Best Chef, Best Speech

By Corby Kummer
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Photo courtesy James Beard Foundation


Dan Barber, of Blue Hill, won the grand prize, Outstanding Chef, at Tuesday's James Beard Foundation Awards, and ended the ceremony with sober substance and restrained, generous joy.

Ed Levine, who always gets it right, described his emotions at watching the ceremony:

I realized that what transpires at events like the James Beard Awards is a passing of the guard, from old friends to new friends, from old friends to their children, and from one generation of chefs and food industry professionals to the next.

With Dan's award following Grant Achatz's Outstanding Chef award last year (and book award this year!), an important torch has been passed--to the two leading intellectual lights of cooking, both of them dedicated to innovation and sustainability. It's noticeable that both are wiry and ferociously driven, with endlessly whirring minds that propel them through greenhouses, henhouses, slaughterhouses, and two constantly busy kitchens, Blue Hill in Greenwich Village and one at Stone Barns, in Westchester (Dan) and design studios, kaiseki restaurants, and kaleidoscopic Back of the House destinations (Grant)--though each of course very much his own man, with completely distinct styles.

Dan is a longtime and good friend, so I particularly kvelled watching him go up to claim the prize. (And I'm proud that we're linked in eternity, at least the eternity of a news cycle, in the AP photo of the awards. The beautiful, willowy woman between us is no random well-wisher--it's Aria Sloss, Dan's girlfriend.)

And I kvelled listening to him. All awards ceremonies, particularly ones as endless as this one--the New York Times inadvertently released the names of all the winners, including the big national awards that are saved for last, at 9 pm, the end of the embargo, though the ceremony still had a good half-hour to go--have many moments of drama (Maria Hines, winner of best chef Northwest for her Tilth, in Seattle, racing in breathless from the stand outside the auditorium of Avery Fisher Hall, where she was cooking for the reception to follow), tenderness, and humor.

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Photo by Henny Ray Abrams/AP Photo


Dan ended on exactly the right note: reflectiveness, in fact on generation to generation, and importantly on how his own friends and colleagues have reacted to the crisis that affected everyone on stage and in the audience. I asked him to send me a copy. Being Dan, he had to both reconstruct and slightly rework it, into the free verse it in fact sounded like from the stage. Here it is, for the record and for the ages.

I was sitting there thinking about my dad.

I remember telling him, reluctantly, I want to be a chef.

There was a long pause and then he said,

"Son....why?"

And I said the only thing that came to mind: You know, I love food.

There was another pause and he said, "I love books, but I don't read for a living."

I want to end on this note, a slightly larger context than me.

Six months ago the economy flipped on its head.

The writing was on the wall was for the end of fine dining.

And what we saw is that most industries, nearly every profession, dived down to the lowest common denominator.

Automobiles, advertising, fast food and big food

It's as if they've been dancing the limbo, and the bar kept getting lowered. It's amazing what we've seen here in the last half-year.

But it didn't happen in this industry.

Fine dining became no less fine.

And I credit sommeliers and general managers, and all of the rest of the people 

who work so hard on making restaurants work and work well

but especially chefs 

who refuse to lower that bar 

and who love food

and serve it with the pleasure and with the respect it deserves.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/05/best-chef-best-speech/17158/