Is the James Beard Echo Chamber Finally Widening?

Is the James Beard Echo Chamber Finally Widening?

It’s considered the “Oscars” of the food world: peers voting to recognize each other for excellence in various categories across the culinary landscape, from Best Chef to food writing to “Humanitarian of the Year.” Unlike the Michelin ratings, there are no anonymous reviewers, but this alternative system comes with its own set of pros and cons, the biggest being that many feel the New York City-based foundation is inherently biased towards NY chefs and restaurants.

March 26, 2015
It’s considered the “Oscars” of the food world: peers voting to recognize each other for excellence in various categories across the culinary landscape, from Best Chef to food writing to “Humanitarian of the Year.” Unlike the Michelin ratings, there are no anonymous reviewers, but this alternative system comes with its own set of pros and cons, the biggest being that many feel the New York City-based foundation is inherently biased towards NY chefs and restaurants.

But moving this year’s awards ceremony to Chicago is a sign to many people that the venerable organization recognizes this and wants it to change.

Since the James Beard Foundation’s inaugural awards ceremony in 1991, the majority of winners in the Outstanding Chef category have been based in New York City—including only four women—as have the winners for Outstanding Chef, Rising Star Chef and Outstanding Restaurants, according to an Eater article titled, “7 Charts That Explain the James Beard Awards."

“I think in the past few years, people have been trying to be more objective, but food is subjective. On the other hand, it’s just the way it works. Bigger cities are more populated,” said Michael Solomonov of Zahav in Philadelphia, who was a semifinalist for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic this year.


Alon Shaya of Domenica in New Orleans thinks economics is changing this trend, though.


“With real estate prices getting so crazy in places like NYC and San Francisco, we are seeing a lot of talented chefs open up in smaller markets like Nashville, Memphis and Raleigh,” Shaya told Chefs Feed, and “the way that media works these days, you can get just as much attention on your business.”

Shaya is nominated for Best Chef: South for the fourth consecutive year.

Along with more cities gaining recognition, there's hope that more women will win awards as their number grow in the industry.

“I think everyone has to question our pervasive culture which not only doesn't encourage women to thrive in this industry but also doesn't generally recognize them once they've succeeded,” said Anito Lo of Annisa in NYC. She’s nominated for Best Chef: NYC this year and has been a semifinalist three times previously.


Studies have shown that women still earn less than men in many industries, and the restaurant industry is no different.


“There are way more males than females in the industry. This said, it is far more difficult for women to work their way to the top than it is for men. From the chauvinistic workplace, to pay disparity, to recognition, there are many places for our industry to become more gender balanced.” said Phillip Foss of EL Ideas in Chicago. He was a semifinalist for Best Chef: Great Lakes this year.


Despite their flaws, winning a James Beard award or being awarded with Michelin stars is an honor that most chefs welcome, although not always. It’s great to be recognized for work that excels in any category, but after the awards are bestowed on the winners, chefs like Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, Wash., say the real work begins:


“I'm honored to be an award winner and nominee and really proud of the work being done by the (James Beard House) to bring voices and minds to the issues of hunger and food safety and availability in the US today,” said Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, Wash.  “The organization is positioned to lead the way on repairing a broken food system and it makes me proud to be a member. The awards are fluff on top of all of that.  Fun, yes, but the real mission is what I am interested in.”


By Sara Bloomberg