Once upon a time, I’d read the glossy accounts of that iconic gathering of high-ranking hedonists and food worshippers known as the James Beard Foundation Awards and wonder wistfully what it would be like to live That Life. It seemed beyond the realm of possibility. Until last week, when pigs flew and I had the opportunity to attend the awards and gala reception.
I can now say with confidence that That Life is good. Really good. And filling. Really filling. Here are some highlights of my recent trip to NYC for the JBA. OMG!
After two plane picnics, five hours of jabbering, and one unsightly jeans’ smear from accidentally sitting on a piece of chocolate, my friend Danielle and I landed at JFK. Thanks to Danielle’s deft maneuverings of the subway system, we emerged at Penn Station and checked into our hotel. We stayed in the room long enough for me to scrub out the chocolate stain, then headed for Chelsea Market, a labyrinth of shops and eateries like The Lobster Place, where we stuffed ourselves with lobster rolls, champagne, raw East Coast oysters. You point, they shuck, you slurp. It was heaven.
After a few candy bar acquisitions at Liddabit Sweets, a green juice from One Lucky Duck, yogurt tasting at Sohha Savory Yogurt, and brownie buying at Fat Witch Bakery, we found our way back outside, and walked the High Line, which is very peaceful after dark.
Then we hoofed it back to the hotel, got ready, and headed to Má Pêche for the Lucky Peach “Winners are Losers” after party following the JBF Book, Broadcast & Journalism Awards.
We stood in line, peeking at Ruth Reichl as she waited patiently behind us, then upon entry, investigated the All Ewe Can Eat lamb ribs, grazed the crab legs and crawfish-choked buffet, filled our champagne glasses, and watched David Chang play craps. At some point, we collected our party favors—the latest Lucky Peach magazine and the Lucky Peach “diet book”—and Uber’d back to the hotel.
Saturday was Brooklyn day, and our itinerary was ambitious. Kinda like this:
Post-Smorgasburg, we hopped a train to Bushwick and walked a few blocks to Roberta’s. The street outside was mostly deserted, hinting not at the fracas within. Surveying the pizzaiolos’ frenzied pie-slinging, the mass of shout-talking diners, the bulging bars, the well-dressed couples sipping cocktails while waiting to be escorted to sister restaurant Blanca, our hopes of a swift dinner seating plummeted, particularly when the cheery hostess told us the wait was two-and-a-half, maybe two hours. Disheartened, we walked into the bar, where the gods grinned on us, because there they were—three empty barstools and a kind server telling us you can get the full menu at the bar. After literally leaping into the stools, it wasn’t long before we were tucking into the deceptively simple sounding but perfect romaine salad with candied walnuts, Pecorino and fresh mint, the ramps with egg yolk, bottarga and breadcrumbs, the Famous Original pizza with caciocavallo and oregano, and the Tonya Charding pizza—an exceptional combination of riobiola bosina, speck, rainbow chard and green garlic. This dinner was one of the highlights of our trip, which is saying a lot.
What a day.
We got going a bit late on Sunday, despite the church across from our hotel doing it’s mightiest to ring the 7am bells loud enough to crack the windows. We took the train to the Lower East Side, intending to gather breakfast picnic provisions at Russ & Daughters and make for Central Park, but then we realized we were steps from Prune, and it was 9:52am. And the brunch line was only 12 people long. We jumped on that.
After brunch, we tried to squeeze into Russ & Daughters, but squeezing yourself into Russ & Daughters on a Sunday morning is clearly a job best left to oxygen molecules and Flat Stanleys. We decided to come back another day. Lila led the way to Eataly, with stops for black and white cookies at bustling Veselka, baguettes at Maison Keyser, salt and chocolate tasting at ABC Carpet & Home, and a few turns around Madison Square Eats along the way.
Madison Square Eats was a foodfest to be reckoned with, and we gorged on the Doughnuttery’s hot mini doughnuts sprinkled with cardamom sugar, Sigmund’s soft pretzels, Red Hook Lobster Pound‘s lobster rolls and elote with chunks of lobster meat, Roberta’s pizza, and Melt Bakery’s ice cream sandwiches.
We still managed to waddle through Eataly for a while, ogling the mile-long cheese case, fresh pastas, and general revelry. We took our spoils to Madison Square Park, covertly distributed Prosecco into plastic cups, and had ourselves a little picnic, until it started raining and hailing and we had to wrap plastic bags around our heads and run into the subway.
We dashed back to the hotel, threw on something dry and city night-ish, and cabbed to genteel Gramercy Tavern. Our group of lovely ladies slowly tricked in until there were seven of us, and since the wait for seven was an hour and a half, we settled into the window seat with a bottle of bubbly and strategized about what to order.
Later that night was the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs’ Night Out party, which promised a feast of some stature, so we had to pace ourselves. We ordered one of each starter, and when they arrived, they arrived in style—a group of no less than five inordinately gracious servers surrounded us, gently maneuvering plates around in a meticulous arrangement that looked like this until we descended upon it.
