James Beard

May 09, 2011

2011 James Beard Awards

Tonight, Monday, May 9, I'll be covering the James Beard Awards for The Washington Post along with Tim Carman, recent 2011 James Beard Award winner (for best food column).

You can find our coverage throughout the night here: Washington Post; All We Can Eat

Or, you can follow me on Twitter (@carolblymire).  You can follow Tim, too (@timcarman).

You can even watch the awards via live feed here:  James Beard Awards Live Video Feed

I have a good feeling about our DC-area chefs who've been nominated.  If this afternoon's celebrity sightings (Donny & Marie!!!!) are a harbinger of good things to come, well then, there you have it. 



June 21, 2010

Q&A with Joe Catterson, Alinea's General Manager

Below you'll find my interview with Joe Catterson, Alinea's GM.

But first, I hope you'll indulge me in a little link-love.  I hope you all regularly read Hank Shaw's fantastic blog: Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook.  I'm a long-time fan of Hank, and had the great pleasure of meeting him (and Holly, hi guys!) in New York in early May.  Hank and I talked about the Alinea cookbook and how, when seasonal ingredients come into the markets, a home cook could really find inspiration in this cookbook.  And, he's gone and done it.  Here's Hank's post, Porcini-O-Rama, featuring a dish inspired by "Porcini" on Page 180 of the Alinea cookbook.  I love it!  Only wish I'd been there to eat it.

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Joe Catterson is the General Manager and Wine Director at Alinea.  His official bio on the restaurant's website is as follows:

Overseeing the service staff at Alinea is our GM/Sommelier Joe Catterson, a native of New York who, before settling in Chicago, had also lived in Seattle, Los Angeles, Berlin, London, and Tenerife. A career path that zigzagged between service and management positions in numerous fine restaurants and studies and professional engagements as a classical musician, found itself focused on a long-held passion for wine. Catterson honed his chosen craft and was named Sommelier at Le Français in 1996 and later also at Les Nomades. Challenged to create a wine program for Trio to complement the cuisine of incoming chef Grant Achatz, Joe found an ideal environment to explore the pairing of wine and spirits with Chef Achatz' cutting edge menus. The opportunity to entice diners with a highly eclectic selection of obscure discoveries as well as classic favorites led to Chicago Magazine bestowing "Best Wine Program" honors to Trio in their 2002 and 2003 restaurant award issues, and naming Joe "Best Sommelier" in 2003.

What the bio neglects to specifically mention is that Joe is awesome.  True story.  Read on to learn more about Joe, what makes great service at Alinea, and what the team had for staff meal:

Carol: First of all, congratulations on Alinea's 2010 James Beard Award for Outstanding Service.  Having dined at Alinea, I know why you won; but, if you were to encapsulate Alinea's service philosophy in 20 words or less, what would it be?

Joe: Strive for detailed, polished service.  Create a comfortable tempo and flow for the experience.  Provide engaging narrative for the cuisine.

IMG_0121 Catterson, celebrating with what looks like a g&t at the James Beard Awards, New York, May 3, 2010.

Carol: How did you get to Alinea?

Joe:  Henry Adaniya invited me to return to Trio when he hired Chef Achatz. He knew I would enjoy creating a wine program to match Grant's cuisine. Alinea was the next step, taking what started at Trio and finding ways to make the entire dining experience more polished and complete.

Carol:  In the course of your career, how have you seen restaurant service evolve?  Are diners more/less demanding than in the past 5, 10, 20 years? 

Joe: My experience is that diners are increasingly more knowledgeable about food and wine, and in many ways more demanding, but also, on the whole, more respectful and appreciative of a well-trained and professional server.  But as far as demanding diners, in a sense, we work at Alinea to diffuse the diners' need to control the dining experience; they'll have the best time giving themselves over to our program.

Carol: Does your front-of-house staff turn over regularly, or have many folks been on board for the five years Alinea has been open?

Joe: Very few remain from the opening team, but there’s been little turnover in the past 2 plus years.  Right now we have a very solid crew.
Carol:  Alinea is moving to a single menu in August.  What kind of impact will this have on both the kitchen and the front-of-house service?

Joe:  It will increase efficiency in many regards, but the net result will be a longer average menu and actually a small reduction in the number of guests we serve per evening.  More diners will get a broader sampling of our cuisine, and our currently very long workdays should become somewhat shorter.

