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For decades, we knew what we were getting from the James Beard Awards.

For better or worse, the new James Beard Awards have some surprising nominees

The jury is still out as to what the new format means

The James Beard Foundation on Wednesday announced the nominees for its formerly prestigious Restaurant and Chef Awards.

I say “formerly” not because they’re no longer prestigious. Maybe they are, but I don’t really know anymore.

For decades, we knew what we were getting from the awards: Mostly well-established chefs from fine-dining restaurants in major cities. Yes, they were usually white and male, but arguably more importantly they were largely from the same groups of chefs with well-established networks and hardworking publicists. The same nominees put forward by past winners and a cadre of food writers (including myself until the late 2010s) who didn’t change very often appeared on the ballots every year, minus whoever won the previous year. And when the big-name chefs such as Thomas Keller and the late Charlie Trotter won all the awards they could win, the nominations were passed on to their protégés.  

I’m only exaggerating slightly. More than half of the chefs that were nominated one year would also be nominated the next year. And, you know, chefs change jobs, restaurants close; it’s a dynamic industry. But you wouldn’t have known that based on the Beard Awards.

That’s no longer the case. Here’s the list of this year’s nominees.

It’s a big change, different from last year, which you can view here, and vastly different from the nominees before the pandemic. Here’s the list from 2019, which as we all know is around 140 million years ago in restaurant years.

The Beard Awards were essentially canceled in 2020 and 2021 for obvious reasons, and in the interim the foundation did some serious soul-searching and reworked the criteria of the awards. Now those nominating potential winners must explain how the chefs, restaurants, bartenders, etc., fit into the foundation’s values “centered around creating a more equitable, sustainable, and healthy work culture.”

And a new requirement was added this year: Candidates had to submit a supporting video or essay about their restaurants.

“Sounds like a [TikTok] account will be required in the near future,” said one chef commenting on a Facebook post in which I asked people to weigh in on the awards.

Some detractors of the new system gripe that it’s too “woke,” with what seems to be diversity for its own sake. That, if you ask me, is often something voiced by people who don’t recognize how heavily the deck has been stacked against people of color in particular, but also against women. Or they complain that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. That is what pendulums do, and it’s how societies change.

But go back and look at the diversity of this year’s list, not in terms of racial or ethnic background or gender (feel free to look at that too if you want, obviously), but in terms of geography and the types of restaurants.

Southern Junction is a restaurant that combines Texas barbecue with South Indian flavors whose chef, Ryan Fernandez, has been nominated as an “emerging chef” this year (old time Beard Award watchers will remember that this is a replacement for the Rising Star award which went to chefs aged 30 or younger; the new award has no age restriction). And it’s in Buffalo, N.Y., a city not known for its food (apart from Buffalo wings), but which got two Beard Award nominations this year, up from the usual zero.

Dakar NOLA, nominated for Best New Restaurant, serves modern Senegalese food, and it’s just one of three nominees from New Orleans, which was previously a favorite for Beard Award judges (the other two are Jewel of the South, nominated for Outstanding Bar, which you would expect from the Crescent City, and Arvinder Vilkhu, who is nominated for Best Chef of the South for Saffron, an Indian restaurant that was on the long list of semifinalists for Best New Restaurant in 2018, making it one of the few restaurants of the old guard to be named under the new protocols).

Some chefs and other critics of the awards argue that one reason that the same chefs and their protégés were nominated year after year is that they were really good at their jobs and good at mentoring the next generation.

I think that’s fair to an extent, but great restaurants that weren’t in major metropolitan areas or established as fine-dining destinations, such as the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., or Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn., which have won many Beard Awards, were out of luck.

Under the new system, restaurants that might never have gotten national attention also have a shot at fame, and in a press conference today with some of the Emerging Chef nominees they were exalting in how quickly their reservation books were filling up (except for the one which doesn’t take reservations, and it had a line out the door).

This is good.

What might not be good, and certainly isn’t good for the prestige of the awards, at least in the short term, is that it’s unclear what they mean. At least under the old system you knew that the nominees were being awarded for what the judges deemed to be culinary excellence. Was that usually excessively Eurocentric and limited mostly to big cities? Yes.

Was that a problem? Of course.

But with the new criteria chefs and restaurants are being acknowledged for being good citizens and supporting their community.

Those are great things to do, but what does it have to do with being a great restaurant?

Maybe it has a lot to do with it. For years we have seen that restaurants that are embedded in their communities get support from their neighbors and thrive. Those that don’t often don’t last very long, unless they’re in really heavily touristy areas or are those unicorns that cater primarily to destination diners.

But is a beloved restaurant necessarily a great restaurant worthy of national recognition?

You might have noticed that I’m asking a lot of questions, and I don’t necessarily have answers to them. Maybe neighborhood restaurants offering a variety of creative dishes reflecting different cultures is what the James Beard Foundation should be acknowledging, but it’s different from what it has acknowledged in the past. It’s going to take a while to figure out what all of that means.

I will make one last point: Award programs tend to propagate themselves. If you win an award, whether widely acknowledged as prestigious or not, you will brag about it, and that will make it look prestigious, and the more awards are handed out the more people will brag about winning them and the more their prestige is enhanced. We have seen this with the Michelin awards, which when they first came to the United States, debuting in New York City in 2005, were mocked and ridiculed. Despite being extremely well established in Europe, New Yorkers found their choices to be ill-conceived at best. Nearly 20 years on, the Michelin awards are, for better or worse, acknowledge as a massive badge of honor.

No one I know of is mad about being nominated for a James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Award this year or the past two years. As these candidates add this particular accolade to their résumés, both they and the Beard Foundation are very likely to benefit.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

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