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This Year’s James Beard Awards Got Some Big Things Right

The winners seemed to reflect a meaningful shift toward a more inclusive awards. Is a change finally happening?

The JuneBaby team after winning Best New Restaurant at the 2018 James Beard Awards.
Galdones Photography/James Beard Foundation

Last night, the James Beard Foundation doled out its coveted awards to chefs and restaurants at a ceremony in Chicago.

The most notable aspect of the 2018 James Beard Awards was that it wasn’t just white men winning them: In the 16 major competitive categories where a person, not a restaurant or company wins the award, 11 award winners were women, people of color, or both, a departure from previous ceremonies. Eater data has shown again and again that women have historically faced steeper odds to winning than men have in the same categories. And as Mic recently broke down, although last year’s nominee list was actually the most racially diverse so far, “only five black chefs have ever been nominated or won a best chef or outstanding chef award, two of whom were nominated this year for the first time [Mashama Bailey and Rodney Scott].” This year, Scott won his category; Nina Compton won her category; and Seattle’s Edouardo Jordan became the first African-American winner of the prestigious Best New Restaurant award.

These wins are good, but it’s still worth examining the system that made them historic. After the restaurant committee creates the semifinalist list, a body of more than 600 industry insiders and past winners votes on who becomes finalists and then, winners. In other words, even if the committee serves the voting body a diverse semifinalist list (which it did this year), it doesn’t guarantee a diverse outcome; the voting body must follow suit.

A change to this year’s voting procedure suggests the committee is at least thinking about trying to do things differently. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, which exposed prominent industry figures like Mario Batali and John Besh (Beard winners, both), the rules were revised to remove credibly accused harassers from the voting body. Voters were also encouraged to consider nominees’ behavior when casting their votes. These changes proved to be imperfect; the San Francisco Chronicle points out that last night’s Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional winner has been linked to multiple sexual harassment lawsuits. Even with greater scrutiny, that a “bad apple” slipped through the cracks only shows how deep the problem runs in the industry — and suggests that perhaps there should be even greater research and oversight built into the voting system.

And while this year’s media awards and chef awards did seem to honor diversity, the truest test is what happens next year. And the year after that. And the year after that. And so on. A great year is a great year, but unless more women and people of color are meaningfully represented year over year, the gains that were made last night risk being a one-off. Here now, five more observations from this year’s Beards:

5. We still need to talk about Los Angeles.

Last night wasn’t another shutout for Los Angeles, and that’s good! Caroline Styne, the wine and business muscle behind the Lucques Group, took home a medal for Outstanding Restaurateur, but overall, this was yet another year that Los Angeles was overshadowed by San Francisco, which saw wins in the design, service, baking, and regional Best Chef categories.

While San Francisco is certainly home to some of the country’s brightest stars, Los Angeles is without a doubt one of the most vital, dynamic, and diverse restaurant scenes in America. There’s simply no reason at this point for shutouts and near-shutouts. One possible solution: Break up the Best Chef: West category. That would both create more breathing room for LA chefs and restaurants to shine and maybe change the fact that there has not been a finalist repping the deliciously expansive culinary world of Hawaiʻi.

4. There were plenty of women winners, but most had been nominated before.

Every female chef who took home a medal last night had been previously nominated. Gabrielle Hamilton, who won Outstanding Chef, had been nominated in that category last year, and took home a medal for Best Chef: New York City in 2011, after having been a finalist in that category in 2009 and 2010. Dolester Miles, winner of Outstanding Pastry Chef, was a finalist in 2015 and 2016, too. Belinda Leong and her partner Michel Suas had been nominated in the Outstanding Baker category for what feels like an eternity before their win last night. Even the Rising Star category winner, Camille Cogswell, was a finalist for the award in 2017. (Not a chef, but same pattern: Caroline Styne was nominated for Outstanding Restaurateur four prior times.)

Each woman who took home regional Best Chef medals had been nominated before:

  • Missy Robbins was a first-time finalist last year.
  • Karen Akunowicz was a finalist every year since 2015.
  • Nina Compton was a first-time finalist last year.
  • Dominique Crenn was a finalist in 2016 and 2017, and won on her third try this year.

By comparison, there were three men who clinched wins on their first nomination in the regional Best Chef categories:

  • Gavin Kaysen took home Best Chef: Midwest (Kaysen was a previous winner, taking home the 2008 Rising Star Chef award).
  • Jeremiah Langhorne took home Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic.
  • Rodney Scott took home Best Chef: Southeast (spoiler: This win was surprising for other reasons, too, so keep scrolling down this countdown for more).

The remaining Best Chef wins went to men who were previous nominees, Abraham Conlon (a finalist in 2016 and 2017), Edouardo Jordan (a 2017 finalist in the category), and Alex Seidel (a 2016 finalist for a different restaurant in the same category). In total, six regional Best Chef awards went to men, and four went to women. No partnerships won Best Chef awards this year.

It seems meaningful that the only first-time winners were men, which perhaps reveals some bias as to what excellence and expertise looks like to voters. But on a positive note, pending any procedure changes, the women who won last night are now a part of the voting body. Perhaps more women voting will translate into more women winning — and maybe even winning the first time they’re nominated.

3. An Alabama restaurant took home two medals.

A common complaint about the JBFA winners is that there isn’t a tremendous amount of geographic diversity. Even within the theoretically comprehensive regional categories, winners tend to be from America’s largest cities.

Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama, took home two national-level medals last night. Especially surprising was the Outstanding Restaurant win; previous Eater data suggests restaurants from New York City have historically had an advantage in that category.

2. Rodney Scott won a regional Best Chef medal on his first nomination, and for barbecue.

Scott’s finalist nomination in and of itself was an achievement, and then he went and clinched the win. Although he is one of South Carolina’s preeminent pitmasters, Scott’s win is surprising because the awards have generally not represented barbecue — or even just extremely casual restaurants — outside of its America’s Classics program. The only pitmaster to ever win a regional Best Chef award is Aaron Franklin, who took home a medal in 2015.

Likewise, it would be great to see more casual restaurants win, but also chefs who hone their expertise in more specialized ways, whether pizzaiolos, sushi masters, or breakfast makers (shout out to Jessica Koslow’s Best Chef: West nomination for her work at Sqirl).

1. Edouardo Jordan took home two medals, for two different restaurants, on the same night.

Offhand, I can’t remember the last time a chef took home two awards in a night. That a black chef did it is unprecedented, and a historic moment for the American food world.

It’s rare for a chef to even be nominated twice in one year: In order to take home two, a chef must have at least one personal nomination or a restaurant nomination in the national categories. Nominees in the regional Best Chef categories do not also compete in the Outstanding Chef category or the Rising Star Chef category, which limits opportunities for multiple noms. Jordan won in the Best Chef: Northwest category, pegged to his debut restaurant Salare, and his second restaurant, the smash hit Southern restaurant JuneBaby, won Best New Restaurant.

So how did Eater’s picks fare?

Of our editors’ picks, we got six correct (seven if you count the duo behind B. Patisserie as two separate winners). Interestingly, this is the same number of winners editors accurately stanned for last year.

Note: Eater’s national critic Bill Addison is on the James Beard restaurant and chef awards committee but is recused from covering the Beards and did not participate in making this story.

Here Is the Full List of James Beard Awards 2018 Winners [E]

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