Arizona may have the prickly pear margarita and now a worldwide city of gastronomy — but for the ninth year in a row — no James Beard Awards.
Four Arizona chefs made the semifinals list in February, but none went on to the finals. Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco was in the running for the main prize, Outstanding Restaurant, and Sam Fox of Fox Restaurants Concepts was up for Outstanding Restaurateur. When the finalists came out March 15, these categories went to restaurants in 28 states including New York, Illinois and California.
Two other Phoenix-based chefs Kevin Binkley and Charleen Badman were also in the semifinals for the Best Chef Southwest. In the finals, that category was almost completely dominated by Texas ...
- Alinea, Chicago
- Frasca Food & Wine, Boulder, CO
- Highlands Bar and Grill, Birmingham, AL
- Momofuku Noodle Bar, NYC
- The Spotted Pig, NYC
- Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, Boka Restaurant Group, Chicago (Boka, Girl & the Goat, Momotaro, Swift & Sons, and others)
- Ken Friedman, NYC (The Spotted Pig, The Breslin, Tosca Café)
- Michael Mina, Mina Restaurants, San Francisco (Michael Mina, Bourbon Steak, RN74, and others)
- Cindy Pawlcyn, Napa, CA (Mustards Grill, Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, Cindy's Waterfront at the Monterey Bay Aquarium)
- Stephen Starr, Starr Restaurants, Philadelphia (Serpico, The Dandelion, Talula's Garden, and others)
Best Chef: Southwest
- Bryce Gilmore, Barley Swine, Austin
- Steve McHugh, Cured, San Antonio
- Hugo Ortega, Caracol, Houston
- Alex Seidel, Fruition, Denver
- Justin Yu, Oxheart, Houston
All of this raises the question ... Why? Let's ignore the fact that not a single chef, finalist or otherwise is based in Tucson. Even if you look across the wide state of Arizona, we're practically MIA. According to Dominic Armato of the Arizona Republic, the last AZ local to take home a prize was the high-end Japanese chef Nobuo Fukuda in 2007.
Is this supposed to mean that Arizona has crappy restaurants? I'm not so sure. While anyone can submit a restaurant for consideration during the initial call for entries, the judging process seems a tad biased toward major cities.
First, an unnamed but small committee of industry professionals and journalists is tasked with narrowing the first list of 20,000-plus, down to 20 semifinalists in each category. From there, the list goes to a larger pool of voters made up of industry professionals and previous winners (which of course are in the big cities).
While some of the voters are divided up by region, it's not clear how many of these people actually live in Arizona. And also: Although the rules on the website seem clearly delineated, there's nothing that actually says the voters need to visit all of the restaurants. (Am I wrong? Were you a panelist? Let me know in the comments!)
Unlike the Oscars where it's easy for a voter to see all of the movies, how easy is it to eat a fine dinner at several restaurants in different states? (There's also no mention of whether these judges are getting reimbursed by James Beard for their meals.) The likely result is that people vote for who they know, and if they don't know you, they don't vote for you.
But we knew all this already. Tucson's always ignored by these types of contests. But hey, at least we're not alone! Here's a list of states that the voting panel also left behind in the 2016 Restaurant and Chef Awards finals list:
- Nevada (Honestly a little perplexed by this one. Nothing in Las Vegas?)
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Of course these places aren't exactly considered culinary capitals. But if you look closer, there's a big fat clue: Hawaii. The islands are home to one of the most exciting and vibrant culinary scenes in America, but they're also — you know — a little out of the way.