Carol: It seems Grant's post on Alinea-Mosaic about photography and videography has spurred some debate, leading to many misinterpreting his post to mean that he hates or wants to ban photography altogether.  Care to set the record straight?  What is the restaurant's policy on photography and videography in the dining room and kitchen?

Joe:  It’s a very double-edged issue, isn’t it? On the one hand, much of the photography that gets shared in posts and blogs has undoubtedly served us well as effective promotion. On the other hand, the act of taking the pictures can be disturbing to other diners and, for that matter, to the staff.

We allow photography, but ask that in consideration of other diners, people not use flash in the dining room. For some reason, there are always some folks that don't agree with that policy and don't understand why we would ask them to do without the flash. So they flash anyway, and we ask them not to, et cetera. Some people will unabashedly film the chef preparing something at another table; we're amazed that we need to suggest that that might be intrusive of the other diners' experience.

We get frustrated that excessive photography (I've seen people honestly stage a dozen shots of a single dish, multiplied by 20-odd courses) interrupts the pacing of the menu (something we feel is important to the overall experience), and sometimes detracts from the intended experience of a dish, particularly when temperature is an issue.

I honestly get the impression that for some people, the act of photographing the food is more important to them than actually enjoying the food. I hope I’m wrong about that. But no, I don’t believe anyone here hates or wants to ban photography. We would, however, hope for moderation and, mostly, higher consideration for the dining experience of others.

Carol:  Thank you for clearing that up.  And while we're on the topic of manners, I'm not asking you to rat out rude diners or "tell tales out of school," but what kinds of things do you and your team find most frustrating or challenging?  Is it people who talk too loudly?  Show up drunk?  Not understand the concept before making their reservation?  Show up with a list of alleged food allergies instead of telling the reservationist ahead of time?

Joe:  I’m sure we could post quite a long list, but I think you landed on one of our most regular challenges. It is disappointing that there are often groups who seemingly have no concept that the volume of their conversation and laughter is out of any reasonable proportion. Of course we want them to have fun, but there are other people in the dining room. Pretty basic lack of manners.

Carol: Most chefs I know do what they do because they've always known they wanted to cook.  When it comes to the service side of the business, I'm wondering if the same pull is there.  Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?

Joe: I was always interested in wine and cuisine; I became fascinated by the running of a restaurant and the choreography of the dining experience. This was never my first choice of career, but it was something I did for a job and came to appreciate more and more over time.

Carol: Never your first choice of career?  What was? Astronaut?  Cheesemonger?  Neurosurgeon?  Race car driver?  Barber?  In a dream world, is there another career you'd love to pursue?

Joe: When I was in high school, I narrowed my college choices down to studying architecture, enology, or music. Music won out. My choice of career was playing the horn. I was lucky enough to get to do that for a while, but unfortunately injury led me to veer from that path. If I were to leave the food and wine business altogether, I’m sure I would find some way back into music.
Carol: What advice do you have for those who want to get into the restaurant management business?  Do you need a culinary or hospitality degree?  Or, can you learn by working for good people/establishments? 

Joe:  I’ve seen people get great benefit from culinary and hospitality degrees, and I’ve seen many who didn’t. I was fortunate to work for talented people in some really excellent restaurants. It worked out to be an effective education for me. Whether someone chooses a focused culinary or hospitality degree or not, I don’t think there is any substitution for practical experience in the best venues possible.

Carol:  You're managing service and operations at Alinea while also helping open Next Restaurant and Aviary.  (do you ever sleep?)  How will service be different at these two new ventures?  Will some of the Alinea staff move over to either of these new spots to help during the opening? 

Joe:  The nature of the new ventures will undoubtedly be more casual, but we would certainly expect to uphold similar standards of service. The bottom line of the success of Alinea's service is the care and thoughtfulness everyone in the house applies to their job, I should hope we will be able to carry that over to Fulton Street. And yes, bringing along team members from Alinea will be an important step in expanding the brand.

Carol:  Alright, no more talk about work (for a minute).  What's your ideal vacation?  What do you like to do when you have time off?

Joe:  An ideal vacation definitely includes plenty of beach time. I also very much enjoy exploring other cities, checking out the local food scene, art, and architecture. With time on my hands I will go to symphony concerts, look for good jazz, get to sports events when I can. And, over the past five years I’ve played a fair amount of poker.

Carol:  What did you have for staff meal last night?

Joe:  We had chicken breast fillets with a very tasty barbecue sauce, fingerling potato salad, slaw, and green salad.

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Thanks, Joe.

