And the Winner Is . . . : In the movie business, it's the Oscar. In the record business, it's the Grammy. And in the restaurant business, it's the James Beard Award.
Right now, the firm of Deloitte & Touche is tabulating the results of the first round of balloting. Two weeks ago, judges were sent a list of about 20 names in each of 17 different restaurant categories. The candidates on this list were selected by the Beard Foundation's Award Committee, based on recommendations by food writers, restaurant reviewers and industry professionals.
The top five vote-getters in each category will appear on the final ballot. Several Valley restaurants have made it to this preliminary list. Right now, they're rubbing rabbits' feet, keeping their fingers crossed and avoiding black cats, hoping to crack the list of finalists.
In the category of Best Chef/Southwest, a region that encompasses Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Arizona, no fewer than seven of the 20 preliminary nominees are locals. They are Erasmo Kamnitzer (Razz's); Chryssa Kaufman (Rancho Pinot Grill); Eddie Matney (Eddie's Grill); Robert McGrath (Windows on the Green, the Phoenician); RoxSand Scocos (RoxSand); Alessandro Stratta (Mary Elaine's, the Phoenician); and Charles Wiley (Palo Verde, the Boulders).
In addition, two potential finalists come from Tucson: Donna Nordin (Cafe Terra Cotta--which also has a local branch); and Janos Wilder (Janos).
No local talent is included on the Rising Star Chef list; no one broke through on the Outstanding Chef list; and no hometown restaurant is being considered as Best New Restaurant.
But Vincent Guerithault on Camelback made it onto the prestigious Outstanding Restaurant list. That award goes to a restaurant that has been in business for at least 10 years and that "serves as a national standard bearer of consistency of quality and excellence in food, atmosphere and service."
The competition here is incredibly stiff, a roll call of America's finest restaurants. Among the contenders: the Four Seasons, Le Bernardin, Sign of the Dove, Montrachet and Union Square Cafe in New York; Fleur de Lys, Masa's and Zuni Cafe in San Francisco; Chinois on Main in Santa Monica; the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas; Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia; Valentino in Los Angeles; and Spiaggia in Chicago.
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Mary Elaine's broke into the Outstanding Service category, as did Tucson's Janos. They're in big-time company: Charlie Trotter's, the Inn at Little Washington, Lespinasse, Patina and Emeril's are some of the restaurants they'll be squaring off against. Mary Elaine's is also up for the Outstanding Wine Service award, facing the likes of Le Francais, Campanile, Sparks and the Hudson River Club.
The final nominees will be announced on March 18. Who did I vote for? I don't mind saying I pushed for several Arizona chefs to make it onto the preliminary Best Chef/Southwest list. But asking a restaurant reviewer to pick a favorite chef is like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. It depends how I feel at the moment. So I'll be keeping my mouth shut.