clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the James Beard Foundation Failed the Most Prestigious Restaurant Awards in the Country

The foundation violated its own ethics rules to ensure that award winners fit into its new narrative of progress and social justice

2018 James Beard Media Awards
James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach at the 2018 James Beard Media Awards 
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images

Finalists had been announced. A virtual ceremony had been planned. Acceptance speeches had been filmed.

Then, in late August, the James Beard Foundation abruptly announced that it was effectively canceling its Restaurant and Chef Awards, widely considered the most prestigious accolades in the American restaurant industry, not just this year, but until 2022.

The annual black-tie gala for these awards — a multimillion-dollar production that some have referred to as the Oscars of the restaurant industry, with big-name sponsors like San Pellegrino, All-Clad, American Airlines, and Capital One — had already been delayed and moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic. The foundation blamed this dramatic pullback on the pandemic as well. “Considering anyone to have won or lost within the current tumultuous hospitality ecosystem does not in fact feel like the right thing to do,” CEO Clare Reichenbach stated in a press release.

A few days later, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells reported that the James Beard Foundation had not been entirely forthcoming about the reasons for its decision. Around the time of the announcement, the foundation had quietly appended a note to the nominee list, claiming that several nominees had “withdrawn their nominations for personal reasons.” But, according to Wells, the foundation had in fact deemed some too “controversial” and asked them to withdraw “because new allegations about their personal or professional behavior had surfaced over the summer.”

Most striking, however, was the revelation that “no Black people had won in any of the 23 categories on the ballot,” despite multiple Black nominees and semifinalists — a result that, as Wells noted, “would not have been a first for the James Beard awards.”

Over the decades of their existence, the awards have struggled to be inclusive and representative of the diversity of America’s restaurants and chefs, and the foundation has only recently begun to address and rectify these issues.

In short, according to Wells, the James Beard Foundation found itself with a list of award winners that was incompatible with its recent attempt to reposition itself as a vanguard for social justice causes within the restaurant industry. This seemed particularly untenable in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement — which has sparked an ongoing reckoning, not only across the restaurant industry and food media, but among the foundation’s own staff. Instead of being transparent about these issues, the foundation decided to sidestep them by canceling the awards.

As someone who has been involved in the James Beard awards process for more than a decade, I was shaken by these allegations, and undertook my own inquiry. A series of correspondences with members of foundation’s leadership, as well as conversations with others within the award process and restaurant industry, seem to confirm Wells’s reporting — namely, that the foundation tried to take a shortcut to virtue by manipulating the results of this year’s awards, and has been trying to cover it up.

I believe that, motivated by the desire to keep sponsorship and donor money flowing, employees of the foundation violated its own longstanding ethics and procedures to avoid a possible public backlash over the award winners. Rather than trying to devise an equitable path forward, these employees attempted to manipulate the results after the fact, hoping to create a superficial appearance of diversity and wholesomeness without doing the work of achieving this in a meaningful way.

As a result, the foundation disenfranchised committee members, voters, and restaurants — many of which desperately needed the boost that an award might have given their businesses during a pandemic — and corrupted the integrity of the awards. This threatens to render what is widely considered America’s most respected measure of culinary excellence — one that can be a platform for greater equity — meaningless. To let that happen would not merely be a professional failing on the part of an organization that is ostensibly a beacon and guardian of the hospitality industry, but a profoundly moral and ethical one.

Established in 1986 to honor the “dean of American cookery,” the James Beard Foundation is a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to “celebrate, nurture, and honor chefs and other leaders” in America. Over the years, it has added initiatives that focus on sustainability, scholarship, and inclusion in the restaurant industry.

Despite its issues-driven programming, the foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards have become both its crown jewel and cash cow. Perhaps because of this, many believe the selection process is a conclave of cloistered agreements, favoritism, and pay-for-play among industry cardinals. It was not designed that way. Though the system may seem convoluted, it was in fact devised to ensure as much transparency and impartiality as possible, largely in response to a prior scandal.

In the mid-aughts, the foundation was left in disarray after gross mismanagement by then-president Leonard F. Pickell Jr. He was caught embezzling foundation funds, pled guilty to larceny, and served time in federal prison. The cleanup was expensive — at least $750,000 in attorneys and accountant fees — and the nonprofit found itself in a financial free fall as donations, its primary source of revenue, quickly dried up.

The foundation realized that in order to regain the trust of the public — and its donors — it needed to reform. Among numerous policy changes, a key component of its rehabilitation required divorcing the award process from the foundation’s operations. The committee overseeing the awards, which is composed of unpaid volunteers, was hermetically sealed off to guard against undue influence from the foundation and its employees.

