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James Beard Foundation reworks awards criteria

Candidates must now explain how they’re contributing to a better work culture

The James Beard Foundation has revamped the process for selecting finalists for its prestigious Restaurant and Chef Awards, adding requirements to help ensure that potential winners are not just great chefs and restaurateurs, but also valuable members of the community.

The changes also look to bring new and more diverse voices into the judging panels.

In the past, any chef or restaurant could be nominated by simply having their name submitted during the call for entries. Now anyone who nominates a chef, beverage professional, restaurant or restaurateur must also provide 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,” according to a release from the foundation.

Further, in the past, anyone who had won a Restaurant or Chef Award since their inception in 1990 was eligible to vote on semifinalists and nominees indefinitely. Under the new structure, which goes into effect in October with the call for entries for 2022 candidates, only winners from the past three years are eligible, and that eligibility isn’t automatic: They must be chosen by the Beard Foundation’s awards committee.

Since the 2020 and 2021 awards were essentially canceled — replaced by broader celebrations of the industry — winners from 2017 and later are eligible for selection as voters this year.

Critics of the awards in the past have noted that the large number of past winners on the voting panels skewed voting in favor of past winners’ friends and protégés, making it difficult for new voices to be heard.

Additionally, the Rising Star Chef award, which had been limited to people aged 30 or younger, has been renamed the Emerging Chef award, with no age restriction, “in recognition that success can be achieved at any age,” the foundation said.

The changes are the result of an audit the foundation started in August last year by awards subcommittee and committee members, the foundation’s staff and consulting firms “specializing in equity, justice, sustainability and awards protocols and processes.”

Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach said in a statement that she hoped the changes would make the awards fairer.

“The annual James Beard Awards are our most powerful lever of change and we’re committed to making them a force for good for the community they serve,” Reichenbach said. “The changes arising from the audit are designed to ensure that our mission and values inform every element of the Awards, that we’re doing all we can to level the playing field to help create a more equitable, more inclusive industry. This is a process of continuous evolution, learning and refinement. The Awards form part of the Foundation’s overall offering to support an industry where all can thrive, including our Investment Fund for Black & Indigenous Americans, Beard House Fellows program, Women’s Leadership Programs, Legacy Network, and Open for Good, among other impactful programs.”

The changes come in the wake of a series of scandals in the restaurant industry, dating back to 2017, including accusations of sexual harassment and assault. Those were followed in the past year and a half by accusations of toxic work environments and racism that were brought to light as the pandemic laid bare the challenges of restaurant workers, and then by the reignition of the civil rights movement following the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Prominent Beard Award recipients, including Mario Batali and John Besh, were caught up in the early controversies. Reports emerged last year that some of the potential winners also were dogged by scandal, leading some members of the media to speculate that the awards were canceled for that reason.

At the time, the foundation said the choice to cancel the awards came “as restaurants continue to suffer the grave negative effects of COVID-19, and as substantial and sustained upheaval in the community has created an environment in which the Foundation believes the assignment of Awards will do little to further the industry in its current uphill battle.”

The author of this article is a previus judge for the Beard Awards.

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@informa.com 

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

TAGS: Chefs
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