Humanitarian of the Year winner, José Andrés. He was recognized for his work in Puerto Rico with his organization World Central Kitchen. As we chatted, we heard the announcement for Outstanding Chef, Christensen’s category. We didn’t hear her name called. Sure, there was a sense of disappointment, but the truth is, she is a winner. Our winner. She was one of only five people, from all over the country, that exemplifies the spirit of community, leadership and creativity that won her the Outstanding Chef nomination.

Just three days later, in the heart of downtown Raleigh at the ThriveNC food festival, Christensen was onstage in front of a standing-room-only group of admirers, doing what she does best: teaching the community how to cook in a socially responsible manner.

Attending the Beard awards typically means a deluge of delicious food and copious amounts of creative cocktails, and the wonderful food and drink were certainly there. But what we’ll remember most about the experience, beyond all the deliciousness, is the warmth and the reverence these culinary experts have for one another. And that’s what we’re always proud to find and spotlight in the food scene here at home.