The late James Beard is most often remembered as an advocate of American cookery, and the awards given in his name on Monday night were described by Donna Hanover Giuliani, who was the host of the event with Robin Leach, as "a testimony to American cuisine."
But at the reception at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan, the food was strictly Mediterranean.
"Every other year we have an American theme, but this was an off-year," said Peter Kump, the president of the James Beard Foundation, which runs the awards. "We wanted Italian, but then we got involved in all sorts of political issues so we thought this was the best solution."
To some of those who were close to the late James Beard, the choice was not inappropriate. Marion Cunningham, the cookbook author and friend of Beard, said, "Jim was very cosmopolitan and would only hope that the food tasted good."
The consensus was that the food, organized by Joyce Goldstein, the chef-owner of Square One in San Francisco, tasted very good indeed. More than 1,500 people were fed by 30 chefs representing 11 countries, including Spain, Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. Even Malta was represented -- by Wayne Nish, the chef and co-owner of March and La Colombe d'Or in Manhattan, whose mother's family is from Malta. He made 1,000 Maltese meat pies.
Rick Bayless, the co-owner of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Zinfandel in Chicago, was named chef of the year. New York did extremely well, with Le Cirque named best restaurant and Francois Payard of Daniel winning the title of pastry chef of the year.
This year's "Forrest Gump" was Drew Nieporent, who dominated the awards. In his box of chocolates was the award for best
service professional, while his restaurants, Montrachet and Nobu New York and Rubicon in San Francisco, also won. Montrachet was cited for best wine service, Nobu for best new restaurant and Rubicon's chef, Traci Des Jardins, was named the rising star of the year.
Along with these prime-time awards were commercial pitches for backers, including MasterCard, Perrier water and Perrier-Jouet Champagne. Like James Beard himself, who was keenly aware of what side his bread was buttered on, the James Beard Foundation depends on sponsors to finance its activities and the James Beard House on West 12th Street in Greenwich Village.
Every year, Oscar-like accusations of politics also surface, suggesting that only chefs who participate in Beard House events can win. Jeanne Wilensky, a publicist for the foundation, said any connection was coincidental. "People who do things with the foundation get more exposure in the newsletter, so that may influence voting," she said. All voters are members of the foundation.
And like the Oscars, some of the more than 60 awards, including those for cookbooks, were shunted to an earlier hour.
Named as cookbook of the year was "Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts" by Alice Medrich (Warner Books, $35). Her book "Cocolat," was book of the year in 1991.
Winners in other categories were "Smoke and Spice" by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison (Harvard Common Press, $29.95), "Classic Home Desserts" by Richard Sax (Chapters, $29.95), "Entertaining on the Run" by Marlene Sorosky (William Morrow, $25), "Jewish Cooking in America" by Joan Nathan (Alfred A. Knopf, $30), "Onions, Onions, Onions" by Linda and Fred Griffith (Chapters, $14.95) and "Now You're Cooking" by Elaine Corn (Harlow & Ratner, $24.95).
Other winners: "The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean" by Paula Wolfert (Harper Collins, $30), "The Burger Meisters" by Marcel Desaulniers (Simon & Schuster, $20), "The Book of Food" by Frances Bissell (Henry Holt, $40), "Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home" by the Moosewood Collective (Simon & Schuster/Fireside, $15), "The Oxford Companion to Wine" by Jancis Robinson (Oxford University Press, $49.95), "Treasures of the Italian Table" by Burton Anderson (William Morrow, $20) and "Roger Verge's Vegetables in the French Style" by Roger Verge (Artisan, $35).
"Greene on Greens" by Bert Greene (Workman, 1984, $19.95) was named to the Cookbook Hall of Fame.