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Read My Previous Post:  Beef, elements of A1

May 10, 2010

I know, I know........

I've been MIA.

I'm still in the work-hell homestretch and very close to getting back to a normal pace of life. But can I talk about the James Beard Awards for just a minute?

What a remarkable two days in New York.  Wow.  Let me take this opportunity to thank the  James Beard Foundation for inviting me to live-blog the event.  The team I worked with at the Foundation were true professionals, and a pleasure to work with.  It was a remarkable night, and one I'll remember forever.  I know that sounds totally cornball, but stay with me for a sec....


It KILLED me not to peek at those before the ceremony began.  Damn my moral upbringing!!


This man made my 40th birthday incredibly special. [Get your minds out of the gutter, you sickos. He made me an incredible 25+-course dinner at Per Se, and for that I will forever be grateful]


David Kinch of Manresa (Best Chef, Pacific), who was just lovely and whose restaurant I can't wait to enjoy  (and who was there with his partner, Pim, who I feel like I've known forever)...

If you haven't read the James Beard Awards blog, check it out.  I'm still kind of blown away that I was even there, let alone able encouraged to talk to and spend time with some of my heroes. 


You guys? Jean-Georges is really, REALLY hot in person.  Like hotter than Mayor Bloomberg.  Yes.  THAT HOT.   I KNOW.

In addition to hanging with two of my favorite chefs in the whole world, I also had a hilarious time backstage in the press room with that Ruhlman chap, a ton of media folks, as well as a few of my fellow bloggers -- particularly, the team from Shut Up Foodies and Alyssa Shelasky from Apron Anxiety.  


Alyssa and me backstage in the staff room, nursing our feet after being in heels for SEVEN HOURS.

On a side note, it was fun to learn about who in the food media and chef world really reads this blog: I can't tell you how many times I was asked how my butt/back were. Totally sweet, and totally noted.  And, totally humbled.


Alyssa, Jose Andres, me -- DC, represent!

It was an incredible night.  Some of my favorites won; others didn't.  But even bigger than who presented, or who won or lost, was this magnificent electricity in my veins, down to my capillaries.  I don't know how else to describe it, other than this other-worldly feeling of a humming... or a tingly buzzing in my system all night and into the next morning. 

I keep forgetting about how TALL that Achatz chap is.  And, as I'm writing this caption, I'm noticing the odd fairy-like creature on Grant's shoulder.  What the heck?

Look, you guys know I do PR and media and events for a living.  So usually, I'm really jaded about most things.  I've worked for Presidents.  I've written for celebrities.  I've been on TV. I hosted my own radio show.  I've done media training for and consulted with people you read about in the news every day.  I've seen and done a lot here in this city of mine in the almost-25 years I've lived here.  But there was something really special about being in New York for the James Beard Awards this year.  Was it that I knew a lot of people there?  Maybe.  Was it that I had incredible access to some incredibly amazing and creative people?  Probably.

But there's something else I haven't yet -- almost a week later -- been able to put my finger on.  So let me just write for a few seconds to see if I can get to the core of it.

I really loved the camaraderie and seeing men hug each other.

Does that sound weird?  It's not meant to.

Here's what I mean: I work in politics and entertainment.  To be honest, there's not a lot of honest, heartfelt, supportive stuff going on among men in those fields.  There's a lot of glad-handing, finger guns, and fakey-fake-fakeness.  Phony smiles and forced handshakes.  Frat-boy hug-slaps.  Know what I mean?

But what I LOVED about being at the James Beard Awards was seeing any one of the winning chefs come off the stage, down the elevator to the photo-op area, then to the press room where he was greeted by his peers and colleagues with what felt (to me) like genuine, sincere joy and praise.


Coliccho.  A good egg.  And, he smelled nice.

Were there some snarky comments and sidelong glances?  Well, duh.  Of course there were.  It's a competition.  That's to be expected.  But overwhelmingly there were hugs, hurrahs, high-fives, hell-yeahs, and so much testosterone.... I loved every second of it.

And I know I'm talking A LOT about the men who won awards.  That's not to take away from the women who were nominated and who won (because there were a few).  I'm focusing on the men because I work around many, many men in my everyday life, and it was a true pleasure to see men, unplugged.

Maybe that's what it was.

It was a sense of men not being afraid to shed a too-cool-for-school front, and instead really be happy for one another. 

IMG_0113 Thomas Keller and "Rising Star" Tim Hollingsworth, cheers-ing.  I adore Tim.  He's really great, down-to-earth, and incredibly smart and focused.  Oh, and a damn good chef.

