James Beard Media Awards Become Another Front In Streaming Wars For Services Big And Small

Here in Emmy nomination season, the big video streaming services are once again festooning Los Angeles streets with FYC
billboards, and hosting screenings and creator showcases at a furious rate.

Meanwhile another, lower-key battle is brewing over equally beloved awards in one particular corner of the streaming universe, food. It comes to a head this weekend, as the James Beard Media Awards are handed out for, among other categories, the best food-related video shows, documentaries and reality competitions.

And the video nominees include not just programs from giant media companies such as Netflix
(which has four nominees across three video categories), Hulu and Peacock. All three categories also feature nominated programs from far smaller organizations, including the wine-focused startup Somm TV, Mississippi State University, and ABC’s New York City affiliate, ABC7.

In all, the James Beard Media Awards recognize three-dozen categories of books, journalism, podcasts, and more. They will be handed out in a ceremony Saturday at Columbia College in Chicago, a first for the awards.

People who watched Julia, the delightful HBO Max dramatic series about Julia Child’s first steps into television and fame, saw a significant cameo by Beard, as ebulliently played by Christian Clemenson. A very large, very out man at a time when that was difficult at best (he self-describes in the show as “a fat old fairy”), Beard cut an influential swathe in food culture just as the United States first began to wake from a haze of canned food and frozen TV dinners. Now the foundation with his name recognizes seemingly every corner of the business and culture of food in America.

And though Emmys get the glitz and marketing dollars, in the food world, the James Beard Awards matter a lot, even in Hollywood.

“My jaw dropped when I found out we were nominated,” said Matt Reichman, VP Current Production for Peacock and NBCUniversal TV who is executive in charge of the long-running Top Chef reality competition series and its many spinoffs.

“It’s such a respected institution,” Reichman said of the Beard Awards, “the way they celebrate all things food and hand-pick different outlets, whether it’s a podcast, a book, or a TV show doing something unique and worthy to be recognized, it’s just sort of mind-blowing to me.”

Top Chef, which is shooting its 20th season, has won two James Beard awards over the years, and remains a ratings powerhouse for NBCU’s Bravo cable channel.

This year’s nominee, however, is a spinoff competition that Reichman oversaw for NBCU’s new streaming service, Peacock. Top Chef: Family Style tweaks the competition formula, featuring youthful cooks, each assisted by a trusted family member. The show debuted in early September, hosted by prominent New York chef Marcus Samuelsson.

It proved so popular on Peacock that Family Style has since been “encored” on Bravo, often running after episodes of the franchise mothership’s most recent season, which concluded last week.

“The story is so much more than cute kids who are hobbyists in the kitchen,” Reichman said of Family Style. “They watch cooking shows, and Top Chef specifically, like a typical kid watches The Avengers. They watch Marcus Samuelsson and that’s their superhero. They found their tribe on this show.”

Food writer Padma Lakshmi is also nominated for a James Beard video award, but not for her work on Top Chef, where she’s been a host for much of the past two decades. Instead, her Hulu-based exploration of food and immigrant culture in the United States, Taste the Nation, has been nominated in the Visual Media – Long Form category for four “Holiday Edition” episodes.

“I’m very honored,” Lakshmi said. “The James Beard Foundation has always been on my bucket list. I’ve worked with them over the years on their Open For Good and other campaigns. I think I presented (the awards) one year.”

Now, she hopes to be on the other end of the award presentation. Lakshmi said she’s been trying to win a Beard award for a long time, even taking time a few years ago to write an encyclopedia of herbs and spices she was sure might finally earn her first nomination. No such luck.

Instead Lakshmi’s first Beard nomination came for Taste the Nation, on which Lakshmi is both executive producer and host, and closely shaped the narratives with her own vision and immigrant experience.

She calls Taste the Nation “an auteur-driven show. It’s one person’s opinion: mine. It is born out of the belief that everybody has an interesting story to tell if you’re just willing to let them tell it.”

