The Beard and the Ripper. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Well, they do and they don’t. Ruhlman’s Twenty surprised me by winning both an IACP award and a James Beard award this spring.

The book’s editor, before the Beard ceremony, wrote, “The book is just unusual enough to break through all the other more standard cookbooks.”

True, it is unique, a book organized by techniques rather than by types of dishes. I thought this was a liability in the awards department. Ratio was a completely original book, a book like no other, and was nominated for nothing. The French Laundry Cookbook I thought was truly unique, with its broad mix of story, Thomas Keller’s trajectory, but also the stories of his purveyors, its discussion of critical elements of his cooking (beurre monté, special tools such as the chinois and the tamis, butter poaching lobster), Deborah Jones’s exquisite photography, and recipes that documented exactly what happened in the French Laundry kitchen rather than attempt to create French Laundry At Home recipes.

When Deborah Jones didn’t win the Beard for photography, I remember an audible gasp from the audience. When Charlie Trotter’s Kitchen Sessions won in the “Cooking From a Professional Perspective” category, the wrongness of it was so clear that Trotter himself sought to correct the situation by telling the audience that while he and Michael Chiarello were deservedly proud of their books, the award so clearly deserved to go to The French Laundry Cookbook that he was going to give Thomas the medal after the ceremony. (He tried, but Thomas wouldn’t accept it, so Trotter sent it to him, and I later saw the award and the letter from Trotter framed in The French Laundry offices.)

That was the moment for me, May 2000, like Ralphie’s realization of the commercialism of contemporary culture (“Ovaltine?!”), that what I’d thought was meaningful and just was not, and have ever since have been suspicious of all awards. Russ Parsons, of the LATimes, always reminds me that what’s important and fun is to be nominated. The Making of a Chef was nominated, the first documentation of a culinary education, but didn’t win. Do I care? Not really. But when Michael Symon won best chef Midwest, I whooped and hollered, more excited and glad than Symon himself. I love it best when friends win.

Publishers seem to think that awards are good for sales. Maybe, though Charcuterie was nominated for a Beard award, lost to the excellent Bones, but has far outsold  that book.

For me, the value of winning these awards? It gives me an excuse to thank two people who are under-recognized for what they’ve given to the book. It allowed me to publicly thank Donna for her wonderful process photography. And also to acknowledge the book’s designer, Vanessa Dina, of Chronicle Books, who created such an inviting and compelling and clean design for it.  Vanessa has written her own book, The Meat Club Cookbook: For Gals Who Love Their Meat. Truly a gal after my own heart!  Many thanks to Donna, who does so much, and to Vanessa for her excellent design.

And I can also here thank my dad, Richard, aka The Ripper, who made all things possible.

Congrats, too, to the following excellent books whose company it’s an honor to share.

Other finalists from The James Beard Awards:
Splendid Table’s How to Eat Weekends by Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift


Other Finalists from the IACP Awards:


If you liked this post on cookbook awards, check out these other links:

© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.