With the coronavirus wreaking devastation in the restaurant industry — many establishments are closed or operating at low capacity, thousands of workers have been laid off, and many sickened — the organization that has bestowed the culinary and food-media world equivalent of the Oscars has decided not to declare winners in its 2020 ceremony.
The James Beard Foundation on Thursday announced that “substantial and sustained upheaval” in the industry prompted its decision. “The Foundation believes the assignment of Awards will do little to further the industry in its current uphill battle,” the organization said in a news release.
In May, Seattle’s Canlis was named a finalist in the outstanding service and hospitality category of the James Beard Awards, while Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi of Joule were named finalists for “Best Chef in the Northwest and Pacific” and Heliotrope Architects in Ballard was a finalist in the “Outstanding Restaurant Design” category for their work on Rupee Bar. Winners were supposed to be announced in a virtual ceremony Sept. 25.
A James Beard Award is considered a coup that can burnish a chef’s reputation and drive attention and traffic to restaurants around the country. But many of the restaurants that are up for awards have closed or shifted focus to takeout during the pandemic, and upheaval in the industry has furloughed some nominated chefs.
Anxiety about the usually glittery event had begun to surface in recent weeks, as some in the industry worried about the optics, and others simply didn’t feel like celebrating. David Finch, the chef behind the three-Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif., this week withdrew from consideration after being nominated in the “Outstanding Chef” category.
“The idea of celebrating achievement — and all that our @Manresarestaurant team has accomplished — simply does not feel right in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, and the devastation it has pressed upon our chosen métier and industry,” he wrote in an Instagram post.
The foundation, which is named after the food writer and educator credited with elevating American culinary culture, had already named 2020 winners in its media awards and in a handful of the restaurant categories, including its awards for lifetime achievement, and had named nominees in the rest. And so what had been planned as a virtual awards ceremony will instead be a Sept. 25 broadcast on Twitter honoring the previously announced winners and nominees as well as highlighting the crisis the industry faces and looking to its future.
The 2021 awards ceremony is off, too, since the awards traditionally are based on work in the previous calendar year. “Any intent to hold a ceremony in 2021 based on 2020 work would be unfair and misguided, taking into account the unprecedented hardships which restaurants and potential nominees faced this year,” it said.
Instead, the Beard Foundation will broadcast “an industry celebration shining a light on the members of the independent restaurant community who have shown leadership during this crisis and honoring those who have made a significant impact on the industry and in their communities when it was needed most.”
The foundation also announced additional efforts to increase diversity in the awards process, saying it would work with an unnamed “outside social justice agency” to audit and potentially overhaul the way the nominees are selected. “The objectives are to remove any systemic bias, increase the diversity of the pool of candidates, maintain relevance, and align the Awards more outwardly with the Foundation’s values of equity, equality, sustainability, and excellence for the restaurant industry,” it said.
In recent years, the Beard foundation has made efforts to do that, in 2018 increasing diversity in the committees that select nominees. After years of overwhelmingly going to white male chefs, the past two years have honored a number of women and chefs and food writers of color.
Seattle Times staff contributed to this report.