Some 450 chefs, restaurateurs, beverage professionals, and restaurants made the long list of semifinalists for the 2023 James Beard Foundation Restaurant & Chef Awards, which were announced on Wednesday.
In keeping with the reforms made to the awards program during what was essentially a two-year hiatus at the height of the pandemic, the semifinalists roster includes greater diversity in terms of geography, style of service, ethnicity, and cultural backgrounds.
This year’s list is largely newcomers, a departure from the usual state of affairs in which about half of semifinalists return from the previous year.
Instead, this year only five of the 20 semifinalists for Outstanding Restaurateur are back from last year: the Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute of Cleveland, Greg Dulan of Los Angeles, Black Shoe Hospitality of Milwaukee, Chris Williams of Houston, and Ellen Yin of Philadelphia are returning.
Just three Outstanding Chef semifinalists are back: Niki Nakayama of n’naka in Los Angeles, Michael Schwartz of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami, and Josh Niernberg of Bin 707 Foodbar in Grand Junction, Colo.
Niernberg’s inclusion would have been a rarity in the past if for no other reason that his restaurant is not in a major population center, but this year’s list is more far-flung than usual.
Similarly, the Outstanding Restaurant Award, which has traditionally been sort of a lifetime achievement acknowledgement of well-established, long-standing restaurants, has only four returning semifinalists, and two — Cora Cora of West Hartford, Conn., and Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm in Boulder, Utah — are outside the major dining centers.
The other two are Brennan’s in New Orleans and Friday Saturday Sunday in Philadelphia.
That might have to do with the change in who’s judging the awards. In the past, anyone who had ever won a Restaurant of Chef Award was eligible to vote indefinitely. Now only winners from the past three years are eligible to be considered by the awards committee.
The awards were first held in 1990 as a booze cruise around Manhattan, essentially as a feel-good event to celebrate fine dining. But as food moved toward the center of American culture and as awareness of inequalities in society as a whole as well as in the restaurant industry got more attention among the mainstream, the awards came under scrutiny.
New judging panels were established and criteria beyond operational excellence were added to requirements for the awards. Specifically, nominations for the awards must be accompanied by a short statement about how the candidate “Is aligned with one or more of the Awards mission and the Foundation’s values — centered around creating a more equitable, sustainable, and healthy work culture,” the foundation said at the time.
In a release announcing the awards, James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach lauded the diversity of the semifinalists.
“After a year of fundamental changes, we look forward to building on the progress made, celebrating those paving a better future for us all through their talent and craft, service to others, and commitment to a better, more sustainable industry.” She said.
The full list of semifinalists can be found here.
After the judges vote on this list of semifinalists, narrowing the names in each category to five or six, the nominees will be announced on Wednesday, March 29.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]