The James Beard Awards have been running for almost 30 years. They were started by the James Beard Foundation as a way to honor the memory of James Beard, the noted chef, culinary mentor, and teacher.
Since then, they’ve become known as the Oscars of the food world. With last week’s announcement of the 2019 James Beard Award semifinalists, the restaurant world is full of excited chatter: Who will make it to the next round? Who can’t believe they made the list? Who totally deserves to win?
The semifinalists were announced on February 27, and the final pool of nominees will be announced on March 27. The awards will be given out to the winners at the James Beard Media Awards dinner in April and the James Beard Awards Gala in May.
The James Beard Awards have undergone some big changes this year, including an effort to increase representation and be more transparent about how the nominees and winners are chosen. We’ll explain what goes into a nomination, what kinds of awards they give out, and how a James Beard Award can affect a restaurant. We also spoke to several semifinalists about how they’re feeling and what their James Beard journey has been like so far.
How Do Awards Impact the Restaurant Industry?
For those who are nominated, industry awards can massively increase the level of awareness and visibility around a restaurant. Whether it’s a “Best of” list from a local publication or something as high-profile as the James Beard Awards, award nominees and winners often see an uptick in media attention and customer volume.
Restaurant industry awards also often indicate what the industry deems important, and what trends or issues are affecting change. These types of spotlights can inspire the industry to discuss what matters and work toward innovation and greatness.
And for teams that are nominated or deemed winners, awards can generate a sense of pride in the workplace. Recognition on the local or national stage can reward the hard work that the whole staff puts in. In an industry with so much burnout, it’s important to share the spotlight and celebrate the accomplishments.
What Kinds of Awards Does the James Beard Foundation Give Out?
The James Beard Foundation gives out awards in six different categories every year, all to recognize excellence in the restaurant and food industry. One additional special award, called the Lifetime Achievement Award, is given each year, too, to someone who has positively impacted the food world over the span of a long career.
Anyone can submit a nomination for the six major categories. It’s free to submit a nomination in some categories, while others have a submission fee. However, starting this year, in the interest of making the James Beard Awards more accessible, the Foundation waived some of the fees for some of the paid categories, with restrictions (more details on that below).
Awards With Free Submission
The Restaurant and Chef award is given to 21 different chefs and restaurants across the country, and it’s the most well-known of the awards; last year, 22,000 nominations were submitted. This is the category that includes Best Chef of 10 different regions in the US, as well as Outstanding Restaurant, Best New Restaurant, Rising Star Chef, Outstanding Wine Program, and more.
The Leadership award is given to five people who are working to better the food system as a whole, in the realms of sustainability, food justice, and public health. They’re the only awards that have a monetary prize: $10,000 to each winner, to help them continue their work.
Awards With Submission Fees
The Book award, where outstanding food books from 11 categories are nominated, including cookbooks, memoirs, and more.
The Broadcast Media award, where radio programs, documentaries, podcasts, and other forms of food-related media are in the spotlight.
The Restaurant Design award, where restaurants with outstanding design and aesthetics, completed or renovated within three years of the awards year, are recognized through four different awards.
The Journalism award is given for excellence in columns, reviews, features, investigations, and other types of food-related journalism in 17 categories.
What’s New This Year? 2019 Policy Changes
The 2019 awards are particularly important. In 2018, the James Beard Awards released new policies for increased representation, transparency, and access after being widely criticized for its focus on white, male chefs. This year, the whole industry will undoubtedly keep a close eye on whether or not the policy changes actually make for a more inclusive batch of candidates and winners - and how it will affect their businesses.
What are some of the changes that have been made?
James Beard Foundation PR representative Mary Blanton Ogushowitz broke it down for us over email:
The James Beard Foundation issued a directive that all awards committees increase diversity to at least match the US census. A similar push was made among the judges of each committee.
Submission fees for three of the paid categories (Book, Broadcast Media, and Design) are now waived for the first two weeks of submissions. The Journalism Award category had the fees waived for only first-time entrants, but for the whole open call period.
The Who’s Who of Food & Beverage Award has been retired because of the policy of candidates having to be nominated by past James Beard Award winners.
What are the results of these changes?
The new policies have contributed to the following changes, according to Blanton Ogushwitz:
There are now 14% more people of color, and 5% more women, as judges of Restaurant & Chef, Book, Broadcast Media, and Journalism Awards.
Among committee members across all six categories, there has been an 8% increase in representation of people of color, and a 5% increase in representation of women, overall.
By waiving some of the submission fees, the four paid categories saw increases of between 10 and 31% in submission volume, indicating there had been many people holding back on submitting due to financial restrictions.
In the Restaurant and Chef category, there was a 7% increase in representation of people of color among the semifinalists. The percentage for women, however, went down by 6% from 2018; in 2019, it’s 34% of the semifinalists.