The word camaraderie is from the French word comrade and means "a spirit of friendly good-fellowship," and that's exactly what this night was about.  Friendly good-fellowship.  I loved every minute of it.

So, that was Monday night.

Oh wait.  There was an after-party Monday night, well into Tuesday morning, at Eleven Madison Park.  You know the saying of Whatever Happens at EMP STAYS at EMP, right?

I'mma break that rule and share a (blurry) photo of Daniel Boulud standing on top of the hostess stand at Eleven Madison Park with chef Daniel Humm, spraying the crowd with champagne while the DJ spun some Prince and some Snoop.  But that's ALL I'm gonna say about that party, because it was a writhing, grinding, awesome mess of 200 people who probably definitely had headaches the next morning day.


On Sunday afternoon before the media and book awards, I had the distinct pleasure of having drinks and a lot of laughs with some amazing people -- friends old and new -- and thoroughly enjoyed our time together.  Some of them have blogs, some of them have books, some of them have columns, and some of them edit entire newspaper sections. All of them are Beard nominees and/or winners.  Give these guys some love (again, with the men... I KNOW):

Michael Ruhlman

Joe Yonan

Tim Carman

Francis Lam

Hank Shaw


So what's up with me now that I'm back home and off the James Beard high?  Here's the dilly-o:  my dishwasher is d-e-a-d, dead.  And the repair guy can't get here until May freakin' 18th.  So, I'm gonna spend the next few days adapting some of the recipes in the Alinea cookbook to see what I can come up with for those of you who a) live in small apartments; and/or b) don't have dishwashers. 

When asked what tools are most important in doing a blog like mine, I always answer: patience, and a dishwasher.  So, I'm thinking I'm gonna adapt a lamb dish and the opah dish, and mix things up a bit.  You with me?  Good.  I knew you would be.

I've got a Q&A with me coming down the pike pretty soon (hit me up in the comments if there's anything you wanna know), and I'm planning to do an interview this week with Joe Catterson, the GM at Alinea -- and winner of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Service -- about service in the restaurant, service in general, and whatever else you'd like to know (you can submit your questions for Joe in the comments section, as well).   
Here's Joe (with one of the press room's famous gin & tonics).  Don't you just wanna squeeze him for hours and hours?

See you on the flip side.....

April 29, 2010

Some Things For You To Read and Think About and Help With

Congratulations to Alinea for coming in at #7 on the S.Pellegrino Top 50 World's Best Restaurants list (and #1 in the U.S.).  So well deserved.  I love that this list focuses on and rewards innovation and creativity.  I don't know about you, but I'm grateful for chefs who take risks, try unconventional things, and push the envelope... chefs who take us outside our comfort zone and make us think about what we're eating and why.  Do I want this in every meal?  No.  But, am I damn thankful for chefs and cooks who mix it up and make me think about food differently than I had before.  I love artists who challenge my way of thinking about painting or sculpture, actors who take risks and do bold things in their medium, and musicians who innovate... and when it comes to food, I so appreciate the amazing group of chefs in the top ten on that list who shake things up and unabashedly try new things to keep the industry on its toes.  That takes courage and guts and gumption, and it's awesome.

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Speaking of creativity, check out this video of the Alinea team brainstorming some ideas for the Spring 2010 menu:

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Last week, the International Association of Culinary Professionals hosted their annual meeting in Portland, OR, during which time Michael Ruhlman took part in a panel discussion that discussed the death of recipes.  Check out his piece in the Huffington Post's new Food Section that goes further into why he called bullshit on the notion that people don't have time to cook.  Michael and I see eye-to-eye on this issue.  What do you think?

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On Monday, I'll post the URL for the James Beard Awards live blog.  Hope you'll come check it out.  And, a special thanks to James Beard Award nominee Tim Carman from the Washington City Paper for his Q&A with me on the awards.  I'll be in New York Sunday and Monday hanging with some of my favorite chefs and food folks, so if you're not following me on Twitter (@carolblymire), you should... 'cause I'll tweet updates and photos as the festivities get underway.  And, if you have a minute, check out the list of nominees, and let me know (in the comments) what questions YOU think I should ask these folks.  Any chefs from your cities or towns in the running?  Any restaurants or chefs you think are the ones to watch?  Let me know.

See you Monday!

Alinea Book


  • I'm cooking my way through the Alinea Cookbook. Because I can. I think.


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