For the first time, winning James Beard Awards, long known as the top honors in the restaurant and food media world, won’t just depend on someone’s skill with a whisk or with words.
The organization that doles out the prestigious annual awards has retooled its criteria and now will also base decisions on whether candidates have shown a “demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, environmental sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive.” The James Beard Foundation, which administers the awards, also announced a slate of other changes aimed at diversifying its judging committees — a move it ultimately hopes will lead to a more diverse group of winners — and screening for potentially problematic chefs taking the industry’s top honors.
The move comes as the foundation is positioning itself not just as the promoter of American cuisine, as it has for years, but of social justice causes within the restaurant industry.
“Excellence in your craft, whether you’re a chef or a restaurateur or a writer, that’s still key,” Dawn Padmore, the vice president for awards, said in an interview. “It’s an awards program. But what else are we doing -— all of us — to create a better industry and community? It’s aspirational for where we want to go.”
The changes were prompted in part by the controversy that surrounded its last awards cycle. In 2020, just before the traditional announcement of winners, the foundation announced it was scrapping the bulk of that year’s awards program and that it planned to return in 2022. Ostensibly, the reason was the pandemic that had shuttered many restaurants and inflicted pain across the industry, making some in the industry worry about the optics of self-celebration.
But subsequent news reports also hinted at behind-the-scenes chaos, with foundation officials panicking because there were no Black winners in any of the 23 categories, according to The New York Times. And allegations of bad behavior against some of the potential winners reportedly had mounted in the run-up to the awards, leading some to take themselves out of the running and creating problems for the foundation staff as they scrambled to evaluate the charges.
These forces also hit close to home in Seattle this past year. In April, James Beard Award-winning chef Blaine Wetzel, of the Willows Inn on Lummi Island, was accused of physical intimidation and verbal abuse, according to The New York Times. In June, James Beard Award-winning chef Edouardo Jordan was accused of sexual misconduct by 15 women in a Seattle Times investigation.
The story led to Jordan’s employees walking out of his restaurants, which remain shuttered. (In response to a Seattle Times request for comment at the time, the James Beard Foundation “denounce[d] all forms of abusive behavior and misconduct in the workplace,” saying that the organization was “undergoing an audit to help inform processes and policies moving forward.”) It also prompted some prominent Seattle-area chefs, including Joule and Revel’s Rachel Yang, to call upon the James Beard Foundation to take action to make restaurants a better environment for women, and to advocate for race and gender equality.
“I am in favor of the changes that [the foundation] has made for the award criteria, selection process, as well as the committee,” Yang said Thursday. “Is it enough? 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.”
The coveted awards, named for the food writer and educator credited with elevating American culinary culture, aren’t merely shelf décor: They can seriously boost a chef’s career and a restaurant’s visibility — and bottom line.
“I think the timing of the change was long overdue. However the way everything has changed because of the pandemic, everyone including chefs, public, and those in the food industry are ready for the new direction forward and are willing to push the boundaries,” said Yang, who has been a Beard Award semifinalist eight times over the years.
The organization in previous years had taken other steps to diversify the awards, which have overwhelmingly gone to white male chefs in the three decades the awards program has operated. In 2018, Seattle’s Jordan became the first Black chef to win a James Beard Award in the category of Best New Restaurant for JuneBaby. In 2019, Kwame Onwuachi, chef of Washington’s now-closed Kith/Kin and author of the memoir “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” won the Rising Star Chef award. Mashama Bailey walked away with Best Chef in the Southeast for her Savannah, Georgia, restaurant the Grey.
Following the recommendations of an audit, the foundation is taking steps to bring more Black and other minority members onto its awards committees and has set a goal of having half its committee members and judges be BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color).
To cast a wider net, the committees charged with doling out the chef and restaurant awards — the accolades considered the Oscars of the culinary world — will no longer be solely made up of members of the food media. Going forward, they might also include authors, former restaurateurs and people outside the industry familiar with the various regions’ dining scenes. And previous winners will no longer automatically be made a part of the judging process.
Other tweaks include removing the age limit on the “Rising Star Chef” award and renaming it “Emerging Chef.”
In what might be the biggest shift for the longtime awards program, entrants will no longer be evaluated solely on their output — for chefs, that would be the food that appears on diners’ plates, or for food media, their stories and segments. Entrants must include a written, video or audio statement about how their work aligns with the awards’ mission and values of equity, sustainability and community.
That change might put some restaurants at a disadvantage, said Hanna Raskin, a longtime food writer who is now the editor of the newsletter The Food Section, which covers food news from the South. Better-funded restaurants, for example, might find it easier to run a recycling program, she noted. And restaurants that publicly espouse a social justice mission might be rewarded in some communities, but penalized in others.
“There are so many great chefs and others in the restaurant community across the South that are serving their communities by serving food,” she said. “And to be outspoken in that manner is received differently on the coasts than in between them.”
But Padmore said the goal was to widen the pool of those who would be considered, not limit it. And she said the personal statement would offer people a chance to explain how they are working toward the foundation’s goals — even if they’re not specifically crusading. “If I run a small restaurant that serves really great food, I could say that I align by treating my customers and workers well, by treating them like they are part of my community.”
Raskin, who headed the now-shuttered Association of Food Journalists, also wondered whether many journalists would be able to enter if they had to comply with the new rules requiring an explanation of how they support the foundation’s values or the new ethics code that requires entrants to pledge to work “to further our industry.”
Perhaps an even stickier question for the foundation is how to deal with chefs and other potential winners who have been accused of problematic behavior on the job and off.
The foundation this week said it would form an independent committee made up of people with backgrounds in fields including law and ethics to come up with a process for vetting candidates and “conducting fair and impartial review of allegations.”
Padmore allowed that taking on the job of evaluating charges of misconduct won’t be simple. “It’s a tough job, but we are here for it,” she said. As for how all the changes will play out when the foundation gives out its next awards in 2022, she said, they are looking to make adjustments as they go. “All these changes are major,” she said. “And we acknowledge that we are working in drafts.”
Seattle Times staffers Tan Vinh and Stefanie Loh added information to this report about Seattle-area James Beard Award winners who have recently been accused of bad behavior in 2021, and added quotes from Seattle chef Rachel Yang in response to the James Beard Foundation’s announcement.