After being put on the shelf for the last two years as the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards, the culinary Oscars, emerged from under the dark cloud hanging over the event since it was last held in 2019. By offering up its most diverse field of nominees and winners in its 30-year history, it signaled that recent efforts to affect change in the event seem to be bearing results.
When the James Beard Foundation announced on August 20, 2020, that they were canceling the annual event for two years due to the pandemic and to give themselves time to conduct a thorough audit of their systems, it was the last call to a long year for the organization. They had weathered the pandemic shuttering restaurants, public complaints from current and former employees about inadequate internal diversity and work practices, and several current nominees’ eligibility was under question.
Only days after they made their announcement, the New York Times released a story that alleged that not one Black chef was amongst the planned 2020 winners. It also said that the 20-person volunteer committee responsible for overseeing the awards had sent a letter to the foundation chair expressing concern about how the awards were handled and the lack of transparency.
The commitment to change was first displayed when they announced their Leadership Awards winners two days before the main award ceremony. All four winners were women, and several led organizations dedicated to improving conditions for those in need. Mónica Ramírez is the president of Justice for Migrant Women, Mavis-Jay Sanders is the director of Education & Culinary Innovation for Drive Change, a group finding employment for formerly incarcerated individuals, and Erika Allen is the co-founder of the Urban Growers Collective, a group focused on urban farming on Colorado’s South Side.
As for the main event, an exciting and varied group took home the top honors. Edgar Rico, the chef and owner of Austin’s Nixta Taqueria, took home the Emerging Chef award that honors an up-and-coming star. His comments from the stage summed up his feelings best. “This is huge for La Raza. This is huge for my people. For all the taqueros out there in the world, anything is possible, because if you work your ass off, you can be here on this stage.”
In handing the award for Best New Restaurant to Owamni in Minneapolis, they highlighted the groundbreaking work that chef Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota Sioux, has been doing, introducing indigenous food to the public. Employing a staff of primarily native Americans, the restaurant has been garnering attention with its unique dishes and environment. During his speech, Sherman focused his remarks on the effects of colonialism and his focus on offering opportunities to other minorities to succeed.
By awarding the Outstanding Restaurant Award to Chai Pani, an Indian street food restaurant in Ashville, they shined a spotlight on the healing power dining out can have, as shown in Meherwan Irani’s words, its chef and founder. “Restaurants are so much greater than the sum of what’s inside the four walls. A restaurant has the power to transform, transform the people that work there, transform the people that come in, transform the communities we’re in, transform society. Restaurants can transform the world,”
The award for Outstanding Chef went to Mashama Bailey of the Grey in Savannah, Ga. Her remarks from the podium summed up the change perfectly. “Today, a little Black girl or a little Black boy can see themselves as a future Outstanding Chef. They can see themselves in a space that they have never seen before, and do what they could not think is possible. And until just a few minutes ago, that was me.”
For a complete list of nominees and winners, go to the James Beard Foundation.