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Five Major Takeaways From the 2019 James Beard Awards

This year gave us a glimpse into what may be a new baseline for the awards

Kwame Onwuachi, winner of Rising Star Chef 2019
Galdones Photography for the James Beard Foundation

Last night, the James Beard Foundation feted the stars of the American restaurant world with its annual awards ceremony. While last year felt like a tidal wave of necessary change, this year gave awards obsessives a glimpse, maybe, into what a new baseline for the awards might be.

The foundation took steps to diversify its restaurant committee, the group responsible for creating the semifinalist list. That list has been, year over year, one of the most diverse and exciting lists in the awards game. When it comes to dealing with the fallout from the #MeToo movement in the restaurant world, the foundation has taken bad actors out of the voting body, but has stopped short of stripping them of their medals. Theming this year’s event around a new mission statement, “good food for good,” it’s clear the foundation no longer wants to play a role in perpetuating the systemic issues that plague the restaurant world. Did it work? Sort of:

This year’s winners were a diverse group. That’s good. It could have been even better.

As Korsha Wilson wrote last year in the wake of historic 2018 wins for black chefs, including Edouardo Jordan, Nina Compton, Rodney Scott, and Dolester Miles, shifting the makeup of the voting body (comprised in large part by past winners) helps shift perception about what award-worthy restaurants and chefs look like. “A more immediate change is that these chefs will become part of the voting body for next year’s awards,” Wilson wrote. “They can lead the charge when it comes to upholding the recent trend toward diverse nominees.”

Last night, 10 out of 16 awards that go to people, not restaurants, went to women or people of color. Ashley Christensen took home the medal for Outstanding Chef her second year nominated — in the past, women have had to be nominated many times (and many times more than men) to get the win. In the regional categories, many women who were previously nominated won: Ann Kim (Best Chef: Midwest), Beverly Kim (Best Chef: Great Lakes, with husband Johnny Clark), and Mashama Bailey (Best Chef: Southeast), and once again, the Best Chef: New York award went to a woman — or rather, two women: Rita Sodi and Jody Williams.

It’s hard to overstate D.C. chef and author Kwame Onwuachi’s achievement in winning Rising Star Chef on his first year nominated. (Past Eater data suggests a previous nomination helps in the category.) That he did it as a black chef serving food that celebrates African foodways is all the more singular in the history of the awards. Onwuachi is the first black chef to win this particular award since Marcus Samuelsson in 1999, a gap of 20 years. Together, Onwuachi and Samuelsson are the only black Rising Stars in the award’s 28-year history.

Last year, 11 out of 16 chef winners were women or people of color or both; I hope this year’s comparable numbers suggest a long-term values shift in the voting body and not just a one-year course correction. But I’m also still mulling over the fact that last night, immediately after Onwuachi gave a rousing speech calling on the community to recognize cooking as the inclusive craft it can be and highlighting the significance of his Rising Star Chef win — “54 years ago, the last restaurant was integrated and Jim Crow was lifted. And here I am, my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” he said — Beard winner Greg Wade flattened the complexity of systemic discrimination that plays out through America’s food system with an “all lives matter” speech.

Accepting his award for Outstanding Baker, Wade said: “We have one food system — for the 1 percent, for the 99 percent, for Democrats, for Republicans, for Black Lives Matter, for Blue Lives Matter. And we all have to start working together.” A restaurant culture that routinely excludes women and people of color; a food system where Americans who live at or below the poverty line do not have the same access to fresh food that wealthy Americans do; an agricultural system that exploits vulnerable undocumented immigrants; a country in which cops shoot unarmed black citizens with impunity: You could say that’s one system. But that one system is a system of inequality, of racism, of sexism. A message of togetherness suggests a current system that’s worth maintaining; I’d love to hear more calls for breaking that system down.

Let’s talk about pizza and sushi.

It’s not that pizza makers are never honored by the foundation: Nancy Silverton won Outstanding Chef in 2014 specifically for her work at Pizzeria Mozza; Jim Lahey won Outstanding Baker in 2014 for Sullivan Street Bakery; and Chris Bianco was 2003’s Best Chef: Southwest for his legendary Phoenix pizzeria. And Minneapolis’s Young Joni, an Eater Best New Restaurant in 2017, doesn’t only serve pizza. But when its chef, Ann Kim, took home a medal (and delivered one of the night’s best speeches), it still marked a big push forward for the awards to recognize pizza as an exceptional American cuisine. Chefs who make pizza rarely win these dang medals in the regional categories. I hope Kim’s win changes that.

