After months of turmoil at the James Beard Foundation, chief strategy officer Mitchell Davis is stepping down. Davis, who has spent 25 years at the foundation, announced the decision on Instagram, writing “After nearly 3 decades I’ve decided it’s time to move on to pursue new horizons and personal projects.” He departs his role at the end of this month.
The decision follows a summer of internal strife at foundation responsible for what’s often referred to as the “Oscars of the food world” as well as many other initiatives that celebrate and support the American culinary industry. On July 16, James Beard Foundation employees sent a letter to the organization’s senior leadership team demanding more diversity in leadership and salary transparency. The letter also mentioned the existence of complaints against leadership for creating a hostile work environment, and requested an HR rep who would “[r]eview all outstanding formal complaints made against managers, directors, or members of SLT (Senior Leadership Team), including both office and Beard House staff.”
As chief strategy officer, Davis was often a front-and-center personality for the foundation. He often appeared on stage at the James Beard Awards and served as a mouthpiece for the foundation in interviews with the media, including in reporting about the controversies this summer.
The decision to cancel this year’s Chef and Restaurant Awards was initially billed as a showing of solidarity with the restaurant industry as it faced the coronavirus pandemic, but subsequent reporting from the New York Times revealed that an absence of Black winners among the 23 chef and restaurant categories was a determining factor. The Times reported that in an attempt to amend the winners, Davis initially “proposed removing previous winners” from the 2020 voting body, to account for “systematic bias” among that voting group. The Chef and Restaurant Awards committee vehemently opposed to any change to makeup of the voting body, as well as the decision not to reveal the names of the chef and restaurant award winners.
It is unclear from Davis’s announcement whether his decision to move on was a result of the controversy centered around senior leadership, although in his Instagram post, Davis acknowledged the need for change:
As our industry, as our country emerges from this unprecedented confluence of challenges — global pandemic, racial-justice reckoning, economic depression, political instability — I hope we all take the opportunity to think about what we eat, the people who produce it, and the values that our food represents. Shopping, cooking, and eating with intention are the keys to change. There is much to do. My sleeves are rolled up. And I look forward to seeing how the Foundation evolves to meet the challenges & opportunities of the future. Onward.
This is unlikely to be the last sign of upheaval at the James Beard Foundation this year. Stay tuned.
Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Awards.