It’s been a turbulent year for the James Beard Foundation and its esteemed namesake awards. As the restaurant industry continues to suffer the combined effects of a pandemic and an economic crisis, the organization has canceled the Chef and Restaurant Awards ceremony for both 2020 and 2021. In a press release, the Foundation’s CEO writes that “considering anyone to have won or lost within the current tumultuous hospitality ecosystem does not in fact feel like the right thing to do.” The many restaurants and chefs named as finalists for the 2020 awards won’t find out whether they might have received the coveted recognition.
Though the awards ceremony is off, and no winners will be named, a small note was quietly added to the list of nominees on the Foundation’s website: “Several nominees have withdrawn their nominations for personal reasons.”
Among those whose names no longer appear are David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, California; as well as Paul Bartolotta of Milwaukee-based Bartolotta Restaurants group; Kristen Essig and Michael Stoltzfus, of New Orleans’ Coquette; and Rich Landau of Vedge in Philadelphia.
Some of these chefs, like Kinch, pulled themselves from consideration to make a point about the current need for a unified industry, prioritizing the wellbeing of restaurant workers and small business owners over an individual award that now seems inconsequential. Kinch publicly addressed his absence from the updated list, writing on Instagram that he withdrew his name from consideration for the Outstanding Chef award because “the idea of celebrating achievement — and all that our @Manresarestaurant team has accomplished — simply does not feel right in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, and the devastation it has pressed upon our chosen métier and industry.”
But the foundation’s choice to categorize all of the withdrawals as having to do with “personal reasons” seems misleading or, at the very least, too vague, as not all of the chefs who removed themselves did so with the same motivations.
Reached for comment, Bartolotta, who was a finalist in the Outstanding Restaurateur category, told Eater in an email that he withdrew his name from consideration because of “anonymous accusations directed toward myself and the Bartolotta Restaurants organization that have been sent to the James Beard Foundation.” Bartolotta claims to have received no detailed information about the accusations, and that “no complaints have been filed either internally or with any outside agencies.” Nevertheless, the two-time James Beard-winner and co-owner of a 17-restaurant operation, says a third-party investigation has been launched. “I have decided to withdraw myself and our organization from consideration for this year’s James Beard Awards,” he says.
Eater reached out to the foundation for comment surrounding allegations concerning Bartolotta’s restaurant group, and the foundation’s PR firm representative echoed the idea that the chef withdrew his name for “personal reasons.”
Also among the names notably absent from an updated list of nominees is that of Jessica Koslow, the owner of Sqirl in Los Angeles, who faced swift backlash and criticism last month for serving moldy jam, allegedly taking credit for other people’s recipes, and hiding an illegal kitchen from the health department, where her staff worked in potentially unsafe conditions. Koslow sent a letter to the Foundation on July 30, asking that she be removed from consideration for the Best Chef: California award, writing that her inclusion would “only serve as a distraction.” She also asked to be removed from a James Beard Foundation voting committee that, earlier this year, chose recipients of the Humanitarian of the Year and Lifetime Achievement awards.
Many of the systemic issues being faced within the restaurant industry have also been identified within the James Beard Foundation itself. In mid-July, a group of Foundation employees sent a letter to the senior leadership team, alleging “pay disparity, inadequate benefits, long hours, and challenging working conditions,” and demanding change. The foundation has been criticized in the past for disproportionality awarding men and white chefs, and has responded with initiatives aimed at lowering the bar to entry and diversifying the awards. But as the foundation works to heighten equity in its award-granting process, it’s apparent not all within the organization feel seen or valued.
Though it’s unclear how the organization is changing internally to meet staff demands, there’s a clear awareness that the foundation must evaluate the way it doles out praise, and who receives it. In the same statement announcing the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 awards, the foundation notes that the awards committee is working with the broader organization and an outside social justice agency to adjust and develop a new process for naming award recipients. It states that the objectives are to “remove any systemic bias, increase the diversity of the pool of candidates, maintain relevance, and align the Awards more outwardly with the Foundation’s values of equity, equality, sustainability, and excellence for the restaurant industry.”
Eater has reached out for comment to all the other chefs mentioned, and this story will be updated with any new information.
Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Awards.