The biggest beneficiaries of the James Beard Awards, the Oscars of the food world, are not chefs but tailors. All over the country tailors are asked to alter the tuxes of the food writers and chefs who have gained a few pounds since the last awards ceremony. I am no exception, but as I put on my tux I was feeling quite pleased with the job my tailor, Tony, had done. I was feeling quite confident that Tony’s handiwork was going to allow me to overindulge in the post-awards show reception and post-reception parties that are now de rigueur. My confidence began to wane when I realized that my wife was not going to be home to help me with all the formalwear apparatus; the cummerbund, suspenders, cufflinks, and bow tie. Our beagle was of little use. Out of desperation I turned to Mike, the elevator operator on duty in my apartment building. Mike turned out to be quite adept in the tux department. The only problem was every time someone rang for the elevator he had to leave. It ended up taking 15 minutes and four trips to get everything right.
I arrived at the awards ceremony at 7:45 p.m. It starts at 5:30 and goes until 8:30, but I had learned the hard way in previous years how excruciatingly painful it is to sit through the entire affair. By getting there at 7:45, I would see the biggest awards presented, restaurant of the year (New York’s Four Seasons, where I have never had anything approximating a great meal), chef of the year (Chicago’s Charlie Trotter), and cookbook of the year (Smokehouse Ham, Spoonbread and Scuppernong Wine, by Joseph E. Dabney), and then stay for the ultimate foodie schmoozefest, the awards dinner afterwards. I stood in the back as the aforementioned awards were presented, and then watched as the stampede of folks who had had the misfortune to sit through the whole thing bolted for the dinner in the ballroom on the floor above.
The tux-busting began in earnest at exactly 8:35. In what could only be described as the cruelest of jokes, there was no air conditioning at the dinner, making everyone’s too-snug tuxedo just a bit snugger and stickier. The only person staying cool was Babbo’s Mario Batali, who was wearing his trademark shorts (Babbo won for best new restaurant). The food was the usual assortment of stupendous (pork barbecue and coleslaw on a corn pancake from the Horseradish Grill in Atlanta), excessively luxurious (golf balls of foie gras coated in black truffles), and the downright awful (flavorless coconut flan in a pool of equally flavorless passion-fruit sauce). Batali and I camped out at the barbecue table and left only after we had each had thirds.
After all this excessive eating, it’s no surprise that the talk turned to dieting. Having gained 15 pounds in the last year eating for a living, I was all ears.
Mario’s wife, Susie, told us she had bumped into a mutual acquaintance who had lost 80 pounds after a 10-course pig-out at a restaurant in Paris. I decided that this James Beard Awards feast would be my last fat supper. I hurried back to the barbecued pork table, had two more portions, and then went to the table next door for the culinary coup de grâce, a lamb lollipop, a perfectly cooked loin chop with a dollop of mint pesto. I was ready to go home without a proper mega-dessert diet send-off when Batali invited me down to Babbo for a celebratory drink.
Once ensconced at the bar at Babbo, a glass of Moscato D’Asti in hand, I found myself sitting next to Babbo’s incredibly talented young pastry chef, Gina DePalma. I was pondering the possibilities of the dessert menu when she insisted I try three of her creations: a chocolate pistachio semifreddo, an angel food cake with lemon curd and risotto ice cream, the semolina pudding (budino) with rhubarb marmalade. Trying them all immediately after they arrived at the bar, I can’t really tell you which one was the best. They were all perfect in their own way, though I’ve never understood the point of risotto ice cream. Gina’s tasted like wonderful vanilla ice cream (DePalma’s ice creams are just about the best in the city) with rice in it. Now, this is a proper diet send-off, I thought to myself.