During a night recognizing the gobsmacking talent of chefs like Gabrielle Hamilton (Prune) and Dominique Crenn (Atelier Crenn), the biggest winner of the James Beard Awards gala Monday night seemed to be diversity.
In all, the James Beard Foundation (the governing body for the event often dubbed the "Oscars of food") recognized 15 chefs with awards, 11 of whom were women, people of color or both. Since 1991, when the awards were first celebrated, the foundation has given out more than 1,400 awards, with a demonstrable history of favoring white, male chefs, as a report published by Mic depicts. Monday night's ceremony at the Lyric Opera in downtown Chicago seemed to mark a new intentional shift toward more inclusion.
Taking home the biggest chef award of the night, Hamilton was recognized for her two decades at her pioneering New York City restaurant, Prune. Dolester Miles, pastry chef of Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Ala., since 1982, won Outstanding Pastry Chef. (Highlands also won Outstanding Restaurant, after nine straight years of being a category finalist.) Perhaps the most surprising win of the night goes to Edouardo Jordan, who took Best Chef Northwest for his restaurant Salare, while his other restaurant, JuneBaby, took home the prize for Best New Restaurant - the first African-American chef to win that prize. A native of St. Lucia, Nina Compton (Compere Lapin) won Best Chef South. Chef Rodney Scott of Charleston, S.C., was recognized for his pit mastery and whole-hog barbecue at his eponymous restaurant with Best Chef Southeast. LGBT and queer chefs were recognized, too, including Crenn and Hamilton. The Humanitarian of the Year award recognized Jose Andres, a Spanish native but newly naturalized citizen, for his tireless work in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria. Overall, the awards are quite a pivot from 2017, when only three categories weren't awarded to men. (Full disclosure: I've served as voting JBF judge in years past.)
For advocates of diversity, this year's winners list is good news, but Mic's in-depth report shows there's still a long way to go. According to its report, "Women chefs nabbed 24 best chef or outstanding chef nominations in 2018, more than any year prior." That makes up about 39 percent of the total 61 nominations - a big leap from 2016's mere 14.7 percent, but still below 50 percent representation. As for people of color, only five black chefs "have ever been nominated or won a best chef or outstanding chef award, two of whom were nominated this year for the first time," according to the report.
"The most racially diverse year in James Beard history was statistically 2017, when 26.1 percent of recognized chefs were people of color; as of 2014, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, 51.3 percent of restaurant chefs and head cooks were African-American, Asian or Hispanic," reports Mic. Since the inception of the awards, according to Mic, a racial breakdown of the awards nominees shows 87.5 percent white chefs, with chefs of color clocking in at 7.4 percent (chefs of Asian heritage), 2.4 percent (Hispanic), 1.9 percent (mixed race) and 0.4 percent (black).
In what seems a sign of the times, European-style dining was all but ignored this year, with regional cuisines being far more celebrated. Chicago's own Boka (with nominations in four categories), Canlis (Seattle), Balthazar (New York) and others were shut out, while other cuisines and styles took center stage. For instance, Abe Conlon, Chicago's sole chef winner (Best Chef Great Lakes), was honored for his work at Fat Rice with Macanese cuisine, a melding of heady, playful Portuguese and Chinese flavors and references.
The #MeToo movement (and other social awareness issues) may have something to do with the change in tone and visibility. In January, the foundation told its body of 600 judges to consider behavior as much as craft when making nominations. "If you have concerns about a chef, restaurateur or beverage professional, or about the culture around a restaurant or restaurant group, leave the person or business out of your nominations," read the foundation's statement in part. There's still something to be done on this front, however, as one of the winners on Monday night, Mike Grgich (Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional) can be linked to past sexual harassment claims, reports The San Francisco Chronicle.
In a more recent statement, the foundation stated, "Beard Award winners become de facto leaders in our industry, people who are looked up to, inspire others, set standards, and serve as role models." In light of sexual misconduct allegations against high-profile chefs and restaurateurs such as Mario Batali, John Besh, Johnny Iuzzini and Ken Friedman the message is clear: It's time for a change.
On Monday night, concerted efforts to change seemed to have arrived.