The 2020 James Beard Awards were effectively cancelled, in that there was no gala event and not even a whittling down of the Restaurant and Chef Awards finalists to a list of winners. (For a full rundown of a truly confusing year for the James Beard Foundation, consult this timeline.) Instead, the September 25 live Twitter broadcast was held to honor the nominees and previous award winners in categories like Leadership, Lifetime Achievement, and America’s Classics.
The evening began with an address from James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach, who acknowledged the unusual circumstances of the evening: “We recognize this shift is a disappointment to many,” she noted, before outlining the Foundation’s efforts to support the restaurant industry in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It is our collective duty to do all we can to get restaurants through this,” she said. Reichenbach also announced that the 2021 James Beard Awards will look different — in lieu of a Restaurant and Chef Awards, the Foundation is hoping for an in-person event that will “honor people in our community who have risen to the challenge of this moment.”
Reichenbach handed off the ceremony to its host, Chicago media personality Ji Suk Yi, who stood on a real stage, as she made it clear that the Foundation needed to fulfill its contract with the Chicago tourism board. It was a recurring theme: Throughout the night, Yi highlighted Tweets commenting on the broadcast; they appeared on a screen behind her and many appeared to be pre-Tweeted messages from sponsors.
In the weeks leading up to the non-ceremony this year, the James Beard Awards encountered a problem when it seemed the 2020 winners list contained no Black honorees, and the Foundation’s commitment to do better by this community was another prominent theme of the awards. Near the beginning of the broadcast, James Beard VP of community Colleen Vincent and chef Sean Sherman re-announced the Foundation’s newest initiative: the James Beard Foundation food and beverage fund for Black and indigenous Americans, which will provide grants to Black and indigenous business owners. Erick Williams of Virtue and Maya-Camille Broussard of Justice of the Pies urged the restaurant community to allow people of color to take up space. (They also contributed to a JBF meal kit of sorts that 2020 nominees received as a consolation for no gala this year.) And as she announced the recipient of the second Leadership Award of the night, Tahiirah Habibi, founder of the Hue Society, called for equality in the wine world.
The Leadership Awards winners did more to highlight the Foundation’s commitment to a more just future. In video segments, viewers learned about the work of Operation Spring Plant, La Cocina, the Come Up Project, Community to Community Development, and Abundant Seafood.
The previously announced America’s Classics award winners were also honored via video segment, and Alice Waters accepted her Design Icon award from a beautiful tiled kitchen before presenting the Humanitarian Award to Zero Food Print, which received a $20,000 grant.
Missing from the broadcast: Any mention of the 2020 Restaurant Design winners, which were announced quietly earlier this week only after the New York Times reported they would be announced during the official Awards ceremony.
Questlove presented the final award of the night to Jessica B. Harris, this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner. The cookbook author and culinary historian once again emphasized the need for a restaurant industry that values Black and brown people who “still form the unpaid underpinnings of the industry.” She referred to this time as a “cosmic reset that is combination punishment and blessing” and acknowledged that a reset for restaurants is long past due.
The message was a natural setup for a roundtable discussion moderated by Gail Simmons and featuring D.C. chef Kwame Onwuachi; Tanya Holland, chef of Oakland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen; and Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark, owners of Chicago restaurant Parachute. The group discussed ways forward for the restaurant industry amid a pandemic and protests. Onwuachi closed out the discussion with his request for a better future, saying simply, “I want a new president.”
Throughout the broadcast, the nominees who would have been the recipients of James Beard medals appeared on screen to extoll the value of restaurants, underlining the urgent need for support if they’re to stay open.
After an awkward interlude about All-Clad, which would have sponsored the Outstanding Chef award had there been one, Reichenbach ended the tight two-hour ceremony, which was refreshing in the way it highlighted the James Beard Award winners that usually get short shrift — a good sign, perhaps, for next year’s non-awards, whatever they might be.
Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Awards.