Stuffed with more than 1,000 folks from the local hospitality industry, the main ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel felt like a sauna in the Sahara on Sunday night. The sound system, poor at best, sometimes emitted shock waves that pierced the eardrums. The dinner consisted of several courses that no chef in the ballroom would have allowed out of his own kitchen, under any circumstance. The speakers on stage routinely had to fight for attention with…well, whatever those 1,000-plus people were yammering about at their tables.

It was, in other words, ballroom gala hell. Despite this, though, the winners of the 2009 RAMMY Awards accepted their trophies with genuine enthusiasm, and even humility, if I may inject a bit of earnestness into what struck me as a mostly ostentatious, highly insular event that meant a lot to those inside the inner sanctum — and almost nothing to those outside. I was particularly impressed when Restaurant Eve chef and owner Cathal Armstrong told me that he took the red eye from Napa County early Sunday morning just to attend the RAMMYs.  It was a solemn act of loyalty to a ceremony that regularly wore its frivolousness on its own tuxedoed sleeve.

The disconnection between the excitement on stage and the sweaty, weary resignation among the table drones was hard to reconcile for this first-timer to the RAMMYs. If people weren’t fanning themselves with RAMMY programs, in a desperate attempt to stay cool in that stifling ballroom, they were fighting off boredom by roaming from table to table, seeking out conversations or a new contact for their iPhone. One table, during the middle of the ceremony, apparently exited en masse to go smoke dope somewhere in Woodley Park. Or so someone told me.

Mistress of Ceremonies Sue Palka, meteorologist with WTTG Fox 5, as well as each award presenter had to fight this ballroom ennui with every means necessary. Some tried jokes. WUSA‘s J.C. Hayward, who presented an honorary RAMMY to educator Frans Hagen, tried to appeal to the audience’s better nature. “This is such an important part of the program,” Hayward intoned. The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington really “wants you to hear this part of the program.” It didn’t work.

Between the heat and the general mood of the ballroom, presenter David Nellis joked that he was going to employ a bold new strategy. “I’m going to…present naked,” said Nellis, who passed out awards for Restaurant Employee and Manager of the Year, along with wife Nycci (she of the List).

The boldest play for attention, though, came from Elizabeth Glover, one half of the Washington Times‘society circuit team, who belted out a few lines from the song “Memories.” The crowd, at the sound of the impromptu wailing, momentarily hushed, if perhaps out of shock. “Oh, wait,” Glover said when finished, “this isn’t American Idol!”

Glover’s ploy didn’t set well with at least one observer, who said it was a matter of context. Glover and her gossip partner Stephanie Green (along with CityZen‘s Eric Ziebold who mostly stood in the background) were presenting the night’s top award — Chef of the Year. It wasn’t a time for frivolity to my source’s mind. “I work too hard. I love [this industry],” said the observer, who requested anonymity. “To watch two people step up there and butcher it is annoying.”

It didn’t seem to bother the winning chef, Robert Wiedmaier, the man behind Marcel’s, Brasserie Beck, and the Brabo group in Alexandria. Wiedmaier assembled on stage with what seemed like every employee on his payroll. It was a generous move as the chef singled out his most loyal members. “I’m nothing without my staff,” he said.

“This city is going to explode if it hasn’t already,” Wiedmaier added, rising to the occasion. “It’s going to take off big time.”

Wiedmaier’s moment wasn’t the only one that didn’t seem forced or staged. Armstrong’s acceptance speech for Fine Dining Restaurant of the Year was equally sincere. “I was born in Ireland, but I was made in the U.S.A.,” Armstrong said, as he accepted the trophy on behalf of Restaurant Eve. “I’m very proud of that.”

I seriously doubt that half the audience took in the moment, which makes me wonder why there was so much static among the paying masses who were allegedly there to honor their own kind. Do they not, contrary to all the glitz and formality, take the RAMMYs seriously? Do they not take themselves seriously? Is the event just too large and unmanageable to maintain any sense of control over it? Or where they just too hot to give a damn?

Part of the problem, as I have noted before, is that it’s hard to take a ceremony seriously when it’s giving away trophies for Hottest Restaurant Bar Scene, Restaurant Manager of the Year, and Associate Member of the Year. Only the sincerest of industry lapdogs could remain mum during those presentations. But now that I’ve actually attended the RAMMYs, I have some other thoughts on the matter:

  • Dump the journalists and get real celebrities to pass out the awards. No one cares about journalists (unless they need something). Celebrities always attract attention on stage.
  • Drop the multi-course dinner. I know you need to have people sit still for two straight hours, and a long meal is a fine way to do that. But believe me, no one was waiting for their entrees last night. They were waiting to get out of there, so that they could eat something better, like a dead fish washed up from the Potomac. Seriously, it’s a farce beyond words to serve the city’s best chefs the kind of slop that caterers must prepare in order to feed 1,000-plus people. Instead, start the program earlier, have a few local celebrity chefs prepare cold appetizers ahead of time, serve plenty of wine, and wrap the whole ceremony up in an hour or so. Then everyone can retreat to the winning restaurants for a real feast and celebration.
  • Or forget the formal food-and-wine dinner altogether. Rent a real auditorium, have your ceremony there, and host a reception afterward, Beard Award-style.
  • By cutting dinner expenses, you could pour the extra money into the ceremony’s production. Build a stage big enough to demand attention, rather than assembling some risers, a piss-poor sound system, a couple of video screens, and a modest podium. The bigger the spectacle, the more attention it’ll receive. As it is now, the entire event feels more like a senior high school awards ceremony than D.C.’s version of the James Beard Awards.

Click here for a complete list of winners from this year’s RAMMYs.