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Food Writer’s Diary

The Beard Foundation has made great changes to their Restaurant and Chef Awards, and they might suffer for it

New criteria make the meaning of the awards unclear

Anyone who follows the James Beard Foundation’s annual Restaurant and Chef Awards knows there has been quite a shakeup in recent years as the awards committee reworked its criteria.

The awards were essentially cancelled in 2020 and 2021 for obvious pandemic-related reasons, and they emerged last year with new criteria.

Now anyone nominating potential winners has to include a statement about how the candidate is aligned with the foundation’s values “around creating a more equitable, sustainable, and healthy work culture.”

Additionally, the judges who vote on the awards, which used to include me, has been changed to include only recent winners who have been re-vetted by the awards committee, and a new crop of food and restaurant media.

For the record, I was removed as a judge a year or two before the pandemic. I wasn’t notified; I just stopped getting the emails. It would have been polite of them to notify me, but otherwise it’s totally fine. It makes sense to change up the cultural gatekeepers in our society.

And the awards were always problematic. Apart from many of the same people being nominated year after year, judging accurately was fraught with problems. For the national categories I would have had to have a virtually unlimited budget, which I don’t, to travel to all of the cities where chefs and restaurants were semifinalists in categories like Outstanding Pastry Chef or Outstanding Service. Even for the regional awards, as a New York judge it was possible, but unlikely, that I could have eaten at all of the potential candidates in the city, but what about the judges in, say, the Southeast, which includes Georgia, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and West Virginia. You would have to be independently wealthy or have access to the type of expense account that no longer exists in media, to be well informed about restaurants in every city in that region, including Atlanta, Charleston, Nashville, Louisville, Asheville, and all the communities in between that may or may not have restaurants worthy of the world’s attention.

Those challenges still apply, but the change in criteria and judges really has broadened the types of restaurants that have gotten attention by the awards committee.

In a press conference, I asked some of the nominees who were named today what they thought of the changes, and they support it.

“It’s really wonderful how inclusive it has become,” said Niki Nakayama, chef of n/naka in Los Angeles, who is nominated for Outstanding Chef. “And I love that even in this category there’s so many of us doing so many different things … It’s truly inspiring that we can be in this together and move forward together.”

Rob Rubba of Oyster Oyster in Washington, D.C., who is nominated in the same category, agreed.

“It’s really great because there’s a lot of chefs out there that can put tasty things on a plate, and then it just kind of stops there,” he said. “But now that the Beard Foundation is kind of focusing on other aspects of the culinary world and how we inspire the next generation and what comes of that rather than just some bad habits, is really wonderful. … and it’s looking into other sectors of the food world that were just kind of shied away because they weren’t in a certain box of fine dining or a certain way they looked.”

Well sure, you might be thinking, of course they’re on board with the changes: They were nominated!

But they probably would have been nominated at some point under the old system, too. N/naka is a fine-dining restaurant in Los Angeles with $310 tasting menus and two Michelin stars, exactly what judges from the old guard were looking for. Oyster Oyster has one Michelin star, and Rubba was named a “Best New Chef” by Food & Wine magazine last year — a recognition that has often overlapped with Beard Award nominees.

I think the new criteria actually reflect what restaurants should be: Members of the community who are working to make the world a better place.

I think the Beard Foundation did the right thing to make the changes that it did, but I also think it’s going to suffer for it.

Last year there was already harumphing from old-school food writers that the new awards were too “woke.” And some complained that they weren’t familiar with most of the winners, which of course is the writers’ problem, not the winners’.

That’s to be expected. There are always going to be anti-progress reactions from the old guard.

But as flawed as the previous awards were, the criteria were clear and the winners were mostly the sort of fine-dining establishments that the cognoscenti of the food world understood. There were notable exceptions, such as Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City and Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, but not many.

Now the winning restaurants are much more varied, which means the spotlight is being shined on more communities (this year including the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Caldwell, Idaho, and Ocean Springs, Miss.) and the same nominees don’t keep coming back every year. In fact, this year only 11 of the 115 nominees were also nominated last year.

Again, that’s great, but it does call into question what the awards will mean in the years to come.

The writer of this article is a previous judge in the James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

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