Dreaming Big and Coming Together: Toast Customers on What the James Beard Awards Mean to Them

Jun 06, 2023

Each year, the James Beard Foundation honors chefs, bartenders, bakers and all kinds of restaurateurs with one of the highest honors in the culinary world. Toast is proud to count nearly 30 finalists on this year’s list as customers, supporting them with the tools they need to run their business, thrive, and work towards recognition like this from the culinary community. Ahead of the big night (“the food world Oscars” as it’s been called), we spoke with a few of them to learn about what makes their restaurant special, and what this honor means to them.

The James Beard Awards were started in 1990 and each year look to “recognize exceptional talent and achievement in the culinary arts, hospitality, media, and broader food system, as well as a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive,” according to the James Beard Foundation website

The 2023 Awards are particularly special, as they are only the second held since the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the hospitality industry particularly hard. Additionally, significant changes were made to the Awards and nomination process in 2020 to encourage equity and diversity among the nominee pool. This year’s awards season began with dozens of semi-finalists across 23 categories shared in early Spring, which was then whittled down to 115 finalists in March 2023. The James Beard Awards were announced on June 5, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.

A Dream Come True

Whether you are running a bar in Seattle, an omakase program in Omaha, a tapas restaurant in Cincinnati, or a fine-dining program in Cleveland (like the Toast customers featured below) just being nominated for a James Beard Award is one of the most exciting moments for anyone in food.

“When I found out that we were on the semi-finalist list, it felt like a dream, and now that we're finalists, it's even more like I’m on cloud nine,” said Anu Apte, owner of Rob Roy, a finalist for Outstanding Bar in Seattle, Washington.

Being named a James Beard Award nominee can represent the culmination of years of study and hard work from front of house to back, and this year in particular, it’s a chance to honor the turbulent years the hospitality industry has faced through COVID-19; years that not only changed restaurants, but the James Beard Foundation and Awards themselves.

For Yoshitomo, a sushi restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska, this has been a long time coming. The restaurant was named a semi-finalist in 2020, only to find the awards would go no further that year, and winners would not be announced. For Yoshimoto’s head chef and owner, David Utterbeck (a finalist for Best Chef: Midwest) and his team, that makes a spot on the list this year particularly sweet.

“Nobody in Omaha has gotten this far,” said Matthew Kelly, sushi chef at Yoshitomo. “He's [Chef Utterbeck] has been doing this for like 15 years. So, I mean, it's paid off.”

The team at Yoshitomo

A Journey to the Top

Many know the old adage “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.” But when it comes to restaurants, there’s no clear path to the top. For Ann Salazar and her husband, Chef Jose Salazar, running a restaurant wasn’t even always in their plans.

“We’re both from Queens [New York] originally,” explained Salazar. “I wasn’t even in the restaurant industry, but Jose was contacted by a headhunter to come open a restaurant in Ohio when our son was just 10 months old, and we were just working all the time so we said, ‘why don’t we try it for a couple years?’”

Try it they did, and their restaurant Mita’s in Cincinnati, Ohio, turns 10 years old this December. Despite the great impact Mita’s has had on their own lives, for the Salazars, the honor of being nominated for Outstanding Restaurant from James Beard is a chance to celebrate the extended family that helps them run the restaurant every day.

“It's really, really special to us because it's for the entire restaurant, we get to highlight the whole team,” said Salazar. “It's not just one person that makes that place so special. It's everybody that does the work day in and day out — from the dishwashers to the bartenders to servers and line cooks — it takes so many people to make every experience for our guests special.”

Making a Difference

Across the state in Cleveland, Ohio, EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute offers formerly incarcerated adults across the nation hands-on training and other programs to develop their experience in the restaurant industry and lead to success. With that mission in mind, founder, CEO and head chef Brandon Chrostowski’s nomination for Outstanding Restaurateur represents far more than achievement in food alone.

“Awards offer access. That's the responsibility of being an award-winner or a nominee, you have to leverage it for more,” said Chrostowski. “Our mission represents over two million people behind bars, and if we use this for the right reasons,  we can make an even greater impact. The award is great, but as the responsibility increases, the workload increases. I’m always trying to navigate this system to serve even more people.”

 Brandon Chrostowski

Back at Mita’s, Salazar also talks about using her platform to support others.

“I find that with a lot of other restaurateurs, we really try to support each other and lift each other up — it’s not a cutthroat kind of thing,” she said. “We really believe that the better everybody does around us, the better it is for the community. In turn, it pays back because everybody is thriving, which then entices people to want to come spend time in the city or area your restaurant is in as a destination, which is better than just being out for yourself.”

Ann and Jose Salazar at Mita's

A Night to Be Inspired

Given the need for judges to visit multiple restaurants around the country, the James Beard Awards are set against a long season — with months between the semi-finalist and finalist list announcements, to the official awards show in June — creating a moment where even the busiest restaurant people can’t help but take a step back, and reflect.

“I can look back on where I've come from and to be working at a place like this, at this caliber, where we're at — in Omaha, Nebraska, of all places — I can look back and think, oh, well, I guess I'm doing something right,” said Kelly.

As one of the most glamorous nights in food, the awards show offers a rare chance for restaurant teams to celebrate together outside the kitchen, along with some of the biggest names in the space like José Andrés, Padma Lakshmi, and Kwame Onwuachi, to name a few. Bringing together these hospitality professionals from all over the country, the James Beard Awards themselves aren’t just about winning or losing, but create a moment to build community among fellow nominees and peers in the industry.

“I'm just really excited to be in a space that's full of people that I admire and look up to,” said Apte. “I'm taking my management team with me and even some former managers are coming along. I know we’re all going to leave super inspired.”

The James Beard Awards were announced on June 5, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. A full list of winners (including 7 Toast customers!) can be found on the James Beard Foundation's website.

About Toast

Toast [NYSE: TOST] is a cloud-based, all-in-one digital technology platform purpose-built for the entire restaurant community. Toast provides a comprehensive platform of software as a service (SaaS) products and financial technology solutions that give restaurants everything they need to run their business across point of sale, payments, operations, digital ordering and delivery, marketing and loyalty, and team management. We serve as the restaurant operating system, connecting front of house and back of house operations across service models including dine-in, takeout, delivery, catering, and retail. Toast helps restaurants streamline operations, increase revenue, and deliver amazing guest experiences. For more information, visit www.toasttab.com.

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