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What the James Beard Foundation Got Right and What it Got Wrong

From gender diversity to category specifications, Eater editors across the country weigh in.

Daniel Krieger/Eater NY

Yesterday, the James Beard Foundation announced its 2015 Chef and Restaurant Semifinalists. The finalists will be announced on Tuesday, March 24; winners will be presented with their awards on Monday, May 4, 2015 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Often compared to the Oscars of the food world, the James Beard Awards are the most recognized awards for restaurants and food professionals in the U.S. The James Beard Foundation itself is a well-respected, but often questioned organization. It has had its share of controversy. It is sometimes criticized by chefs, members, and food writers. And yet the awards it bestows remain a sought after distinction in the food world today.

Last year, Eater explained how the Foundation selects its Restaurant and Chef Awards committee. According to last year's chairman, the Seattle Times' Providence Cicero, committee members are selected both for their ethics and knowledge of the food industry in their city or region: "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:

Bill Addison, Eater.com
Tina Antolini, NPR's State of the Re:Union
Michael Bauer, San Francisco Chronicle
Providence Cicero, The Seattle Times
Jennifer V. Cole, Southern Living
John T. Edge, Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi​
Adam Erace, Philadelphia City Paper
​Ian Froeb, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Cheryl Alters Jamison, New Mexico Magazine
Kate Krader, Food & Wine
Corby Kummer, The Atlantic and Boston Magazine
Christiane Lauterbach, Atlanta Magazine and Knife & Fork​
Jordana Rothman
​Patricia Sharpe, Texas Monthly
Tom Sietsema, Washington Post
Phil Vettel (Chair), Chicago Tribune
Irene Virbila, Los Angeles Times

The list contains many food critics, including Eater's own roving restaurant editor Bill Addison, and others who frequently write or speak about regional foods and the chefs and restaurants of importance today. As Eater has previously wondered, "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?"

As soon as the long list of semifinalists was announced, Eater editors from across the country began to express their reactions. Here's what Eater believes this year's James Beard Awards committee got right and here's also what they got wrong.

Editor's note: After reading through virtual reams of city editors' gut reactions, a few things are clear: There is more gender diversity on this list than in years past, but not much in the way of ethnic diversity; Eater editors across the board had both good and bad things to say about this long list; and the politics surrounding the James Beard Foundation's picks remain contentious and mysterious.

General observations:

Eater Nashville editor Matt Rogers: "I think it's interesting that national media has put such a spotlight on our food scene, but no one got a Best New Restaurant nod? Not saying the JBF committee got it right or wrong, just interesting when the awards so clearly don't line up with the 'hype.'"

Naomi Pomeroy (who won last year)... [didn't] even make the long list this year.

Portland-based Eater reports editor Erin DeJesus noted that, in terms of nominations for Best Chef: Northwest "perennial nominees Cathy Whims and Gabriel Rucker don't even make the long list this year."

Eater Houston editor Jakeisha Wilmore says the list isn't much different from previous years, but she would have liked to see "Underbelly or Camerata as a wine program semifinalist. Both are doing amazing things but Sean Beck's work with Hugo's and Caracol is equally as great."

Associate reports editor Hillary Dixler pointed out that Los Angeles-based Suzanne Goin was nominated in several different categories: Chef, wine program, and service.

Eater Atlanta editor Chris Fuhrmeister: "Thompson surprises me, especially since Cooks & Soldiers just opened in December. Bacchanalia seems like the right local nod for its category. Satterfield is great, but seems kinda stale compared to Billy, Kevin, and Todd. Lusca kinda surprises me since it gets some mixed reviews, but some folks really like it."

Eater Austin editor Meghan McCarron: "Aaron Franklin hardly refers to himself as a pitmaster, let alone a chef, making him an odd fit in his category. That said, I can't think where else he would fit on the list, and it's great to see him getting recognition."

I have never once been like ‘oh wow what great service at this airport restaurant.'

Eater managing editor Sonia Chopra: "The Atlanta restaurant nominated is in the ATL airport. I mean it's fine dining and pretty well known... but I have never once been like ‘oh wow what great service at this airport restaurant.'"

What they got right:

Eater Maine editor Adam Callaghan: "This could be the most representation Maine has ever seen in the awards, which is fantastic. I think Central Provisions has a serious shot at advancing in the Best New Restaurant category."

Eater data lead and New York City-based critic Ryan Sutton was pleased to see a Russian restaurant on the list: Kachka in Portland made the semifinalist cut.

