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A Brief History Lesson on the James Beard Awards for Restaurants

Posted by Cassy Lee on 2/21/17 3:00 PM in Industry News & Trends

james beard award nominees

It’s the day after President’s Day, and there’s a buzz in the air. The warming weather has brought an abundance of people out to enjoy quality time with friends and family. It’s the perfect opportunity to eat some good food and hang out with good company.

Lucky for diners, the James Beard Foundation and board of trustees compiled a list of some of the most acclaimed restaurants across the country, and announced their 2017 Semi-Finalists on Friday. Now in its 27th year, the list of nominees were selected for categories including Outstanding Restaurant, Rising Star Chef, Best Chefs (by Region), and more.

For newcomers to the industry, the James Beard Awards may be an unfamiliar celebration. In this article, we'll highlight what the awards are, why they're perceived as a big deal, and what categories these industry professionals strive for.

Many regard the James Beard Awards Gala as “the Oscars of the food world.” At its core, the foundation was established to commemorate a man who educated and inspired young chefs throughout the US by instilling in them the honesty of preparing American food from fresh, wholesome ingredients.

Who Was James Beard?

james beard awardJames Andrew Beard, born in 1903 in Portland, Oregon, took his roots in the culinary world when he and a friend opened a catering business in the late 30’s, which paved his path to lecturing, teaching, and publishing his first cookbook: Hors D'Oeuvre and Canapés. Though he lost his catering business after World War II, Beard launched The James Beard Cooking School in 1955, where he maintained teaching men and women for the next thirty years.

After Beard’s passing in 1985, Peter Kump and friends took the advice of Julia Child, and raised enough money to purchase the home where Beard always welcomed students, authors, chefs, and other food and beverage professionals. The James Beard Foundation officially opened the James Beard House as a space for culinary exploration and excellence in 1986, and has since been supporting students and industry professionals by holding conferences, tastings, and donating more than $7 million in financial aid to over 1,850 recipients.

Over 200 restaurants, chefs, restaurateurs, and industry leaders from North Carolina to Hawaii, were recognized by the JBF for their diversity, dedication, and culinary excellence last week, and it’s not hard to see why.

What the James Beard Awards Mean

The JBF sets specific guides and restrictions for each of its categories, selecting seasoned players with at least five years of experience in their respective field (with the exceptions of Rising Star Chef of the Year, Outstanding Bar Program, and Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional). While we have certainly seen a few repeats from previous years, it’s without a doubt that the selections, both new and old, are honoring the foundation’s namesake by embodying what he truly believed the industry stood for: teachers that share the knowledge of cooking, who love the people around them, love the work they do, have a passion for eating great food and, most importantly, who know how to have a good time.

When asked about what being a James Beard Award semi-finalist means to her, three-time Rising Star Chef nominee Irene Li shares:

"I sometimes get embarrassed at being called a chef, much less a semi-finalist rising star chef, because nothing about me resembles a traditional chef, or the kind imagined by pop culture and the public. I'm not classically trained. I didn't slave in other kitchens under other chefs. I don't work on the line every night. I have immense respect for chefs who do, many of whom are friends, mentors, and heroes of mine and also featured by JBF this year. But my role at Mei Mei is to shape the growth of our business and to care for everyone involved in it, as well as to look at the bigger pictures of the restaurant industry, our food system, and our society at large (I also plunge the toilets when they get clogged).

What I really do is work with food and with people - farmers, staff, guests, community members and partners. That's where my passion lies, and it takes a lot of forms beyond the kitchen - speaking at conferences, teaching cooking classes, introducing my favorite farmers to my favorite chefs. We're trying to build a better, more connected, more awesome world through food. I am deeply honored that this work is deemed worthy of recognition."

IMG_7178.jpgIrene Li of Mei Mei, Rising Star Chef of the Year 2017 Semi-Finalist

The James Beard Awards gives the opportunity to shed light to the great things these industry leaders do, not only for their restaurants or for their team, but for the impact they have for their community - and for the love of food (and drinks!). They are the folks that are constantly shaping and reshaping what we understand about traditional cuisine, beverages, and dining, and making it all their own.

And the nominees are...

If you are curious as to what the category requirements are to be selected as a nominee, they’re as listed below.

Plus, we give a special mention to restaurants using Toast POS that have been selected as 2017's semi-finalists! The James Beard Foundation will be announcing their finalists on Wednesday, March 15th, and the winners will be announced at the Awards Gala in Chicago on May 1st.

Best New Restaurant

A restaurant opened in the calendar year before the award will be given that already displays excellence in food, beverage, and service, and that is likely to make a significant impact in years to come.

Congratulations to San Francisco's In Situ and Seattle's No Anchor for being named a semi-finalist!

Outstanding Baker

A chef or baker who prepares breads, pastries or desserts in a retail bakery, and who serves as a national standard-bearer of excellence. Must have been a baker or pastry chef for at least five years.

Congratulations to Greg Wade of Chicago's Publican Quality Bread for being named a semi-finalist!

Outstanding Bar Program

A restaurant or bar that demonstrates excellence in cocktail, spirits and/or beer service.

Outstanding Chef

A working chef in America whose career has set national industry standards and who has served as an inspiration to other food professionals. Eligible candidates must have been working as a chef for the past five years.

Outstanding Restaurant

A restaurant in the United States that serves as a national standard bearer of consistent quality and excellence in food, atmosphere and service. Eligible restaurants must have been in operation 10 or more consecutive years.

Outstanding Restaurateur

A working restaurateur who sets high national standards in restaurant operations and entrepreneurship. Candidates must have been in the restaurant business for at least 10 years. Candidates must not have won a James Beard Foundation chef award in the past five years.

Outstanding Wine Program

A restaurant in operation five or more years that serves as a standard bearer for excellence in wine service through a well-presented wine list, knowledgeable staff, and efforts to educate customers about wine.

Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional

A beer, wine or spirits professional who has made a significant national impact on the restaurant industry.

Rising Star Chef of the Year

A chef age 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come.

Congrats to Irene Li of Mei Mei in Boston, MA for being a semi-finalist!

Best Chef: (Region)

Chefs who have set new or consistent standards of excellence in their respective regions. Eligible candidates may be from any kind of dining establishment and must have been working as a chef for at least five years with the three most recent years spent in the region.

We're proud to announce that a lot of Toast users were named semi-finalists in the Best Regional Chef category this year. Congratulations to...

Great Lakes Region: Sarah Grueneberg, Monteverde (Chicago, IL)
New York City: Ignacio Mattos, Estela (New York, NY)
Northeast Region: Jeffrey Lizotte, Present Company (Simsbury, CT); Susan Regis, Shepard (Cambridge, MA); Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley, Eventide Oyster Co. (Portland, ME)
South Region: Clay Conley, Buccan (Palm Beach, FL)
Southeast Region: Vivian Howard, Chef & the Farmer (Kinston, NC)

Among the greats in the list of semi-finalists, we would particularly like to give a shout out to the chefs, bartenders, restaurateurs and restaurants that are a part of our family. We are all extremely proud of the relentless work that you produce, and for the impact that you have in our community.

Congratulations to all of the 2017 James Beard Award Semi-Finalists, and good luck!

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Written by: Cassy Lee

Cassy Lee is a Marketing Coordinator at Toast. Between her grandma’s traditional Chinese cooking and working at her dad’s restaurant, Cassy grew up surrounded by the love of food. She spent 5 years working both front and back of house in fine dining restaurants and speak-easy cocktail bars around Boston. Other than eating all of the things, Cassy also loves to bake, rock-climb, and illustrate.


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