Kitchen Tech and Who Won the James Beard Awards

Tonight the culinary world celebrated the James Beard Awards, aka “the Oscars of the food world” at Lincoln Center in New York City with a gala ceremony and noshes like celery root ice cream sundae and spaghetti alla chitarra with bolognese ragu. (A list of the winners, including the cronut’s creator for Outstanding Pastry Chef, follows at the end of this post.)

But the Mary Beth Albright award for best use of fundamental technology by a venerable organization goes to the Beard Foundation itself for its new kitchen cam.

Hundreds of miles away from my home in Washington, D.C., one of the nation’s finest chefs is on the horn in New York negotiating a discount for last-minute ingredients, arguing “It’s the James Beard House,” as two cooks scurry in the background. Rockwell’s “(I Always Feel Like) Somebody’s Watching Me” hums along on the radio. The song is almost sitcom coincidental, because the whole scene is open to anyone around the globe with a computer to live stream it.

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American chef James Beard had one of the first cooking shows on television. Photograph by Dan Wynn

On March 31, three cameras went live in the kitchen of the James Beard House, which is owned by the Foundation named for the late chef, author, and teacher. The house was his residence in Greenwich Village, New York City, until his death in 1985. The Foundation now invites top-notch chefs to cook several-course meals in Beard’s former personal kitchen on about 200 nights per year, and the meals are served to ticket holders in his home’s intimate entertaining spaces. While no invitation or even membership is required to dine at the Beard House, you do need a ticket—and tickets usually run hundreds of dollars, minimum, for this up-close-and-personal chef experience.

The kitchen cam has seriously democratized the experience, as it allows anyone to watch, say, Daniel Boulud (on everyone’s list of the world’s top-ten chefs) run his kitchen, prepare ingredients, and direct his staff. Early in my writing career I interviewed José Andrés by phone while he was cooking in elBulli’s kitchen in Spain. After the interview he dialed me back by mistake, so I had about 20 minutes of candid, unedited kitchen action from the world’s greatest restaurant recorded on my voice mail. The Beard Foundation’s kitchen cam is like being pocket-dialed by José Andrés, but better, because there’s video.

The kitchen cam uses technology for benefit far beyond voyeuristic entertainment of food television. Combining kitchen-cam technology and food has now provided chefs and the food-interested public with real, unedited documentation of a high-functioning kitchen. Cooking shows are more entertaining, but they are action movies, while the Beard kitchen cam videos are documentaries worth studying for what they can tell a viewer about professional kitchen life.

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The front entrance to the James Beard House in New York, N.Y. Photograph by Eileen Miller

The kitchen cam shows each painstaking step of turning a mess of ingredients slowly and methodically into final dishes. There’s no romanticism, just a real picture of what it takes to create a restaurant quality meal, particularly for the up to 74 discerning guests at a Beard dinner. Each of the 24 archived videos (created in just five weeks) is already an invaluable resource for culinary students; and perhaps a required-watching canon for an eventual culinary Massive Online Open Course.

Kudos to the chefs too, from those cooking Japanese Izakaya-style to cooks plating down-home Memphis dishes, because it’s risky to be on camera for the entire duration of service, when pressure is high and everyone is in the weeds. There’s a style of cooking and management for every aspiring chef: the masterminds of Oregon cuisine cook within days of Umami burger’s founders, and Daniel Boulud with his smartly outfitted and trained entourage compares interestingly with rising star Marjorie Meek-Bradley’s discussion with Beard House servers about the timing of plating.

So on this night after the food Oscars, when so many young hopefuls go to bed with dreams of someday earning a Beard Award, maybe the kitchen cam’s most important offering is visual proof. Being a great chef requires not only creating and cooking new and amazing dishes, but tough physical labor, and fierce, intuitive management.

The 2014 James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards

Best Chef: Great Lakes (IL, IN, MI, OH)
Dave Beran, Next, Chicago

Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic (D.C., DE, MD, NJ, PA, VA)
Vikram Sunderam, Rasika, Washington, D.C.

Best Chef: Midwest (IA, KS, MN, MO, ND, NE, SD, WI)
Justin Aprahamian, Sanford, Milwaukee

Best Chef: New York City (Five Boroughs)
April Bloomfield, The Spotted Pig

Best Chef: Northeast (CT, MA, ME, NH, NY STATE, RI, VT)
Jamie Bissonnette, Coppa, Boston

Best Chef: Northwest (AK, ID, MT, OR, WA, WY)
Naomi Pomeroy, Beast, Portland, OR

Best Chef: South (AL, AR, FL, LA, MS, PR) TIE
Ryan Prewitt, Pêche Seafood Grill, New Orleans
Sue Zemanick, Gautreau’s, New Orleans

Best Chef: Southeast (GA, KY, NC, SC, TN, WV)
Ashley Christensen, Poole’s Downtown Diner, Raleigh, NC

Best Chef: Southwest (AZ, CO, NM, OK, TX, UT)
Chris Shepherd, Underbelly, Houston

Best Chef: West (CA, HI, NV)
Daniel Patterson, Coi, San Francisco

Best New Restaurant
Pêche Seafood Grill, New Orleans

Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional
Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn, NY

Outstanding Wine Program
The Barn at Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN

Outstanding Bar Program
The Bar at the NoMad Hotel, NYC

Outstanding Service
The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena, CA

Outstanding Pastry Chef
Dominique Ansel, Dominique Ansel Bakery, NYC

Outstanding Restaurateur
Barbara Lynch, Barbara Lynch Gruppo (No. 9 Park, Menton, B&G Oysters, MA)

Rising Star Chef of the Year TIE
Jimmy Bannos Jr., The Purple Pig, Chicago
Blaine Wetzel, The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Lummi Island, WA

Outstanding Restaurant
The Slanted Door, San Francisco

Outstanding Chef
Nancy Silverton, Pizzeria Mozza, Los Angeles

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.