One of the chief fears was that chefs and restaurateurs might feel pressured to perform favors for the foundation to increase their chances of winning an award. For instance, a centerpiece of the foundation’s programming is the dinner series it hosts at the James Beard House throughout the year, which features guest chefs from across the nation. Being invited to cook at one of these pricey, ticketed events is generally perceived to be an honor, but it requires the visiting chef to shoulder much of the associated costs (the food they’re cooking, as well as travel to the event, among other expenses), making participation tantamount to donating thousands of dollars to the foundation, and therefore a privilege accessible only to the best-capitalized chefs. (If it’s unclear which way the largesse flows, while the chefs gain exposure and a measure of pride, the information page for guest chefs helpfully points out that “events such as yours are an important source of revenue for the Foundation.”)

Given the obvious potential for quid pro quo, it was deemed vital to the integrity of the awards that foundation employees had no part in the award process. To underscore this imperative, the foundation agreed to a set of policies and procedures that removed the awards from its reach, and placed them under the management of an independent committee of financially disinterested volunteers.

This umbrella awards committee oversees six separate subcommittees, each one responsible for a different set of awards: Leadership, Books, Restaurant Design, Broadcast Media, Journalism, and the best known, the Restaurant and Chef Awards. It is the annual gala for this last set of awards, traditionally held in May, that is the glittering, red-carpet ceremony that most associate with the James Beard Foundation’s awards.

The committee that oversees the Restaurant and Chef Awards is composed of 20 members: eight at-large members and 12 regional representatives, each representing one of the committee’s 12 geographic regions. To ensure a degree of impartiality, these committee members do not work in the restaurant industry; many are journalists. Each regional representative on the committee impanels 25 judges in their region to provide perspective on and knowledge of America’s restaurant community at the local level. Like all committee members, judges serve voluntarily and are not paid. (The sole perks of monetary value are an annual membership in the foundation — normally $150 — and a ticket to the awards ceremony, which was valued at $500 in 2019.) Here is where you will find me, at the bottom of the awards pyramid, where I have served as a judge in the Midwest region for 14 years.

The award process is initiated by the committee late in the preceding year, when judges are solicited for nominations and input. Over the following months, the committee holds a series of closed-door sessions to determine the semifinalists for that year’s awards. The resulting list of 20 candidates in each award category is usually published in February. These semifinalists are balloted and sent to the voting body, which consists of the committee members, regional judges, and all past Restaurant and Chef Award winners. The initial round of voting whittles the nominees down to five finalists per category, who are usually announced by late March. A second, final vote is conducted to determine the winners.

The results of this voting process are tabulated by Lutz & Carr, a third-party accounting firm that represents over 400 nonprofit organizations. According to foundation policy, Lutz & Carr is required to keep the results of the first vote confidential until the second ballot; the results of the final vote must remain confidential until they are announced at the award ceremony. To prevent tampering, vote manipulation, or the results from leaking, no one within the foundation is supposed to be privy to this information before it is made public. For similar reasons, the committee members are bound by nondisclosure agreements.

This year, it appears that the foundation violated these policies by illicitly obtaining the results of the final round of voting before they were announced. Dissatisfied with the slate of prospective winners, according to a follow-up story by Wells, the foundation tried to change the outcome by proposing to alter the composition of the voting body and holding an unprecedented revote. By removing past winners — a voting bloc that is traditionally dominated by white, male chefs — from the revote, the foundation hoped that a revote might yield a set of awards more compatible with the narrative of inclusion it has been trying to tell about the awards.

This raised red flags within the committee, which pushed back on the foundation’s proposal, saying, according to Wells, that it “compromised the integrity of the awards.” A revote never happened. But the foundation did not let this aborted revote go to waste: In the following weeks, it relied on the proposal of a revote to claim that it had no knowledge of the winners.

In public statements, as well as in emails to the committee, nominees, and me, members of the foundation’s leadership have adamantly denied knowing who the winners are. However, through my correspondence with foundation employees (which can be viewed in full here), it became clear that these denials have been purposely misleading.

In an email to me, Alison Tozzi Liu, the foundation’s vice president of marketing, communications, and content, wrote, “In reality, the lack of diversity in the original vote in May, and the eventual decision not to hand out individual Awards in August were not related. As previously mentioned, there was to be a revote with eligible nominees and therefore no-one had knowledge of the ultimate winners.”

This statement reveals a number of things. First, it suggests that the foundation did know who the winners were, because Tozzi Liu is claiming that the lack of diversity among them did not affect the decision to cancel the awards. Second, her wording indicates that these denials, thus far, have been cleverly worded to appear as denials of knowing the original outcome, when in fact, they are denials of knowing who would have won had there been a revote.

This sleight of hand relies on a revote having been considered, which Tozzi Liu attempts to legitimize by claiming that “the full Restaurant and Chef Subcommittee had agreed to the revote.” However, it is clear from Wells’s reporting that this is false.

