Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for eight years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.

The email notification on my phone went off as I was driving to work back in November of last year. When I had time to read the message, I initially thought it was someone phishing for information. (In this day and age, questioning the authenticity of messages is the norm.) 

After realizing it wasn’t a hoax, the seriousness of the email set in: I was being asked to apply for a position as a judge for the James Beard Awards – the equivalent of the Oscars for restaurants, chefs and media.

Did I deserve this opportunity? My time as a professional writer reached the decade mark in 2021 with the bulk of my journalism freelancing for OC Weekly’s food and drink team, combined with contributions to most of the county’s print publications over the years. I’ve judged local food and drink competitions. Industry folks trusted me enough to send over tips and exclusives. Scrutinizing the multi-page application at 2 a.m. as imposter syndrome settled in, I debated my qualifications. Was I worthy of being a judge? 

After submitting my application, I did my best to be patient. By the end of December, I was officially named a judge, notified of my judging duties and informed to submit a non-disclosure agreement (per the James Beard Foundation Awards, I cannot name the specific committee I was associated with, nor the category I was asked to judge). It would be over six months before I could discuss my contribution. Here I was given an incredible opportunity, but nobody to share the excitement or stress that came along with it. I wanted to celebrate, but instead I compartmentalized any thoughts and told friends and family that I applied … and that was it. I would let them believe the process stopped there. 

The Judging

James Beard Awards Controversy

This year’s James Beard Awards marks the beginning of a new era for the organization.

In recent years, institutions such as the Oscars and Golden Globes have struggled with diversity in their selections for nominees. The James Beard Foundation was called out for its lack of representation in 2020. Nominees were also subject to disqualification due to recent scandals.

In addition, internal issues were brought to light, further complicating the awards season. These concerns prompted not only an internal audit but an overhaul of the entire judging process. 

The subsequent cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 James Beard Awards seasons meant this year’s recipients would carry more weight. 

Our online training, conducted by Jamila Robinson, food editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, covered items to be mindful of when reviewing entries. This training was in addition to the specific judging criteria I would review separately that would be applied to each submission. It was a great deal to be held accountable for, but the requirements helped level the playing field among applicants.

All judging was conducted online and on our own time (mostly evenings and weekends for me); the only thing we needed to be mindful of was deadlines for each round. Members of my specific committee screened all open call entries and re-categorized entrants as needed. The narrowed-down list of applicants was given to our team of six judges for review and we independently selected our top 10 authors in March. Our results were combined to create an overall list of 10 writers which we then ranked a second time the following month. From there, the committee reduced the list to three finalists for a final review by the judges in May. An independent accountant tallied our scores to determine the winner. 

This may appear relatively simple, but in the case of our category, each applicant was expected to submit three works for review. What that translates to is approximately 60 items that I was responsible for reviewing and ranking in the first round, 30 in the second, and nine in the final. It seemed especially daunting during the first round, but my approach of tackling two to three entrants every few days kept me from flaming out early on. 

After referencing the category I worked on to a JBF staffer over the weekend, the staffer mentioned there was concern over the amount of work our category’s judges would have to get through. Hearing that feedback made me feel better about the time and effort I put forth to thoughtfully go over each item and rate each entrant – that my work was acknowledged.

Going to the Awards Weekend

For my service, I was offered a ticket to the awards show being held in Chicago. Airfare, ground transportation, lodging and meals outside of any James Beard Foundation events were on my own dime. Initially, I didn’t intend on attending because of the cost. After realizing the experience of being a judge may not happen again, I dug into my savings and launched into planning mode, researching menus and activities to fill my time and avoid boredom. I’ve vacationed in the windy city twice before, but wanted to try things I previously didn’t make time for, like an architecture tour via boat along the Chicago River, plus at least one reservation in a coveted dining room. Logistically I was ready to go; mentally I was concerned about my safety traveling solo.

The week before departure, I received an email listing ancillary events for visitors like myself to participate in, something I wasn’t expecting but grateful they coordinated. These options included volunteer opportunities, numerous speaking panels plus the ability to obtain reservations at choice places opening their doors outside of operating hours. The weekend could be as busy or as relaxed as one wanted to dictate.

I jumped at the opportunity to receive a tour of Green City Market, Chicago’s largest farmer’s market held at Lincoln Park on Saturdays. Taylor Choy, the market’s operations manager, led our small group around, introducing us to many vendors. In addition, Sarah Stegner (one of the co-founders) was also present to elaborate on how she got the market up and running. Green City’s goal to expand community access to locally grown food plus learning about vendor commitments toward environmental stewardship made me realize how special this particular market is. I may have also stayed after the tour to eat my way through its many vendors plating bao buns stuffed with spiced mushrooms, a flaky spanakopita hand pie, chilled apple cider and a bag of mandazi (a West African fry bread I watched being rolled out and deep fried).