Likewise chefs who focus on Japanese cuisine: Last night, Tony Messina took home a regional Best Chef medal for his work at Boston’s hit Japanese restaurant Uni. It’s great that the foundation is increasingly rewarding Japanese restaurants — Eater Young Gun (’17) Jesse Ito was nominated as a Rising Star Chef for his work at Royal Izakaya, though he didn’t win. But it still seems to favor the cuisine when filtered through a Western lens: Uni is described as “global street food-inspired,” and the last sushi-adjacent chefs to win were Austin’s Paul Qui, the Best Chef: Southwest 2012 for Uchiko’s pairing of “Japanese offerings with new and refreshing flavors and textures,” and Tyson Cole’s 2011 win in that same category for Uchi’s “non-traditional take on Japanese food.” (Meanwhile, past Eater data suggests that sushi-making legend Nobu Matsuhisa has been a Susan Lucci figure in the Outstanding Chef category, nominated nine times, for three different restaurants, without ever winning.)

And what about the stunning omakase experiences around the country like N/Naka, Sushi Zo, or even the strictly vegetarian Kajitsu? Given the debt that the European fine dining tradition owes to Japan, it doesn’t make sense that the voting body can’t pay more attention to achievements in Japanese cuisine happening in this country.

On the West Coast, fine dining was the thing.

One of the most exciting aspects of this year’s finalist list was how many nominated chefs helmed casual and super-casual restaurants. But when push came to shove, the voting body expressed its preference for the “finer” end of the dining spectrum — especially on the West Coast, where arguably the predominant dining styles are definitely not.

Los Angeles got a regional Best Chef win, its first since Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo from Animal took it in 2016, with Michael Cimarusti winning after eight nominations for his work at Providence. Cimarusti is widely credited as one of the most technically accomplished chefs in Los Angeles, and Providence is one of only a few LA restaurants that hit the standard markers of “fine dining,” with its tasting menus, white tablecloths, and service style. (Sidebar: His win here puts Providence in good shape to debut with three stars when Michelin drops its new LA guide.)

In the Best Chef: Northwest category, Portland-based nominees Peter Cho and Katy Millard both run restaurants with alternative formats. Cho’s Han Oak is only open a few nights a week, with most of its seating at communal tables filled with guests who can choose a set menu or an a la carte one; Millard’s Coquine is a cafe during the day, with the option of ordering pastries and coffees from a counter or a full-service breakfast before flipping into a more standard restaurant at night. Both spaces could be accurately described as “low key.” But the medal went to Brady Williams, the chef at Canlis, a legacy fine dining restaurant in Seattle known for its stunning dining room (the restaurant won the Design Icon award last night as well), its tableside service, and its history as the “fanciest” restaurant in Seattle.

It’s not that Canlis or Providence aren’t great, award-worthy restaurants. But their wins show that the Beards still favor this style of cuisine, particularly strange on the West Coast, a region where it’s not indicative of the state of dining.

Can anything ever beat a New York restaurant serving energetic French fare?

After landing on practically every Best New Restaurant list (including Eater’s), buzzing French hotspot Frenchette clinched the Best New Restaurant award, following in the footsteps of other Very Good French Restaurants in Manhattan: Le Coucou (2017) and Batard (2015). In other words, three out of five of the past Best New Restaurants in America were French spots in New York.

I like all three of those restaurants a lot. But I don’t love what it says about the voting body that they keep playing new versions of the same song. I don’t like what it means for Los Angeles, which should have had a winner last night between Bavel and Majordomo, more exciting restaurants playing with newer ideas. And I really don’t like what it means for New York restaurateurs like the Atomix team, who created a one-of-a-kind dining experience and also lost last night.

Exciting restaurants are opening all over the country. Maybe next year we’ll see those places win a Best New Restaurant award.

If the foundation doesn’t break up the regional categories, Texas, California, and the upper Midwest will continue to get shortchanged.

I’ve said this all before, but it bears repeating.

  • It’s been too many years of the Great Lakes category only having finalists from Chicago. Give Chicago its own award.
  • The West category needs to be split up, too. Too often the West is represented only by SF and LA, with an occasional wine country spot. But what about Hawaiʻi? What about the Central Coast? What about Nevada?
  • Lol, what about Texas? I was surprised to see a Texas total shut out, even if my surprise expresses my own bias about the culinary merits of Scottsdale, Arizona, versus Austin, having only dined in the latter.
  • The solution: Create the following categories:
    • Best Chef: Chicago
    • Best Chef: San Francisco
    • Best Chef: Los Angeles
    • Best Chef: Texas

With these changes implemented, the other categories could actually represent the regions. I trust that with research and a widened lens, every category would stay full for years to come.

Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Foundation Awards.

Here Is the Full List of James Beard Awards 2019 Winners [E]

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor.

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