Obtaining the list of winners and trying to manipulate a revote are just part of the foundation’s interference with a process that was designed to prevent that from happening. In addition to asking some nominees to withdraw due to allegations of wrongdoing, the foundation allegedly offered to help at least one of the chefs withdraw in a way that might have evaded public notice or implied a different reason for the withdrawal. If true, this flies in the face of the foundation’s narrative that it is trying to clean up improper behavior in the restaurant industry. Rather, this suggests the foundation violated its own policies to obscure such behavior.

The chaos swirling around this year’s awards is the result of talking about systemic problems, but doing little to understand or resolve their underlying causes. In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in concern that the restaurant industry, as a whole, is an uneven field, which heavily favors some — again, traditionally white and male — while disadvantaging others. Meanwhile, far from the glamour of the foundation’s awards, everyday restaurant workers face pay inequality, hostile work conditions, a gender gap, and a lack of representation among those who hold the levers of power.

The current award process is a maze of compromises, to which many in the restaurant and dining community have tacitly agreed. But many now find it somewhere on the spectrum between unsatisfactory and unacceptable, and haven’t figured out exactly what to do about it — or are afraid to speak openly about their frustrations with the process for fear of reprisal from the foundation, especially with regard to their own award prospects. Even a past winner I know has expressed reluctance to question the foundation or how the awards work.

Certainly, one way to make the awards more inclusive is to redistrict the boundaries of achievement. For instance, the awards currently focus heavily on geographic diversity, but categories don’t distinguish between casual and fine dining restaurants, or different types of cuisines. Perhaps they should.

I don’t believe that correcting course requires canceling the past. But we need to stop clamoring for fairness before clarifying what that means and what it requires. The James Beard Foundation awards are a reflection of the restaurant industry they celebrate, and fixing them will require a far deeper and more honest examination of the underlying issues than the one that many in the restaurant community have been openly having. This will require, at a minimum, an acknowledgment that the industry is a complex ecosystem of symbiotic relationships that can’t be easily untangled.

Roughly half of the voting body is now composed of chefs, whose vast network of colleagues and friends present a minefield of conflicts. Or take my conflicts of interest, for instance: Like many in the voting body, I have working relationships with people who are eligible for awards — I’m a photographer who works with restaurants and hotels, and I’ve co-written a cookbook with chefs. I’ve also solicited personalities and restaurants to raise money for James Beard Foundation causes. I’ve always disclosed these professional relationships, as judges are required to do, and I’ve tried to remain faithful to the award process. But this should illustrate the difficulty of completely eliminating bias from the process, and I recognize that I have ultimately been complicit in perpetuating a systemic preference for those with access to resources.

Beyond the voting body, there are powerful external forces. Media and public relations firms play an enormous role in helping chefs and restaurants maneuver into advantageous positions, and in directing voters to the right tables. Chefs and restaurateurs have told me that they spend tens of thousands of dollars annually to make and keep themselves visible to the right groups of people. And in all of this, the dining public is the real apex of the food chain — a silent majority that votes with its dollars.

I have struggled to reconcile this tangle of conflicts, especially when there have been financial interests at stake. But I believe in what the awards can represent, and in the importance of recognizing excellence, so I have continued to participate in the process for years, wringing my hands and pushing as much as I could to make it better from my position. However, I can no longer be a part of it as things stand, especially because it is attached to an organization that I increasingly mistrust.

The foundation is using the issues of equity and representation to distract from what it has done: It wants the hospitality community to believe that it is suddenly and deeply troubled by the award process and its outcomes. In a scramble to respond to Wells’s reporting, the foundation issued a statement saying, in part, that it has “begun a comprehensive audit of every aspect of the Awards process.” But how meaningful can it possibly be if the foundation won’t be transparent about its shambolic mishandling of its awards this year?

The foundation’s repeated refusals to explain what actually happened that led to its decision to cancel the awards for two years continue to exacerbate the problem. While the awards committee has demanded answers and accountability, committee members are bound by nondisclosure agreements, the scope of which may need to be reconsidered. I fear that any answers the foundation provides them will likely disappear into a gagged group in a locked room.

Last week, Mitchell Davis, the foundation’s chief strategy officer — who never replied to a single email or question I posed to him about his involvement in this year’s awards debacle — unexpectedly announced that he is leaving the foundation. In his farewell post on his Instagram account, he wrote that he looks forward to “seeing how the Foundation evolves to meet the challenges & opportunities of the future.” But what about the challenges the foundation faces now — the ones that Davis is leaving behind for others to clean up? I believe that, until there is significant public pressure on the foundation and its financial sponsors, the foundation will have little incentive to be forthcoming.

The foundation must realize that the best path forward is transparency at a minimum, atonement if required, and reform at every level. Patching over the problems with platitudes and rigged votes isn’t just a woefully inadequate solution to systemic issues — at a moment when there is a demand for a more just and equitable hospitality ecosystem, it is unacceptable.

Bonjwing Lee is a photographer and writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. He has been a judge in the Midwest region for the James Beard Foundation awards since 2007.

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

Correction: This piece originally stated the James Beard Foundation was founded in 1983; it was founded in 1986.