In addition to the market tour, I attended two panel discussions. Each was an honest, unfiltered conversation that discussed thoughtful topics: what it meant to “take up space” in the culinary industry and the future of restaurants. The speakers varied not only in their backgrounds, but what area of the industry they specialized in. I appreciated the willingness of participants to delve into their personal experiences, even if it made them uncomfortable. 

Attending with Purpose

Since my judging for the James Beard Foundation was technically complete, traveling was more leisure than business. To give my trip a greater sense of purpose, I set out to make a few industry contacts. One was forged during my initial reservation the day I arrived – but first let’s talk about the meal. In lieu of an elaborate dinner service, I discovered something bespoke for a party of one. Oriole, a two-Michelin starred establishment (named after the owner’s love of the Baltimore baseball team), featured a “nightcap” option separate from the contemporary American tasting menu. It allows for a seat in the lounge or at the bar for a beverage and two late-night listings: a cookie and a sandwich. 

The ham sandwich is a leveled-up nod to a deli version chef Noah Sandoval would consume after shifts at his first kitchen stint in Virginia. Thoughtfully sourced components included a toasted demi baguette foundation from Phlour Bakery and a distinct walnut mustard condiment by Rare Tea Cellar. Arugula dressed in a lemon and poppy seed vinaigrette contributed to its robust flavor. Roelli Cheese Haus raclette provides a depth rivaled only by dual meats: Publican Quality Meats mortadella and country ham by way of Edwards Virginia Smokehouse. It was a ham sandwich so simple and yet so complex that it ruined me for all future ones.

Partaking in a savory nightcap captures the same vibe and level of hospitality without committing three hours or three dollar signs. It was at Oriole’s bar top where I struck up a conversation with Jessie Evans, a Los Angeles-based blogger whom I overheard discussing the meal she just finished at another restaurant I researched. We discussed the awards, dining and whether we should get another beverage down the street. 

After consulting with our bartender, we found ourselves scoring seats at Lazy Bird, an underground cocktail bar with live entertainment beneath The Hoxton hotel a short walk away, where we sipped our final round of nightcaps. It was the most productive, unplanned way to spend my first evening. I would not have gone to the next bar if not for my new friend, since I get wary of my surroundings when dining alone.

The awards ceremony I attended was held Saturday evening at Columbia College. The experience as a whole felt surreal. From American journalist and JBF awards host Lisa Ling to “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi presenting and winning, the energy in a room full of journalists, chefs and content creators could’ve lit up Wrigley Field.

Memorable moments of the evening included someone by the name of Patrick Forte, the person sitting behind me that I introduced myself to an hour before, winning an award for audio programming. I noticed how quite a few winners were so shocked to be named that they had nothing prepared with regards to a speech. Humbled and at a loss for words, these recipients would tear up and the audience would become equally emotional, erupting into applause. I cried, laughed and cheered enough times that it was borderline emotionally draining.

While I lingered for a while at the reception to try bites from a number of Chicago’s popular kitchens, a busy day of activities and being outdoors caught up with me and I opted to call it an early bedtime. A Sunday brunch date, an architecture tour from the river, a bit of shopping and the other panel discussion filled the remainder of my weekend. 

As much as I enjoy talking to people, being in a room full of strangers who all knew each other is intimidating for me. Among all the attendees that weekend, there was one industry professional I met previously. Master sommelier and partner of Frasca Food & Wine in Colorado Bobby Stuckey was in attendance at the second panel, and I made a point of saying hello and thanked him for his hospitality when I visited the restaurant back in 2016.

The bison burger from The Gage in Chicago. Credit: ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN/Voice of OC

I left Chicago on a Monday with deadlines looming and a laptop that needed replacement. My last meal in the city was a recommendation from Orange County chef-partner Peter Petro of Bosscat Kitchen and Libations: The Gage off South Michigan Avenue, a casual dining room possessing an upscale menu. Torn between a super green salad and a bison burger, I requested both and was glad I did; it would be my only meal that day thanks to a tornado warning at O’Hare which would delay my flight home.

When I look back on the past six months and my judging responsibilities, I am inspired by the multitude of talented writers who applied. I’m proud to represent not only food media, but women, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in my role as judge. Although I have a much clearer understanding of what judges look for in a winning entry, I admittedly have a preference for being behind the scenes and have no inclination to apply for a James Beard Award.

Going through the judging process one time was enough to satisfy my curiosity, but if the opportunity ever arises, I’d apply and serve again.

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at ampanoringan@voiceofoc.org.

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