When Rachel Yang agreed to host the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America dinner at her restaurant Revel, the date — Aug. 15, 2021 — seemed distant, with ensuring everyone’s safety at an uncertain point in the future of the COVID-19 pandemic of paramount concern. The event was to be the Seattle edition of “a nationwide initiative to bring together chefs and diners to support the local restaurants rebuilding a more sustainable and equitable industry.”
Then came allegations against the Pacific Northwest’s two most prominent James Beard Award winners. First, at the end of April, employees of Lummi Island’s renowned Willows Inn alleged workplace abuse, including physical intimidation and use of racist, sexist and homophobic slurs by chef Blaine Wetzel, as well as sexual harassment by other staff members, as reported by The New York Times. Then, in June, a Seattle Times report documented accusations by 15 women of sexual misconduct or unwanted touching by Seattle star chef Edouardo Jordan. (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” with findings to be shared “over the summer.”)
Yang — whose résumé includes New York City fine-dining bastions Per Se and Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, and who has been nominated for James Beard Awards herself so many times that she’s lost count — began to have misgivings about the Taste America dinner. After allegations against prominent restaurateurs including Mario Batali in 2017, the James Beard Foundation had issued a statement condemning harassment. Since, the awards had been canceled for both 2020 and 2021, as COVID-19 took hold and controversy surrounded nominees’ behavior as well as a lack of Black winners. Now that accusations of serious misconduct in the industry had come to the Pacific Northwest, Yang wondered: Why were the James Beard powers that be publicly silent on the subject?
Here’s what she decided to do — and what happened.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Chef Rachel Yang on her reaction to the allegations against Blaine Wetzel and Edouardo Jordan in relation to the James Beard Awards:
Seattle got a double whammy — this is the underlying culture that we are all working away from. And especially in Seattle — we’re such a progressive city, we’re not New York City, we’re not L.A. or San Francisco, we have a higher minimum wage than anyone else. And everyone sort of had the idea of [working in] restaurants here in Seattle: You can actually have a balanced life and have this great restaurant scene, you can work and you can enjoy your life. So when I read those articles, it was just really upsetting and sad. And I think the big thing was the fact that every single article that we were reading on those two chefs from Washington were — they all had a common descriptor in the beginning — it was “James Beard Award-winning chefs.”
And the organization — they are the unequivocally leading organization that people [in the restaurant industry] look up to. It has become sort of a goal and pinnacle of every chef and restaurant in the country — having that honor from James Beard Foundation. So that’s when I was thinking that I really wish they had said something. I wanted to make sure that people who are in this industry and are looking up to the chefs know that it is not OK: You cannot just become this amazing chef and garner all those awards and honors, and then still have all these allegations and problems and be OK.
On asking the James Beard Foundation for change:
So I wrote them an email saying that here in Seattle, we’re doing this dinner, and we’re so freshly wounded from this information that we just discovered. Is there any way you guys can make a statement [about] your commitment to a safe place in restaurants for women, and for gender and race equality? How important that is here?
[And] I said that I wanted to donate all my proceeds to an organization for gender and race equality. And then I asked them: Can you do the same? At least for this Seattle event?
The foundation agreed to put its proceeds from the dinner toward its Women’s Leadership Programs. And, to its website, it added, “The James Beard Foundation denounces all forms of abuse or activity that intimidates or prohibits anyone from thriving or having the same opportunities as anyone else in the industry.”
So that’s on the website, added because of me. However, there are lots of words on their website. It’s good that they’re doing something, but I wish they could have done more.
I decided to still host this event. I don’t have a huge platform, but doing this one dinner — we are doing it because we want to talk about it one more time, highlight it one more time. It might not change anything. But I want any female cooks, anyone in the industry, to feel like, “Hey, — there are people still thinking about this and talking about this.” It might be a painfully slow change. But we are walking in that direction.
On the problem of serious allegations against previous James Beard Award winners:
The hard part is the history. And I think sometimes that speaks louder. Because going forward, people will still think, “OK, as long as I’m not being caught, is that going to be fine? Because there’s no kind of consequences?” I don’t know. I think we learn every day that you cannot move forward without facing your history. It’s very easy to talk about the future, and what we all strive to be. But without facing the history of what was done wrong, it doesn’t have the same weight, unfortunately.
The James Beard Foundation is doing a great job with setting forth very extensive values [in] what they look at when they look [for] great restaurants. But, of course, they don’t have any power to enforce. So it’s very much up to each restaurant. But the restaurants who are in that very inner circle of the James Beard Foundation — they have to follow this. I mean, if you are a celebrated restaurant that people love, and all the cooks look up to, you just have to understand these basic human values.
There’s this continuous conversation about how the restaurant industry is very unique and different. But not different in a way that we don’t follow rules — not different in a way that people’s values are undermined.
On the responsibility of the role of chef:
I feel like I’d gone through those years working in New York City as someone who just basically put the blinders on and just did my job. And what I realize now is that I’m not as aware as I should be about what’s happening. And as you get older, you realize it’s actually a position of huge responsibility. I’ve been doing this for 20-some years, and a lot of these cooks, this is their first job. I have 19-year-olds in the kitchen; I have kids who just got out of cooking school. And there is an atmosphere like chef being someone whom you cannot say no to, chef being someone who you have to always listen to. And then having a restaurant be such a high-intensity environment. Then I see that kids are really vulnerable to not really knowing what their rights [are], and what are the things they can say no to.
So I know I have to do better — I know I want to do better.
On what chef/owners can do about abuse and harassment:
We had a back-of-house [kitchen staff] meeting, the same week [as the allegations against Edouardo Jordan came out]. We talked about what happened. We wanted to make sure that everyone understands: If anyone feels any uncomfortable situations, you can come to us, you can come to the manager, or you can come to a third party. We [restaurants] all have an employee handbook — however, it needs to be explicit, and loud and clear, and reminded to everyone every day. So we talked about how it is important that these [behaviors] are clearly condemned in this restaurant.
Is that enough? No. But if every single restaurant did that — made it abundantly obvious to their own employees that it’s not OK …
On how it feels to speak out:
Having these conversations, I kind of felt very — I don’t know if I should say powerless, but it’s kind of daunting to realize what it will take to bring any kind of changes. I think especially my personal background of growing up as a very sort of quiet Korean girl, I always thought that speaking out was looked down on — you just want to be kind of in the middle. I always felt like I was always the follower. And I’m not making a crazy splash here, but I want to just make a tiny ripple. Just say something.
On how many times she’s been nominated for a James Beard Award — and what “the Oscars of the restaurant industry” might mean going forward:
Yeah, I’ve lost track. I thought it was always amazing to have this national validation. We definitely do need a James Beard Foundation to celebrate food and honor people who’ve done an amazing job and are really talented. But I think I can probably speak for a lot of chefs that that’s not the reason why they do this. It’s not a race to win James Beard [Awards] — we all came to this industry because we love cooking. And then we serve customers, and their memories, and their happy faces — we get that every day.
I hope the James Beard Foundation gets their glory back. Winning “Best Chef” — I’m not really sure what that means at this point.