NEW YORK — New York--It was light, witty and all in good taste as a Who's Who of the culinary set turned out for the first James Beard Awards.
Held aboard the luxury liner MS New Yorker earlier this month, the black-tie party drew more than 800 prominent "foodies," including leading American chefs, sommeliers, food writers and others in the industry.
Organized under the umbrella of the non-profit James Beard Foundation, the awards honor the memory of the late cookbook author, cooking teacher and culinary consultant, whose legendary career earned him the sobriquet "America's dean of gastronomy."
"It's sort of a coming of age for the fine-food world. At last, we have our own Academy Awards," said Peter Kump, food writer, teacher and president of the James Beard Foundation, a culinary-education organization based in Beard's former town house in Manhattan.
The top toque of the night went to the chef to the stars, Wolfgang Puck, chef-owner of Los Angeles' Spago, Eureka Cafe and soon-to-open Granita restaurants, who was named as the Farberware Millennium Great American Chef of the Year. Mr. Puck was unable to attend.
In the regional category, Rick Bayless, chef-owner of Chicago's Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants, was named best chef in the Midwest. Mr. Bayless also failed to attend; he was busy attending his wife, Deann, at the birth of their daughter, Lane.
The Sandeman Restaurant of the Year Award went to David Bouley, chef-owner of New York's Bouley, which opened in 1987.
During the pre-awards cocktail reception, the guests -- many of them clutching a concoction of grenadine, orange mint syrup, rum and orange seltzer decorated with a feather that was created by Oklahoma City chef John Bennett -- nibbled on cheese and pate and exchanged memories of Beard.
To prompt them, the salon featured a huge, bow-tied bust of Beard sculpted in ice and another carved from a 75-pound chunk of Wisconsin Cheddar cheese by chef Charles Saunders of Max's Grille in Boca Raton, Fla. "What better way to immortalize him than in this cheese?" said Mr. Saunders, who labored for a week on his creation.
Not to be outdone, pastry chef Albert Kumin of Vie de France's International Pastry Arts Center in Elmsford, N.Y., unveiled "the James," a 3-foot-tall image of an aproned Beard, chiseled from a 70-pound slab of chocolate. "He was a gentleman," said Mr. Kumin reverently, recalling Beard's kind words to him when he was the pastry chef at the then-new Four Seasons restaurant here.
"The old duffer taught me to write cookbooks. I loved him," said Jeff Smith, television's "Frugal Gourmet," who was one of the presenters, along with cookbook author and movie actress Jill St. John.
Author George Plimpton served as master of ceremonies. The awards combined, for the first time, three competitions: the Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America, recognizing lasting culinary achievement and established in 1984 by the defunct Cook's magazine; the Food and Beverage Book Awards, founded in 1966 as the R. T. French Tastemaker Awards; and the new James Beard/Seagram Restaurant Awards, which recognize achievements by chefs, restaurants and wine professionals.
Judging was done by independent panels of food professionals from around the United States.
Another of the evening's top honors, 1990 Cookbook of the Year, went to Alice Medrich for "Cocolat: Extraordinary Chocolate Desserts" (Warner Books), which also won awards in the dessert and photography categories.
After the awards ceremonies, the guests embarked on a one-hour cruise around Manhattan and tucked into a buffet dinner created by 15 of the country's top chefs and 1990 award nominees.
Billed as a "Salute to America," the food ranged from uptown chic, such as the grilled pecorino cheese with roasted peppers and eggplant wrapped in Swiss chard, served by Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton of Los Angeles' Campanile restaurant, to down-home simple, such as the Louisiana crawfish stew with homemade biscuits whipped up by Emeril Lagasse of New Orleans' Emeril's.
Guests also could sample smoked eel in beggar's purse by Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, who also was a nominee for best chef in the Midwest. Tables elsewhere groaned with fresh oysters and mussels from the Northwest, polenta and salt cod stew from California, Gulf crab meat and black beans from Texas and a grilled pork tenderloin on fried plantain from Boston.
Among other winners in the 1990 James Beard/Seagram Restaurant Awards were:
*America's best chefs: Northeast region: Jasper White, Jasper's, Boston; Mid-Atlantic: Jean Louis Palladin, Jean Louis at the Watergate Hotel, Washington; Southeast: Mr. Lagasse, of Emeril's, New Orleans; Southwest: Stephan Pyles, Routh Street Cafe, Dallas; California: Joachim Splichal, Patina, Los Angeles; Northwest: Caprial Pence, Fuller's, Seattle.