James Beard Award Winners, Then and Now: How Do They Compare?

Contributor
We take look at how key elements of winnings chefs and restaurants have changed from the first James Beard Awards in 1991
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1991 James Beard Award: Outstanding Chef winner Wolfgang Puck with Alain Ducasse, a fellow JBA winner.

A lot can change in 25 years; from side ponytails to ombre locks, the Fresh Prince to Kendrick Lamar, every genre of our lifestyle has seen trends come and go.

It is no different for the culinary scene. With each new season, restaurants evolve, bringing new methods, unique menus, and changing values to their diners. This in turn affects what constitutes an award-winning restaurant and chef.

Trends notwithstanding, are there some universal tried-and-true characteristics of JBA winners? Some fundamental qualities that stand the ebb and flow of popular culinary movements? Would the winners of the first James Beard Awards in 1991 stand a chance in 2015?

At the inaugural James Beard Foundation Awards, French cuisine still held the highest court. Many of the winners, including the first Outstanding Chef, Wolfgang Puck, had a background in French cuisine, served a take of it in their restaurants, or hailed from France. A few outliers spiced up the pack, such as Rick Bayless and his Mexican restaurant Topolobampo, and Jasper White with his focus on New England specialties.

Service and atmosphere skewed toward fine dining. White tablecloths and required jackets were the rule at Outstanding Restaurant winner Bouley. Jean Louis Palladin’s eponymous Watergate restaurant was more likely to draw politicians and visiting dignitaries than the local Washington, D.C. crowd.

In 2015, there is significantly more variety among the James Beard Award winners. Tasting menus and bundled courses are common, but cuisine runs the gamut. Outstanding Restaurant winner Bâtard delivers modern interpretations of Austrian dishes. At Manresa, the kitchen of Rising Star Chef Jessica Largely, fruits and vegetables make up the heart of the menu, while Best Chef: Great Lakes winner Jonathon Sawyer highlights artisanal jerky and unique cuts of meat at his Greenhouse Tavern.

Gone are the trappings of fine dining as well; this year’s crop of winners offers accessibility over exclusivity. At Hungry Mother, the restaurant of Best Chef: Northeast winner Barry Maiden, the dress code simply asks that guests, “Please wear clothing.” Domenica, where Best Chef: South winner Alon Shaya cooks, is proud of its homey, comfortable atmosphere. While some of the winning chefs’ restaurants can still be a tough table to get, even the fanciest among them present a more relaxed feel than winners in years prior.

Though much has changed, one facet has held steady from the first James Beard Awards to the most recent: the relationship with local growers. Winners from both 1991 and 2015 significantly emphasize using local ingredients and developing trusted relationships with farmers in their area. Chefs across the country and across the years have continued to make this a priority in their restaurants, and it consistently breeds award-winning cuisine.

So would the 1991 James Beard Award winners stand a chance against the 2015 group? It’s hard to say, but one thing is certain: as restaurants evolve and culinary foundations strengthen, there will always be fascinating contenders for the James Beard Awards.

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