After a tumultuous time during the pandemic — including scrapping the restaurant industry’s highest honors in 2020 and 2021 — the James Beard Awards are back, with a mission to do better on issues such as equity and with a slate of semifinalists meant to reflect it.
Seattle-area chefs and restaurants up for 2022 Beard Awards — aka the Oscars of the restaurant industry — include …
- Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi of Joule in the Outstanding Chef category
- Renee Erickson’s The Walrus and the Carpenter for Outstanding Restaurant
- Kristi Brown of Communion for Emerging Chef
- Matia Kitchen & Bar (Orcas Island) for Best New Restaurant
- Pamela Vuong of The Flour Box for Outstanding Baker
- Jerry Corso’s Bar del Corso for Outstanding Hospitality
- and Brady Ishiwata Williams’ Tomo for Outstanding Wine Program
Local semifinalists for Best Chef Northwest and Pacific include …
- Nick Coffey of Ursa Minor (Lopez Island)
- Erasto Jackson of Lil Red’s Takeout and Catering
- Liz Kenyon of Rupee Bar
- Melissa Miranda of Musang
- David Nichols of Eight Row
- Brandon Pettit of Delancey
- Mutsuko Soma of Kamonegi
- Aaron Verzosa of Archipelago; and
- Chad White of Zona Blanca (Spokane).
Chef Kristi Brown texted a “ha ha” in response to landing in the Emerging Chef category. Until this year, it was called Rising Star Chef and limited to age 30 or younger, while Brown had decades of experience as a caterer before opening her first restaurant, Communion, in late 2020. But she says she’s “super-grateful” for the recognition, and not just on her own account.
“One conversation I’ve been having a lot lately is about representation and how important that is,” she said by phone, “and I think I’ve always kind of stood on the outside of that conversation.” As a Black female chef, she described thinking in the past about what was lacking in terms of who merited portrayal as a success, and “what it means to have someone that looks like you do the things you want to do … giving you the feeling that it’s attainable.”
“And so now I realized — like, yeah, you’re that person. Wow, OK!” she laughed.
Initially attributed to the upheaval of COVID, the decision to forgo the awards for the past two years also signaled trouble behind the scenes at the James Beard Foundation, with The New York Times reporting that despite prior efforts to promote diversity, the 2020 voting process had resulted in no Black winners in any of 23 categories. Meanwhile, allegations of unacceptable behavior mounted against multiple would-be awardees.
After scrambling to halt the honors, the James Beard Foundation conducted an internal audit, announcing in September a new commitment to recognizing culinary excellence while also prizing “a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive” — with nominees required to provide a written, audio or video statement on their alignment with the mission. Changes to voting and judging protocols were also instituted, as well as a new code of, and committee on, ethics — initial steps in a process geared toward “doing all we can to level the playing field to help create a more equitable, more inclusive industry,” said Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach in a statement.
After calling on the foundation to speak out on safety in the restaurant work environment for women, and to advocate for race and gender equality, Seattle chef Rachel Yang — an awards semifinalist for the ninth time — said in September that she was in favor of the changes.
“Is it enough?” she questionedat the time. “Well, it seems like it has all the right intentions and goals that it’s striving for. The answer to that question will be in the results in coming years.”
Yang said Wednesday, “After the last two years of pandemic, it feels like a recognition that so many chefs and the restaurants fought through challenges to get to the other side. Also, it’s really cool to see that the list looks more like the industry in 2022.”
Communion chef Brown, meanwhile, said she’s been part of the James Beard Foundation’s Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership program for the last six months, and that she also sees encouraging signs.
“Now I’m a part of the community, and it’s like, they’re honestly doing the work” at the foundation, she said. “We’ve been heard in such a phenomenal way, and we have plans to do so much more to spread the reach … giving people the tools so that they can get to that [award-winning] level.
“And I feel like the women and the people that they have in leadership right now [at the James Beard Foundation] are pushing to continue that in bigger and better ways in our industry,” Brown said. “And I — I mean, man, hallelujah, it’s time.”
In terms of representation, Brown said, “It’s just so great to be seen … You know, when I think about people that have won awards, and just the things that you have to worry about when you’re a new business — and when you get this kind of leg up, it helps you not have to worry about it so much … You feel like OK, I’ve got this … and I can build on it — it is such a big thing in this industry. It’s not something to take for granted.”
The 2022 James Beard Awards finalists will be announced on March 16 (with media awards nominees announced April 27), and the awards will take place on June 13 in Chicago.