When the James Beard Awards return in 2022, the voting body, the internal structure of the awards committees, and the winners themselves will not resemble those of past years. At least, that’s what the James Beard Foundation — one of the U.S. food world’s most highly respected award-granting organizations — hopes, after a year of turmoil effectively brought the awards to a halt.
The announcement of these policy and procedure changes comes more than a year after the foundation cancelled its awards program for 2020 and 2021. Amid a storm of scandal and dissatisfaction, the foundation conducted an audit with the help of outside consulting firms in an attempt to face the reality that many of the would-be nominees for 2020 had been accused of bad behavior before the awards were called off. Even among those who stayed in the running for 2020, New York Times reporting revealed that not a single one of the award winners in 23 categories was Black. As the restaurant industry has undergone a yearslong reckoning surrounding issues of worker mistreatment, racism, sexism, and general bad behavior on the part of powerful chefs and restaurant owners, the foundation has in some ways been playing catchup.
The results of the audit, published on the foundation’s website, paint a picture of an organization that hopes to undertake a major overhaul in order to be more self-aware, transparent, and diverse. Among the key insights in the 21 pages of findings are suggestions for how the awards can avoid honoring alleged bad actors and how to effectively diversify both the voters and the winners.
The James Beard Foundation is hoping updates to the way chefs are scouted, vetted, and voted on will increase the diversity of award winners, and avoid the scandal and protest that comes when it turns out a James Beard recipient is actually abusive, or otherwise undeserving of the title they’ve been given. To this end, the foundation is establishing an ethics committee, which will function independently of the awards committee. A new rule will also make it so that award winners are not automatically included in future years’ voting bodies, a policy the foundation hopes will ultimately lead to more diverse winners.
If the audit’s recommendations are effectively addressed, diners and chefs alike can hope for a more diverse, more transparent, and much less chaotic rollout of the James Beard Awards in 2022. The complete and extensive findings of the audit are now available to the public. Below, the three most notable changes to the foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards.
There Will Be a New Protocol to Handle Nominee Misconduct Allegations
The foundation really does not want a repeat of 2020, with Beard-nominated chefs pulling themselves from consideration or being asked to drop out of the race because of alleged bad behavior. According to the audit, “policies and procedures are being put into place to handle issues such as allegations of misconduct among potential award winners. An independent ethics committee is being formed to assess such allegations.” Who will be on this ethics committee? The foundation is looking to fill five to six positions, with a retired lawyer, a journalist or writer with expertise in ethics, an “ordinary citizen” who might bring “common sense in evaluating facts without agenda or prejudices,” and an ethics professor — if you happen to know an ethics professor in need of work.
Any award entrants will be required to sign a code of ethics — as will all judges and members of committees — and semifinalists will be vetted by an external party, as they have in past years. The ethics committee will be responsible for deciding if chefs accused of wrongdoing should be removed from consideration, and the accounting firm that tallies votes will remove these chefs’ names from the final counts. Per the audit, if a nominee must be removed from consideration, “the next highest scoring nominee will be inserted as a replacement. No JBF Staff or Awards committee member will participate in this procedure.”
In an email to Eater, a foundation spokesperson said that this plan is preliminary, and that the “step by step plan will be revised and finalized when the full committee is confirmed.”
By 2023, the Committee and Judges Will Be 50 Percent BIPOC
While the new procedures still do not guarantee a diverse winners’ list in 2022, the foundation has pledged to diversify internally — and that includes changes to the makeup of the awards’ voting body.
A goal has been set of having 45 percent of committee members and judges be people of color in 2022, and make up half of those committees by the 2023 awards. And instead of all previous winners defaulting to the voting body, “winners from the last 3 years will be considered as potential judges, requiring the subcommittee to actively vote them on.” Writing about the James Beard Awards in 2018, Eater restaurant editor Hillary Dixler Canavan noted that, while the awards got some things right (like acknowledging more women and people of color than in years past), there were still fundamental problems with the voting body. “These wins are good, but it’s still worth examining the system that made them historic. After the restaurant committee creates the semifinalist list, a body of more than 600 industry insiders and past winners votes on who becomes finalists and then, winners. In other words, even if the committee serves the voting body a diverse semifinalist list (which it did this year), it doesn’t guarantee a diverse outcome; the voting body must follow suit.”
On the audit’s advice, it’s possible a more diverse voting body will be reflected in who wins awards — not just for one year, but also in years to come. After an open call for submissions, subcommittee members and the talent scouts will rank the top 30. In each category, the subcommittee will then vote for the top 20 contenders, followed by the subcommittees, scouts, and tasting panelists voting for the top five. After visiting each finalist, the subcommittees and panelists will vote for a winner in each category.
The criteria for the Restaurant and Chef Awards judges has also been widened. In addition to judges with a background in “traditional food media,” the organization will now be welcoming judges who are book authors, chef-instructors, former chefs and restaurant owners, scholars, and others who the organization thinks will bring new perspectives to the voting process.
A Wider Net Will Be Cast to Find Chefs and Restaurants
In more ways than one, the foundation is aiming to reach more corners of the food world, and lower some of the barriers to entry for chefs in coming years. This effort will include creating two new types of judges for categories within the Restaurant and Chef Awards. There will be “scouts,” who are “responsible for surfacing new restaurants for consideration” — a process that will, ideally, help identify restaurants that would otherwise have been overlooked, and a “tasting panel,” responsible for dining at all nominated restaurants and voting for winners using a “standardized form.”
And to include chefs who may be at an early point in their careers, but started cooking later in life, the Rising Star Chef Award, which has been renamed “Emerging Chef,” no longer has an age restriction, an acknowledgement that “success can be achieved at any age.”
James Beard Awards Audit Recommendations [James Beard Foundation]
Disclosure: Some Eater staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Awards.