James Beard Awards season is in full swing: the "long list" of James Beard Awards semifinalists was announced last week, with finalists nods to be revealed on March 18. But how does the Beard Foundation select the restaurants and chefs it honors? The semifinalists and finalists are selected by an elite committee made of restaurant critics, magazine editors, food journalists, and cookbook writers across the country.
The members of the Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee are listed below, and to find out how the committee functions, Eater spoke with its chairman, the Seattle Times' Providence Cicero. According to Cicero, members are selected for their depth of knowledge in the restaurant industry and their ethics: "The idea is to find an expert, very knowledgable about the restaurants in their region ... who also ha[s] the journalistic distance" from the chefs. This year's Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee is:
James Beard 2014 Restaurant & Chefs Awards Committee
· Tina Antolini (National Public Radio)
· Michael Bauer (San Francisco Chronicle)
· Providence Cicero (Chair, Seattle Times)
· Jennifer V. Cole (Southern Living)
· John T. Edge (Center for the Study of Southern Culture)
· Adam Erace
· Ian Froeb (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
· Jeff Houck (Tampa Tribune)
· Cheryl Alters Jamison
· Kate Krader (Food & Wine)
· Corby Kummer (The Atlantic)
· Christiane Lauterbach (Atlanta Magazine/Knife & Fork)
· Jordana Rothman
· Patricia Sharpe (Texas Monthly)
· Tom Sietsema (Washington Post)
· Phil Vettel (Chicago Tribune)
· Irene Virbila (Los Angeles Times)
Members of the Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee serve staggered terms of one to three years. Their first role, as defined in the by-laws, is to create a list "with approximately 20 semifinalists in each category." That list is then distributed online to "a voting body of over 300 previous James Beard Restaurant & Chef Award winners; 250 panelists divided evenly among 10 regions ... and 17 members of the Restaurant and Chef Award subcommittee." Every vote counts equally, and the five semifinalists with the most votes become the nominees.
If the Beard Awards are the highest honor for food and beverage professionals in America — and many contend that they are — the members of the committee hold a serious responsibility. But is a panel of journalists really the best group to be deciding the fates of chefs who in many ways they've already judged in their reviews? Does a bad review mean an award is impossible? And since the identities are a matter of public record, what prevents restaurants from giving committee members VIP experiences that might not necessarily reflect a typical service?
Committee chair Providence Cicero sheds some light on how the committee was selected and the rules that govern them. In the Q&A below, Cicero explains the importance of the Foundation's conflict of interest policies, having journalistic distance, and the fine line between the desire for a transparent selection process and the danger of restaurants wooing committee members. Here's what she had to say:
Can you tell me about how the Foundation selected the committee?
The committee is actually self-selecting. There's an Awards Committee made up of all the chairs of the different committees. They approve the members of each committee, but in practice, the committees are all self-selecting.
So there are specific terms, and when terms are up and people step down, the committee looks through the universe of — in our case they tend to be restaurant critics, food journalists, cookbook writers — we look at the whole landscape and make recommendations, and then we approach people to see if people are interested. Then the committee votes on new members and that's all ratified by the Awards Committee. ... I have no idea how it got started, who selected the first group.
What is it that the committee is looking for in its members?
The idea is to find experts who also have journalistic distance.
I think we're looking for knowledge of the industry. It's why we seek out those journalists in particular who cover the industry, who are bound by journalistic ethics (in terms of not taking free meals) but the main criteria is people who are very very familiar with the industry. It's broken down regionally, there are committee members who represent the different regions. The idea is to find an expert, very knowledgable about the restaurants in their region. People who eat out a lot, who write about it, who also have the journalistic distance.
There are actual conflict of interest rules. You can't have a business relationship with chefs or restaurants. If you're currently working on a cookbook with a chef, you could not be on the committee until it was done.
Why is the list of the committee members something the Foundation's willing to share?
We don't promote our public involvement, but our names are on the record. The judges are also asked not to promote their role. Some of the journalists are required by their publication to disclose their voting role. The idea is that none of us want to be putting ourselves out there, we don't want [committee members] to be perceived as soliciting extra attention or free meals or anything like that. We want to keep a low profile, and we ask the judges to do the same for the same reason.
Is this a new level of transparency for the Foundation?
The committees do their job of selecting independently of the Foundation.
it's been like that for several years. It was an effort at complete transparency so that there were no misconceptions about how the awards worked. The committees do their job of selecting independently of the Foundation. I think it goes back to 2006 …. back when Dorothy Hamilton was in charge of things. That effort of getting transparency and by-laws and setting conflict of interest rules and term limits, it's just the kind of best practices that nonprofits and awards organizations want to do.
UPDATE: 2/26 8:20am: A representative from the James Beard Foundation has sent the following clarifications: "The Restaurant & Chef Committee begins the selection process only after a national call for entries which this year amounted to over 38,000 entries. And the nominees and finalist are voted on by over 600 people, not strictly an elite committee. In the theme of transparency, we wanted to clear that up."