Showbiz has returned to in-person TV awards campaigns, meaning that Hollywood is gathering Emmy voters and contenders for panels and parties on a nightly basis. But the best dinner of awards season may not be served in L.A. at all. The James Beard Awards, one of the most coveted accolades in the food world, are being held in Chicago on Monday, preceded by the James Beard Media Awards on Saturday, and small-screen favorites like Phil Rosenthal and “Top Chef: Family Style” are in the running.
Among the 2022 nominees for long form media this year is Rosenthal’s beloved Netflix series “Somebody Feed Phil,” in which the “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator takes his comedic sensibilities and appetite on the road, connecting with people in cities around the world while trying their culture’s cuisines.
While food media has long been anchored by personalities as wide-ranging as Jacques Pepin and Guy Fieri, Rosenthal manages to set himself apart as awards-worthy thanks to his show’s sitcom-like style and the personality at the heart of it all.
“What I borrow from sitcoms is I’m always looking for characters,” he says. “I understand that I am a character. My brother [Richard Rosenthal] who produces the show with me, understands by putting me in certain situations that, for instance, Anthony Bourdain would be very brave and fearless in. He understands that I would not fare as well as him. And that’s fun!”
Rosenthal is methodical about explaining the format of “Somebody Feed Phil,” including how he thoughtfully reworked a segment that originally featured his parents to pay tribute after they died. And he isn’t new to the James Beard Awards, having won one in 2016 for his first food show, PBS’ “I’ll Have what Phil’s Having.” Still, given the prestige of the James Beard Foundation and his lack of a formal food background, the nomination came as a surprise to him — though he’s realizing that may be a part of his appeal.
“I was completely floored. I make it very clear: I’m just a novice. A tourist. I’m not a chef [or] restaurateur. But I guess I represent a lot of people who aren’t,” he says. “I certainly couldn’t love [food] more, and that’s clear. So maybe that’s why! I think the James Beard people appreciate being appreciated.”
That idea of mutual appreciation is the foundation of “Sparklers,” a James Beard-nominated competition series distributed by small food and wine digital outlet Somm TV. The streamer’s founder and chief creative officer Jason Wise thought the landscape could use something that more closely resembled his own background in the restaurant industry. In “Sparklers,” the contestants compete to cook different meals and pair them with sparkling wines, then come together to judge the results themselves.
As a young company with a more niche audience than a platform like Netflix, the executives behind Somm TV have put more emphasis on James Beard recognition than on Emmys since the beginning.
“It was the pinnacle we were reaching for,” Wise says. “If you look at a server at the nicest hotel in the world, or a chef who happens to be a celebrity on TV, Andrew Zimmern, Anthony Bourdain or anyone that I’ve always looked up to, they care [about the James Beard Awards] as much as a sommelier at a restaurant that’s just getting started. That’s what makes this so unique.”
And since getting the James Beard nomination, the viewership of “Sparklers” has expanded into important rooms. Wise says that more popular streamers in the entertainment industry have since approached Somm TV to see how they might be able to collaborate.
“The Emmys matter,” he adds. “But for us to say that they are an outlet we have access to would be folly. If I was going to take the amount of money I would need to campaign for the Emmys, I would much rather put that into content.”
For a larger company, awards strategists don’t see the Beard Awards as all that different from the Emmys. The producers behind Peacock’s “Top Chef Family Style” says that they look at awards season as a whole, with each ceremony carrying equal weight.
Matt Reichman, V.P. of current production at NBCUniversal Television and Streaming, is particularly excited for the full-circle moment the show’s competition series nomination represents.
“We’ve had a really nice relationship with the James Beard Foundation through the ‘Top Chef’ mothership,” he says. “So many of the contestants who are competing are nominees.”
And with “Family Style,” in which children participate alongside their families in cooking competitions, they have an opportunity to highlight young people who may very well go on to win awards in the future.
“Some of the best challenges and the dishes that have moved the judges the most [in the original series and spinoffs] have been rooted in family and heritage. The recipe that grandma taught them, the home cooked meal, the comfort food. What happens if you bring in kids so passionate about cooking [that] their superheroes are the chefs that they watch on TV? How do we give them their golden ticket into the crown jewel of stadium kitchens, and who are they going to bring with them on this journey?”
The Emmys and other events like the SAG and Critics’ Choice Awards will always be a marker of some of the most prominent achievements in television. But even bigger titles like “Somebody Feed Phil” and “Top Chef” can struggle to pick up major attention at those ceremonies, while tiny-but-mighty forces like “Sparklers” fall through the cracks completely. By contrast, the James Beard Awards are a platform where niche tastes can be celebrated, a community impacted less by massive campaigns and more tuned into what Reichman calls “the Willy Wonka of it all.”