The 2019 James Beard Awards are happening tonight. The annual awards, cloyingly sometimes referred to as “the Oscars of the food world,” are among the highest honors for the American hospitality industry. As in years past, the James Beard Foundation announced the final list of nominees in March, following their announcement of the longer, semifinalist list in February. This year, actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson will host the Chicago ceremony, which recognizes food and beverage professionals in more than two dozen different regional and national categories.
The James Beard Foundation also honors the best in English-language food books, journalism, and broadcast media at the Media Awards (previously known as the Book, Broadcast & Journalism Awards) in New York City. Those awards were doled out April 26 in a ceremony hosted by Tyra Banks. Check out the winners here, and below, find everything you need to know about what to expect tonight — including how to watch online.
When and where are the James Beard Awards taking place?
For the fifth year in a row, the James Beard Foundation will name the chef and restaurant winners at a black-tie gala at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Chicago beat out San Francisco and New Orleans to win hosting privileges, which it will keep until at least 2027.) Festivities kick off at 6 p.m. CST — that’s 7 p.m. EST and 4 p.m. PST — but don’t expect any awards to be handed out prior to the red carpet pre-show happening at 6:30 p.m. CST.
Is there anything different about this year’s awards?
Sort of. In October, the James Beard Foundation announced that it would change the makeup of its committees to reflect the demographics of the U.S. Census. They also urged committee members to increase the diversity of the awards judges, which include the committee members and industry experts, as well as previous James Beard Award winners and regional panelists. These changes resulted in a chef and restaurant awards long list with a 7 percent increase in the representation of people of color.
But the part of the program dictated by the committee is over. The results revealed tonight come from the 300-plus voting body. And last year the foundation gave 11 of the 16 major awards to women, people of color, or both. As I argued then, the proof of concept is in what happens this year, and next year, and the year after that, and so on.
The theme for the awards this year — “Good Food for Good” — is certainly meant to cast the Beard Awards as part of the fight to clean up an industry. According to a March press release, the theme references the foundation’s mission, which includes “assert[ing] the power of gastronomy to drive behavior, culture, and policy change around food.” On the one hand, the foundation removed credibly accused harassers like Mario Batali and John Besh from the voting body. On the other hand, they’ve yet to take back the medals from those men entirely. And last year, in spite of encouraging voters to consider nominees’ behavior, a “bad apple” still slipped through: The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the 2018 Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional winner has been linked to multiple sexual harassment lawsuits.
Ultimately, it’s up to every awards-giving organization to figure out how to make sure awards end up in the hands of people who deserve them — and what to do when that fails.
Are there any particularly notable nominees?
Here’s what I’m looking out for tonight:
- What’s going on with the Outstanding Chef category: There’s no New Yorker nominated, which is highly unusual. Will all those New York-area voters vote en masse for an East Coaster like Marc Vetri? Meanwhile, California-based David Kinch was also nominated for Outstanding Chef in 2017, 2018, and 2014. With fellow California chef Christopher Kostow out this year, but SF’s Corey Lee newly into the category, Kinch still has to battle a California chef to win it, which means potential vote-splitting. Donald Link has also been nominated A Lot, while this is Ashley Christensen’s second year eligible for the award and second year getting the finalist nod.
- There are some Eater Young Guns on this list to keep an eye on: Christina Nguyen (’14) is a finalist for Best Chef: Midwest; Jesse Ito (’17) is a finalist for Rising Star Chef; Lisa Ludwinski (’15) is a finalist for Outstanding Baker.
- Normally I don’t pay too much attention to this one since the picks are typically kinda boring, but in 2019 I’ve got my eye on Outstanding Wine Program; specifically how LA’s Night + Market fares with its natural-focused wine list and whether widely adored somm Yoon Ha from Benu gets it this year.
- The Outstanding Service category has two refreshingly casual options this year in Swan Oyster Depot and Zingerman’s Roadhouse. Having only had the pleasure of dining at the former, I have to say that’s the one I’m rooting for. One of the biggest surprises of my time living in San Francisco was how freaking nice the folks working the counter at Swan are.
- Likewise, I’m particularly interested in whether the chefs of super-casual restaurants will finally get their due this year, as an impressive number of them made it through the cut from semifinalists to finalists. I’m talking about South Philly Barbacoa’s Cristina Martinez for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic; Superiority Burger’s Brooks Headley for Best Chef: New York City; and Sqirl’s Jessica Koslow for Best Chef: West. A win for any of these three would be major, and would help continue the momentum from pitmaster Rodney Scott’s win last year in the Best Chef: South category.
How can I watch?
For Eater’s in-real-time coverage of the festivities, head over to our Twitter feed. We’ll also be posting all the winners to the site as they’re announced. Look for the link here at the start of the ceremony.
Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Foundation Awards.