Saturday, April 28, 2012

And the Award Goes To... Probably Not One of Us

Next week, the James Beard Foundation will crown as the top chefs in America those who have inspired with their culinary prowess and set a national standard for excellence. To our chagrin, Chef Matt was overlooked once again.

The Beard Award is a Pulitzer. It is prestigious and exclusive and practically a guarantee that your reservations will fill up for the next year. Minnesota has three winners of the Best Chef: Midwest award, and all three of them are incredibly gifted chefs. But to 99.9% of the chef population, all those other creative, tireless, obsessively dedicated cooks, the Beard is eternally elusive.

Not that I am an advocate of every little soccer player getting a trophy. Illustrious awards are illustrious for a reason, and the Beard winners have all done their time. But the shadows of the most influential American chefs are long and deep. Many of the "unsung heroes" of the profession will spend their careers firmly planted in those shadows.

The world of professional cooking is a serf-and-lord hierarchy, where the critics are brutal, the lifestyle is unforgiving, and the chances for advancement and overwhelming success are remote. Reality TV has made chef celebrity seem attainable, raising the hopes of poor, naive foodies everywhere.

People like my husband are part of an army of chefs who do precisely what they are meant to do: cook amazing food that wins no awards but makes people happy. As any musician knows, you cannot just string any old notes together and hope it makes a song. The same principle applies with food, and there are thousands of chefs across the country whose knowledge and talent produces nightly works of art, eliciting that dreamy look of pleasure from their patrons.

Although a Beard medal and the publicity that comes with it would certainly be a game-changer, I honestly think most chefs just like to cook and make people happy. I could be wrong. They could all be laboring in sweltering kitchens twelve hours a day, battling food cost and finicky guests, on the slimmest of slim chances that they will be nominated for the highest culinary honor. Somehow I think that the majority of them just love food, but ask me again when Matt gets his nomination letter.

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