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Small plates have earned Jose Andres one of the food world's biggest honors.

The man credited with popularizing tapas -- the Spanish custom of dining on small, shared plates -- was named the nation's most outstanding chef last week during the James Beard Foundation's annual awards ceremony, the so-called Oscars of the culinary crowd.

Andres has been praised for a string of successful restaurants around the country -- most notably Jaleo and minibar by Jose Andres in Washington, D.C. -- which challenged the conventional thinking that anything but heaping portions would leave American diners unsatisfied.

Recently, Andres -- who grew up outside Barcelona and moved to the U.S. 21 years ago after training with famed Spanish chef Ferran Adria -- has become known almost as much for his politics as for what he puts on the plate. He has spoken often -- and even lobbied friends in Congress -- on issues including school lunch standards, childhood obesity, hunger, subsidies for agribusiness and food marketing.

"Food is the most powerful thing we have in our hands. Not only chefs, but everyone in the food community. The right use of food can end hunger," Andres said after accepting his award. "We have the responsibility to make sure that not only our great nation, but the world will always be better using food in the right way."

The James Beard awards honor those who follow in the footsteps of Beard, considered the dean of American cooking when he died in 1985. The awards ceremony was held in New York, where the Beard Foundation is based. The ceremony honored chefs and restaurants; a similar event was held for book and other media awards.

Last year's top chef was "Top Chef" judge Tom Colicchio. This year, Andres beat out Gary Danko of Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco; Suzanne Goin of Lucques in Los Angeles; Paul Kahan of Blackbird in Chicago; and Charles Phan of The Slanted Door in San Francisco.

The foundation's award for outstanding restaurant went to Danny Meyer's Eleven Madison Park in New York. It is known for its tasting-style menu that lists dishes only by key ingredient and encourages diners to work with the chef to create individualized meals. The restaurant's pastry chef, Angela Pinkerton, got the foundation's honor for most outstanding pastry chef.

Best new restaurant went to Jean-Georges Vongerichten's ABC Kitchen in New York, which focuses on local, organic and seasonal foods. Rising star chef of the year went to Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon in Portland, Ore., a nod to that city's increasingly robust food scene.

During last week's event, the foundation gave a nod to the power of social media in the food world when it awarded its first humor writing honors to the fictitious online character Ruth Bourdain, an anonymously written mash-up of culinary icons Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain.

The Beard Foundation also named its top regional chefs around the country: Alex Young of Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Great Lakes region); Michael Solomonov of Zahav in Philadelphia (Mid-Atlantic); Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery in Minneapolis (Midwest); Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune (New York City); Tony Maws of Craigie On Main in Cambridge, Mass. (Northeast); Andy Ricker of Pok Pok in Portland, Ore. (Northwest); Michael Tusk of Quince in San Francisco (Pacific); Stephen Stryjewski of Cochon in New Orleans (South); Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill, N.C. (Southeast); and Saipin Chutima of Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas and Tyson Cole of Uchi in Austin, Texas (Southwest).