For former James Beard award winners, silver medal was once pure gold

In the pre-pandemic world, a James Beard award was the equivalent of a Grammy, an Emmy, an Oscar; it drove customers and even potential investors. Right now, when survival is up for grabs, the benefits are less clear.

The James Beard Foundation announced on Thursday it is taking a two-year step-back—no announcement of 2020 winners, and no award competition in 2021—while it rebuilds the awards process from the ground up in collaboration with what the announcement calls an “outside social justice agency.” 

Pictured above: Zooey Deschanel and James Beard Foundation award winner Andrew Zimmern with Jacob Pechenik on the red carpet at the 2019 restaurant and chef awards in Chicago. (Photo: James Beard Foundation Facebook page / Eliesa Johnson)

This, only days after northern California chef David Kinch, owner of Manresa and himself a best-chef winner and frequent nominee, pulled his name from contention for the Outstanding Chef award, citing not only the pandemic but the need to hit pause and address more lasting issues in the industry, including inequity in the kitchen and in payroll practices.

The foundation’s press release said, “The choice comes 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.” Instead, it will “celebrate previously named honorees” including recipients of the Lifetime Achievement and Humanitarian of the Year awards.

The backlash was immediate. Pete Wells, The New York Times’ restaurant critic, tweeted about the foundation’s lack of transparency and wondered how journalists on the restaurant-award committee felt about winners’ names being off the record. “Obviously you can’t have a party this year,” he told The Counter, “but to use that as cover for suppressing the vote results is bizarre.”

Weary chefs concurred, wondering why JBF chose to deprive 2020 winners their due for work that was done pre-pandemic, in 2019. 

“Why not announce them—I don’t see how it’s inappropriate,” said JJ Johnson, chef/owner of Fieldtrip, in Harlem, winner of a Beard award for best American cookbook, in 2019, and a Rising Star finalist in 2015. “This was work done before the pandemic, and everyone, chefs, sommeliers, worked really hard to get on this list. I was a Rising Star finalist when I was 29, the last year you qualify, and now you’re going to tell a 29-year-old chef they can’t ever be on that list? There ought to be good news, and right now, this could be the best news for a person, overall.” 

“It’s really the grand opening of a new restaurant industry, and they can take a leadership role.”

And if there’s bad news, he said, it’s time to face it. “People need to understand if none of the chefs in this year’s Rising Star category are in their positions anymore,” he said. “Or if they can’t award in the New York region, say, because most of the nominees aren’t in business anymore.”  

In the pre-pandemic world, a James Beard award was the equivalent, Johnson said, of a Grammy, an Emmy, an Oscar; it drove customers and even potential investors. Right now, when survival is up for grabs, the benefits are not as clear. Minneapolis chef/owner Gavin Kaysen, who lost one of his three restaurants to the pandemic (and whose experience we chronicled weekly in our Shutdown Notebook series), has won two awards, and his first restaurant, Spoon and Stable, was a finalist for best new restaurant, so he has first-hand proof, he said, that “it absolutely makes a financial difference.”

Or did, past-tense. “But the time we’re in now, I am not sure it matters. . . .,” said Kaysen, who in mid-July had to close his newest place, Bellecour, and has since opened a pop-up to try to keep the business going on a smaller scale.

A portrait shot of JJ Johnson, founder of FIELDTRIP in Harlem, NYC. August 2020

FieldTrip’s chef/owner JJ Johnson at his fast-casual, rice-centric restaurant in Harlem, New York City.

Na Young Ma, a semi-finalist for Outstanding Baker this year, was surprised by the nomination in part because of the awards’ emphasis on traditional full-service operations, and doubts that a win would have had a lasting impact. Her nine-year-old business, Proof Bakery, “is so different,” she said, “not close to being that kind of restaurant. The people who would come here after they saw we won an award would be few and far between. We’re around because of word of mouth.” The Counter wrote about Ma’s somewhat unusual resistance to expansion in November of 2019.

“In this day and age, the awards seem pretty irrelevant to me, personally, and to what I think of as a food business,” she said, “though that’s me speaking bluntly. It was nice to be recognized but we seemed out of place, such a small footprint.”

Johnson would like to see the nominees reflect a greater variety of restaurants for a greater number of reasons, so that someday Na Young Ma might seem more a pioneer than an outlier. He launched a buy-a-bowl food relief program so customers can purchase bowls that are distributed in Harlem, the Bronx, and upper Manhattan, and hopes to see this kind of community focus reflected in future awards programs, though he doesn’t think it takes two years to figure out how to do it. 

“The Beard Foundation could say, You have to check off more boxes than ‘cooks best food’ to win an award,” he said. “It could be a community-based place as well, one that gets people food, that helps out. We’re in a totally different place. It’s really the grand opening of a new restaurant industry, and they can take a leadership role.”

In the meantime, he would have opted not for cancellation but for a 180-degree alternative: “Honor all of them,” he said, “because they all deserve the award this year. Everyone gets a James Beard award in the mail. Why not?”

That single move would revamp the awards without further conversation, since winners in the chef categories can’t compete a second time. “It would wipe everything out,” said Johnson, “ so next time, in 2022, you make it a different format, make it a clean slate with new names. That’s what helps you re-set.”

Karen Stabiner is The Counter's West Coast editor and the author of Generation Chef, about a young chef who opens his first restaurant. Karen teaches at the Columbia University graduate school of journalism; to learn more about her books and articles, visit karenstabiner.com.