Lakshmi’s series focuses on the intersection of food, immigrant cultures and life in their new U.S. homes. The nominated four-episode edition examines how different cultures use food to celebrate their respective winter holidays. It’s an area that’s seldom been explored by big media outlets, she said.

“Mainstream media is still dominated by European-Americans,” Lakshmi said. By intentional contrast, Taste The Nation “was about letting immigrants speak for themselves. I go in there with a thesis that’s very thought out, but then I may find something that’s very different. Taste the Nation is about giving people who haven’t had the mainstream exposure, but deserve it. It’s also about letting me tell their story as they see fit.”

She said the sensibility echoes some of the food-is-culture sensibility of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Jonathan Gold, who wrote deeply informed reviews and cultural exegeses about the patchwork of immigrant neighborhoods in his beloved Los Angeles, as seen through the focusing lens of their many wonderful hole-in-the-wall restaurants.

Saturday night, the foundation also will hand out the Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award, honoring a writer who compellingly writes about food in their city or region.

“I see my approach to the show as closer to some of what Jonathan Gold was trying to do: Uncover aspects of our food culture that are really important and vibrant,” Lakshmi said. “With Taste the Nation, the food is really just a Trojan horse. It’s an excuse to understand these communities.”

But it’s not just the world’s biggest media companies (Disney, Netflix, Comcast
) getting a taste of the James Beard Foundation’s love.

Mississippi State University Films is nominated in the documentary/docuseries visual media category for The Hungriest State, a series that details food insecurity and hunger in the university’s backyard, the impoverished Mississippi Delta and Gulf Coast.

The ABC7 New York broadcast affiliate is nominated, against Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation, for Visual Media – Long Form for its show EatUp! New York.

And perhaps the unlikeliest video nominee is Sparklers, a first-year competition series from Somm TV, which launched as a subscription video service just two years ago, built around a love of food and wine by co-founders Jason and Christina Wise.

Sparklers is competing against Top Chef: Family Style in the Reality or Competition Visual Media category, and ultimately represents another, gentler tweak on the core Top Chef formula.

In Sparklers, a group of cooks gather, per usual. But they’re all (highly competitive) friends, focused on food creations they must pair with sparkling wines from all over the world. And rather than an intimidating panel of celebrity chefs as judges, the competitors take turns judging each others’ work.

“Every country that makes wine makes sparkling wine,” said Jason Wise, a veteran director who also executive produced the show with Christina Wise. “Sparkling wine is the most food-friendly wine. (The show is) about integrating our idea that wine is food, and is culture, and doesn’t need to be talked about separately from food.”

Getting the James Beard nomination was a delightful shock for the startup, which has about 20 original series, all made with far more modest budgets than the typical Netflix or Hulu show, said Wise. That difference in both production and marketing budgets definitely muted Wise’s expectations in the Beard competition.

“I will say this: we submitted with the perception there was a zero-percent chance of getting nominated,” Wise said. “For lack of a better term, they’re the most important award when you talk food and wine and what moves the needle in that space. The fact that we got nominated was a huge thing for us.”

For a food-focused smaller outlet such as Somm TV, the Beard Awards might even be more important, or at least more in reach, than the Emmys, with those massive FYC campaigns far beyond Somm TV’s wallet.

“Yeah, we can submit to the Emmys but you truly do need millions of dollars or whatever it takes to make the Emmys (voters) know that you submitted,” Wise said. That wasn’t the case with the James Beard Foundation, which routinely recognizes unique, new, regional and lesser known creators from across the world of food.

Lakshmi called the foundation’s wide and democratic reach “Wonderful. That’s why I love supporting the James Beard Foundation. They do give equal consideration to regional writers who do wonderful work in this country. It’s also true of (nominations for work by) regional TV stations.”

For his part, Wise said Somm hasn’t yet begun work on a second season of Sparklers, but the nomination is certainly making him strongly consider another run.

“It just goes to show, and I hate to put this on the American Dream, but you can pull it off,” Wise said. “From where we want to go with this, the answer would be yes (to a second season). For me, this is like you’re in the conversation for getting a Heisman trophy.”

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