We ate and ran, tumbling out of cabs and into the line of snazzy folks waiting patiently outside the Plaza Food Hall for the Chefs’ Night Out doors to open. Finally, from line, I got my first glimpse of a dark and leafy Central Park. We were all wristbanded and released into the wild, er, the Food Hall, where every station was lined with a never-ceasing flow of food. Caviar, sushi, pasta, No. 7 Sub sandwiches, macarons upon macarons, a well-stocked candy bar, eclairs, made-to-order s’mores, McConnell’s ice cream, bottomless champagne. A Jamón Ibérico station? Of course. I nearly lost my head.
At the stroke of 1am, they gave everyone the boot, and we rolled back to the hotel. I’d forgotten my digestive enzymes, so I said a brief prayer to the digestive gods and went to bed.
The Big Day. But the James Beard Awards weren’t until 5:30pm, so there was eating to be done. The best eats of the day were Sullivan St. Bakery, where we savored chocolate-cream stuffed bomboloni, squares of zucchini and potato pizza, a brioche “boat” loaded with mascarpone, dark chocolate, cinnamon and pecan crumble, and chocolate sables studded with bits of sharp, briny oil cured olives.
From the bakery, it was but a few blocks to Gotham West Market, a fantastic Hell’s Kitchen food hall bulging with enticing eats.
I made a beeline for Ivan Ramen, and minutes later was the proud owner of a bowl of their classic shoyu ramen “fully loaded” with extra pork, an egg, and roasted tomatoes, and a cup of tart-sweet yuzu lemonade.
After lunch, we stepped over to Blue Bottle, for a coffee cherry and lemon-laced Cascara Fizz and sweet Parmesan shortbread with fennel seed and black pepper. With a last yearning look at the eateries we’d missed, it was time to speed back to the hotel to get ready for the ball.
It took us a while to get to Lincoln Center in rush hour traffic, but eventually we hobbled (I did NOT wear sensible shoes) up to the doors of the David H. Koch Theater, watching the flashbulbs pop as food celebrities walked the red carpet. Inside, we scoped out the restaurant booths, where the gala chefs were prepping for the post-ceremony reception. I almost fainted when I saw the Varlhona table, covered in rows of cups filled with lemon curd with praline jelly and lemon verbena and fresh cherries with Tainori chocolate, and buckets of citrusy little candy bars.
We took our seats in the dark theater, and waited. I have to admit that I don’t do well at anything where I have to sit and listen to information for more than five minutes without food being provided at regular intervals. Yes, this was the James Beard Awards and obviously there would be food, but not for two hours. Yes, I had snacks in my handbag, wrapped in paper towels for stealthy, non-crinkle-noise-making nibbling purposes, but still. However, I have to say that the ceremony was both attention-keeping, and at times quite touching. There were many moving stories told, it was fun to see how excited the winners got when presented with their medals, and there were soulful musical performances by Trisha Yearwood and Holly Williams with Chris Coleman. I didn’t think anything that night could make me tear up more than seeing that Varlhona table but I was wrong, because Humanitarian of the Year award winner Matt Haley’s story was a true tearjerker. And it was an exciting night for Portland, as Beast chef Naomi Pomeroy swept the Best Chef Northwest award.
About 15 minutes before the ceremony ended, people started to slink out of their seats, first one person, then a couple, then a half a row, until our section was only a quarter full. They were sneaking out to jockey for position at the gala chefs’ reception! Which was both rude and unnecessary, because I stayed pretty late that night, and never did Paul Qui’s pickled mackerel with slow scrambled eggs or Stephanie Izard’s trout tartare or Marc Vetri and Adam Leonti’s spaghetti alla chitarra run dry. Nor, perhaps most importantly, did the champagne.
At midnight, stuffed beyond all belief and nearly crippled from four-inch heels, we limped back to the hotel, where I counted the Varlhona chocolates in my pocket and went to sleep.
‘Twas a sad rising today, knowing it was our last. We had until 2pm to eat, so we got up and went on our way. The line for a cronut was pretty long and we didn’t have time to spare, so I just used the bathroom at Dominique Ansel Bakery and left, a tear in my eye. A tragic, but true story. It was nice to see Dominique running around the bakery, back to work the day after winning the Outstanding Pastry Chef award the night before. If he was hungover, you couldn’t tell. Anyway, if I have one regret on this trip, it’s that I just used the bathroom at Dominique Ansel Bakery and didn’t wait for a cronut.
Russ & Daughters was vastly less crowded than during our first attempt, so we ordered everything in sight and hopped the train to Central Park.
It couldn’t have been a more beautiful spring day, and we skipped down pathways and The Mall, listened to the hauntingly beautiful vocals of a band of buskers in the lower passageway beneath Bethesda Terrace, and spread a hotel towel on a patch of grass overlooking Bethesda Fountain. And finally, we had our Central Park picnic.
It was so hard to leave, but we had a plane to catch, so after popping across the street and taking one last turn around the Plaza Food Hall to see what it’s like in normal mode, without unlimited caviar and Ibérico ham service, we grabbed our bags and flew home to PDX.