The James Beard Awards, the most prestigious accolades in the American restaurant industry, were effectively canceled on August 20, with the foundation citing the devastating impact of COVID-19, as well as “sustained upheaval” within the restaurant community. But behind the scenes, less transparent and more harried decision making — including the realization that there were no Black winners in the various restaurant and chef categories — led to the verdict to not announce this year’s winners and to forgo next year’s awards, the New York Times reports.
As Eater’s Elazar Sontag reported previously, several award nominees withdrew themselves from consideration “for personal reasons,” in the foundation’s words. At least two — Sqirl’s Jessica Koslow and Paul Bartolotta of Milwaukee-based Bartolotta Restaurants group — asked that they be removed from consideration following allegations leveled against them. Koslow faced a highly public backlash last month for serving moldy jam, allegedly taking credit for employees’ recipes, and hiding an illegal and potentially unsafe kitchen from the health department. Bartolotta told Eater that he withdrew because of “anonymous accusations directed toward myself and the Bartolotta Restaurants organization that have been sent to the James Beard Foundation.”
But they weren’t the only nominees to face allegations against their conduct, the Times report details. In the wake of the George Floyd protests and a broader movement confronting anti-Black violence and racial injustices in the U.S., the restaurant industry — already devastated by the pandemic and its economic fallout — grappled with its own internal reckoning, as employees spoke out against practices that have long been brushed under the rug and dismissed as just a part of kitchen culture, from unequal treatment and bullying to allegations of sexual harassment. Many of the complaints have surfaced publicly on Instagram, both anonymously and not.
According to the Times, the James Beard Foundation found itself struggling to stay on top of new allegations as well as changing ideas of which chef behaviors should be considered acceptable, let alone award-worthy. While some chefs voluntarily dropped out, others were reportedly asked by the foundation to withdraw their nominations due to allegations along these lines.
Another factor contributing to the decision to cancel the awards was the lack of Black winners in any of the 23 categories. The James Beard Awards and the industry it honors has long been criticized for elevating and rewarding high-profile names who tend to be white men. This year, a handful of nominees were Black, but they ultimately didn’t emerge as winners in the voting.
The foundation’s chief strategy officer, Mitchell Davis, told the Times that they considered removing previous winners from the voting body, which also includes a 20-member restaurant committee and 200-odd regional judges. While this was presented as a way to eliminate “systemic bias,” it also would have meant actively removing votes after they had already been counted, a potentially dubious move.
A second proposal was to recast votes on a ballot that would only include nominees who hadn’t faced allegations against their behavior. But allegations kept coming, and according to the Times, restaurant committee members were troubled by a lack of transparency, standards, or ways to handle removing nominees from the list.
The foundation will be taking the next year to rework its awards and establish new rules, with the goal of removing systemic bias and making nominees more diverse.
Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Awards.