For years, the Rammy Awards and their organizing committee have been waging a war for legitimacy, searching for the right mix of compelling categories, independent judges and black-tie pageantry that will lend the ceremonies the gravitas of their stated role model: the James Beard Foundation Awards.
There’s little question that a Beard Award can impact a chef’s career — helping attract more customers and more investment capital — but what does a Rammy Award do for a chef or restaurant? We asked a few players in the D.C. hospitality scene for their opinions.
Given some of their answers, it appears that as much as past and current presidents of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington have tried to inject more substance and seriousness into the awards event (avoiding a ballot tease like Sweetwater Tavern’s advertisement from 1997; see below), they still have an uphill battle on their hands. No one I spoke to claimed that a Rammy immediately boosted sales, although in some cases that’s because the restaurant was packed already.
Take Cork Wine Bar. When Diane Gross and Khalid Pitts opened their neighborhood spot in early 2008, they were pioneers along 14th Street, a corridor still a year or so away from turning into a food and drink playground. Gross and Pitts reaped the rewards of their risk-taking: Cork was often stuffed tighter than Will Ferrell’s pants. If the couple’s 2009 Rammy Award for best new restaurant had any impact on sales, Gross said recently, it was virtually impossible to determine.
But when Cork won best wine program during the 2012 Rammy Awards, Gross found the victory “very personally rewarding,” she said. “In an industry where your rewards are mostly verbal from people who say they like you, it’s something concrete.”
That was a common refrain from restaurateurs: Rammy Awards routinely have a more profound impact on staff than customers.
“Does it have an impact?” asked Ashok Bajaj, the man behind the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, which runs such places as the Oval Room, Rasika and Bibiana. “I think it has a tremendous impact on the morale of the staff. It just gives them a boost . . .in their own community.”
One of the repeated criticisms of the Rammys — perhaps the one that hurts its reputation most among those in the industry — is the restaurant association’s decision to limit the award to members of the trade group. The James Beard Foundation, by contrast, allows non-members to win its medal. For the D.C. market, RAMW’s restriction means Peter Pastan, R.J. Cooper and Johnny Monis, among others, can not be considered for chef of the year, nor can their places (Obelisk, 2 Amys, Etto, Rogue 24, Komi or Little Serow) win in one of the restaurant categories.
RAMW’s restriction also leads to this kind of discrepancy: Monis was a James Beard Award winner in 2013, but the chef has never won a Rammy.
Monis declined to comment for this story, but Pastan says he’s never been a member of the RAMW. His reason? Pastan trots out the old Groucho Marx quote about not wanting to “belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
He’s only partially joking. “I don’t do well in groups,” he confides.
As for the impact of the Rammys, Pastan begs off the question.
“I have no idea,” the chef says. “People seem to like to win them. I don’t know if they have any impact on them in a positive way. It seems an industry thing.”
“I just don’t know what purpose they serve,” Pastan adds. “I don’t understand the Academy Awards either.”