How Do Restaurateurs Get Nominated for a Restaurant & Chef Award?
Winning a James Beard Restaurant & Chef Award is a goal for many restaurateurs and chefs in the US, and the policy changes will hopefully mean that it becomes a reachable goal for more people. In an industry that has a hard time with day-to-day recognition, awards can carry a lot of weight.
Any chef or restaurant can be nominated, by anyone, through an online form during the awards’ open call period. The entrants are then narrowed down to semifinalists (and then nominees, and then winners) by the Restaurant & Chef Award committee and a huge panel of judges, all overseen by a group of James Beard volunteers.
Mary Blanton Ogushwitz, PR representative for the James Beard Foundation, outlined for us the process of how the Restaurant and Chef awards are chosen.
“The James Beard Foundation holds an online open call for entries beginning in mid-October of each year. Entries received, along with input solicited from an independent volunteer group of more than 250 panelists around the country, are reviewed by the Restaurant and Chef Committee to determine eligibility and regional representation. Based on the results and eligibility requirements for each award, the committee then produces a nominating ballot that lists the semifinalists in each of the 21 Restaurant and Chef Award categories. The list of semifinalists is then voted on by more than 600 judges from across the country to determine the final nominees in each category. The same group of judges, which comprises leading regional restaurant critics, food and wine editors, culinary educators, and past James Beard Award winners, then votes on the nominees to select the winners.”
You can dive deeper into the rules and regulations of the James Beard Awards on their website, where you can get to know who’s on all the award committees. The awards are chosen through an extensive process with many layers, so despite the transparency, it’s still a little bit shrouded in mystery.
Haley Fortier, owner of haley.henry, which is nominated for Outstanding Wine Program, told us that she and her managing partner, Kristie Weiss, didn’t even think they were eligible yet.
“Anybody can go in and nominate you, but it wasn’t even on our radar because we were under the impression that you had to be around for five years,” said Fortier. “It was very unexpected. It was always a goal, and something we’d talked about, but we didn’t think it could be this year.”
“We know a few people that nominated us... Our moms could have nominated us!” joked Weiss.
Julia Sullivan, of Henrietta Red in Nashville, is nominated for Best Chef: Southeast. She talked with us about how important it is to develop a strong presence within your local community. “We didn’t do any sort of campaigning,” she said. “We just try to stay visible and active in the community, working with our peers, doing collaborations. I’m sure that helps. You have to see and be seen for people to know to get your name in there!”
How Does It Feel to Be in the Running?
Jose Salazar, born in Colombia and raised in Queens, NY, is the only Cincinnati chef on the James Beard semifinalist list, where he’s in the running for Best Chef: Great Lakes. His restaurant, MITA's, serves tapas inspired by Latin American and Spanish cuisines.
“It’s great that [the James Beard Awards are] including places like ours,” said Salazar. “It’s just a fun, lively atmosphere. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
“Oh my god, it's very exciting,” said Fortier (of haley.henry). “We’re riding the wave. It's a big deal! You think of every bar, and there's thousands of bars in the country, and you just happen to make this list of like, 15-20... wow.”
The Boston contingent of the semifinalists is full of Fortier and Weiss’s friends and contemporaries. “I feel like my friend circle is really being represented,” said Weiss. “I mean, Karen Akunowicz, she went last year, and this year, Cassie [Piuma, of Sarma]’s in there as well. It just feels like in Boston, the girls are really showing up.”
JuanMa Calderón and Maria Rondeau opened Celeste in 2018 after four years of hosting pop-up dinners at their Cambridge home. Calderón, the chef, is a filmmaker, and Rondeau is an architect and producer, so neither of them was at all familiar with the food industry. In fact, before they opened, neither of them had heard of the James Beard Awards.
One year later, they’re semifinalists for the Best New Restaurant award. “It’s completely unexpected, so we’re overwhelmed… We’re very new to this,” said Rondeau.
Calderón and Rondeau’s experience illustrates the kind of inclusivity the James Beard Awards has aimed to reach through their new policies. “I think that there had been a moment in time when people stopped believing that it was possible, because it was slanted toward certain kinds of restaurants and certain profiles,” said Rondeau. “And it’s been really amazing to hear the responses of people seeing us make it to the list and feeling like it’s possible. These people were disillusioned, never thinking it could be them, and they’ve told us that now, their faith is restored, that everything is possible."
These people were disillusioned, never thinking it could be them, and they’ve told us that now, their faith is restored, that everything is possible.
Co-Owner of Celeste
During the next two months, the whole restaurant industry (and friends and lovers of it) will be watching closely as the semifinalists are narrowed down to the nominees, and then the winners will be finally be chosen. We’ll have an even clearer picture of how the James Beard Foundation’s policy changes affect the outcome of the awards and what next steps can be taken to push the industry further towards equity.
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