As James Beard Awards weekend approaches, a cloud of scandal hangs over the festivities as one of the nominees has been disqualified, others are under investigation for ethics violations, some judges have quit in protest, and some members of the food world wonder if the awards committee has overstepped its bounds.
The scandal started brewing in mid-May when Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, Ala., announced that he had been disqualified for the award for Best Chef in the South, for which he had been nominated, because he yelled at a staff member and guests.
John Currence, a friend of Hontzas’ and the chef of City Grocery one state over in Oxford, Miss., smashed his own 2009 Beard Award for Best Chef in the South in protest, and posted about it in social media.
Then Todd Price, a food journalist and member of the Restaurant and Chef awards committee for the South, stepped down from the committee, and Vishwesh Bhatt, a previous award winner and chef of Snackbar in Oxford, Miss., which is part of Currence’s restaurant group, resigned as a judge.
Bhatt told eater.com that the problem wasn’t the disqualification, but the lack of transparency in how it was done. He said he was troubled that he was not aware of the investigation, and said that as someone who took the time to research potential nominees and vote on the awards in the South, he should have been.
Price told me he stepped down because the foundation did not tell him that a finalist had been disqualified due to an investigation, and as the sole committee member representing the South, he said it placed him "in the uncomfortable position of having to defend a process that I was not even aware had occurred."
The Beard Foundation’s Awards Committee later explained that they intentionally kept their investigations anonymous and that no one would have even known about Hontzas’ disqualification if he hadn’t gone public about it. According to a report in The New York Times, if Hontzas had received the most votes, the award would have gone to whoever placed second, which is itself a problematic way to handle voting.
It’s all a big mess, and it makes me wonder if the Awards Committee knew what it was getting into when it changed the requirements of the awards.
For years, the James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards were, quite frankly, a popularity contest. Previous winners and food writers — myself included, probably for ten years or more — voted on which restaurants, chefs, and beverage programs they thought were the best.
It was excessively cozy. Chefs and restaurateurs who had won in the past were very likely to vote for their protégés who were nominated in subsequent years. How could they not?
And those of us in the media had chefs we knew and liked, and we were on good terms with the publicists who introduced us to new chefs. If you weren’t in a position to hire such a publicist and weren’t in a major city, you were pretty much out of luck. I would recommend lesser-known chefs for consideration from time to time, but they never even made the cut to semifinalist (of which there are around 20 per category), let alone nominee (of which there are usually five).
When the Beard Awards were kind of like the Westminster Dog Show, which is to say they were important to a small number of people but most others didn’t really pay attention, this was fine. It was a fun weekend when people got dressed up, sat through a ceremony, and partied. Those who didn’t win that year were bound to be nominated the following year anyway.
For the record, I don’t know of any chef who was as obsessed with winning an award as some of those dog owners appear to be.
But as food moved to the center of American culture over the past decade or two, the Beard Awards’ profile grew. Around the turn of the century, the awards were held in a ballroom at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel and just a few of us entrenched food writers were in the press room to cover it.
By the time it moved to New York’s Lincoln Center in 2007, where nominees and other celebrities paraded down a red carpet, the press room was a chaotic scrum, and soon it was being live-tweeted. Winners of some of the big national awards were on the national morning news shows the following day.
The awards have been at the Lyric Opera in Chicago since 2015. This year’s ceremony is this Monday in case you feel like tuning in. Eater.com will be livestreaming it.
With a higher profile, naturally, came higher scrutiny, and as past Beard Award winners were exposed during the height of the #MeToo movement, the often abusive nature of working in restaurants also came under scrutiny.
This is a good thing, and it sparked many conversations that are still going on today. The pandemic brought into focus just how hard it is to work in restaurants, and the fact that so many workers didn’t return once restaurants reopened showed that many operators needed to treat their staff better.
All of that was no-doubt on the minds of the Awards Committee as it implemented a new code of ethics that award winners were expected to follow.
It modified the nomination process, requiring that those doing the nominating also make a statement about how the nominee is aligned with the foundation’s values of “creating a more equitable, sustainable, and healthy work culture.”
That’s a huge shift. Going from nominating hospitality professionals for being good at providing food, drinks, and service to requiring that they also work to improve society fundamentally changed the awards.
And it shows in who was nominated last year and this year. Most of them had never been nominated before, unlike in the past when more than half of the nominees returned each year. Chefs from smaller markets have greater presence. There is greater cultural diversity among them, too, as well as culinary diversity, which in fact mirrors the way that restaurants have evolved over the past decade or so.
As I understand it, this broader diversity was intentional. As one potential judge told me, people interested in becoming judges were required to watch tutorial videos instructing them what to judge for and how to avoid bias toward Eurocentric plate presentations.
That potential judge ultimately declined the appointment.
People have been complaining about the changes in the awards since they were implemented.
Some members of the old guard of food writers have complained that they don’t recognize most of the new nominees (which says more about the complainers than the nominees), and others object, as it is fashionable to do these days, that the Beard Foundation has become excessively “woke.”
Bhatt basically accused the foundation of tokenism, and others accuse it of having drifted away from its mission of promoting excellence in restaurants in favor of some sort of social agenda.
Maybe. It’s certainly possible that the committee has overcompensated in trying to amplify the voices of those heard from less frequently. That can, and usually does, happen in the sort of sociological pendulum swings that our society is undergoing right now.
And as the committee investigates violations of its code of ethics, which it has to do because there’s no point in having rules if you don’t enforce them, it will make mistakes, because it’s comprised of human beings.
As I’ve written before, the awards are likely to lose some of their prestige as the committee tries to recast them in a different light. But I, for one, am interested in seeing how it all shakes out.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]