Eater Boston editor Rachel Blumenthal says "No huge surprises in Boston - lots of the same names as last year. But I'm thrilled to see Strip-T's, the little sandwich shop that could, listed as a semifinalist for Outstanding Service." Blumenthal is also "thrilled to see our Eater Boston Restaurant of the Year, Mei Mei, land on there with two members of the team as Rising Star semifinalists, Irene Li and Max Hull."

Eater Vegas editor Susan Stapleton "love[d] seeing (restaurateur and publicist) Elizabeth Blau getting recognition in Las Vegas."

Eater's associate reports editor Hillary Dixler thought it was "refreshing to see a Puerto Rico nomination on the list."

Eater cities editor Carolyn Alburger "love[s] that Umberto Gibin got a best restaurateur nod — he is a total champ."

Eater Vegas editor Susan Stapleton "love[d] seeing (restaurateur and publicist) Elizabeth Blau getting recognition in Las Vegas."

Eater features editor Helen Rosner is "really, really intrigued to see Hominy Grill on Outstanding Restaurant," and while she "loves it unreservedly," notes that "it's the opposite of fine dining." Eater Charleston editor Erin Perkins agrees, but is pleased with the increased attention the restaurant has gotten over the past year.

Eater Chicago's Daniel Gerzina is "excited to see Parachute and 42 Grams on the list."

Eater LA editor Matthew Kang weighed in on Chicago too: "I think Outstanding Restaurateur should go to Boka group in Chicago. Either them or One Off Hospitality in Chicago." Features editor Helen Rosner: "Cosign. What they pulled off with Lee Wolen this year was tremendous."

Data lead, NYC-based critic Ryan Sutton: "Worth noting the NYC restaurants that theoretically could [have] been nominated for best new restaurants but didn't make the cut: I'm thinking Contra (though that could've been a 2014 contender)... also thinking Dirty French... I'm not saying that Dirty French was wrong to have been excluded, I'm just saying the omission is noteworthy."

I think Torst (in New York City) is also a very strong contender for Bar Program.

Eater associate reports editor Hillary Dixler on bar programs: "Canon for bar program is a strong contender out of Seattle. They also have a cocktail book coming out.... I think Torst (in New York City) is also a very strong contender for Bar Program."

Eater San Francisco editor Allie Pape is disappointed that the list didn't change much from last year, but pleased that "Acquerello's second Michelin star apparently got them in the running this year for Outstanding Restaurant." Pape also questions the placement of Tyler Florence on the Best Chef: West list for Wayfare Tavern.

What they got wrong:

Eater Miami editor Olee Fowler: "The two nominees in Miami are great chefs and I'm thrilled for them, but they have been nominated a few times and it almost seems a bit stale at this point. Would have loved to see some other people acknowledged too."

Eater Features editor Helen Rosner notes that "there are more restaurants named after women on the Best NYC list than there are actual women."

There are more restaurants named after women on the Best NYC list than there are actual women.

Eater Chicago editor Daniel Gerzina echoes what many editors noticed, which is that the list "recycles" many of the same nominations year after year which is disappointing because "there are many great newer faces that deserve recognition too."

Eater LA editor Matthew Kang weighs in on the bar program selection: "I wish someone at James Beard saw that there are more bars in LA than The Varnish, which seems to have been nominated every year. Whoever's nominating bars doesn't get around much." Kang also finds it "ridiculous" that no LA restaurants were nominated for Best Restaurant.

Eater Dallas editor Whitney Filloon was "irked to see no Dallas bars recognized for Outstanding Bar Program."

Eater associate reports editor Hillary Dixler on New York chefs' Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo and their nomination in the Best Restaurateur category: "The Franks getting a best restaurateur nod feels more like congratulating them on being friends with every cool kid in the industry than an accurate reflection of the level their restaurants in NYC are operating at right now."

The Grey — it launched mid-December in Savannah — is up for Best New Restaurant, which is a pretty big surprise

Eater DC editor Missy Frederick says this long list has a lot of similarities to last year's long list, but she's "sure there will be folks surprised that Rose's Luxury isn't on there in some capacity."

Eater Atlanta editor Chris Furhmeister: "There aren't a ton of surprises among the Atlanta semifinalists, but a couple do stand out. Landon Thompson getting nod in the Rising Star category is some quick recognition. He's run other kitchens in town, but Cooks & Soldiers has been open only since early December. The Grey -— it launched mid-December in Savannah — is up for Best New Restaurant, which is also a pretty big surprise. Executive chef Mashama Bailey was the sous chef at Prune in New York, but this is her first time in charge of a kitchen. Have to like her background, though: Before she got into cooking professionally, Bailey was a social worker and cook in a homeless shelter.

Note: Eater's Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is on the Beard restaurant committee but had nothing to do with the creation of this post.

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