Rocky Foundation: Why don't the James Beard Awards want to exist anymore?
Updated: Feb 18
The James Beard Foundation Awards are often referred to as the Oscars of the Food World. It is thought as the premiere award an American restaurant professional can earn in their career. The awards encompass media, design, chefs, beverages, restaurants and everything in between. (The Foundation gave out 74 awards in 2019). It can be a financial boon for a new restaurant or a well deserved kudos for the culmination of a Chef’s career. If you watch Chef’s Table on Netflix, nearly every chef featured from the USA has been nominated for or won a James Beard award. It is considered the pinnacle of a chef's career. People talk about the award with joy, about how their business boomed after, and how it is a personal point of pride. That the hard work and sacrifice was worth it. Now the Foundation is saying the awards are rather worthless.
Through a confusing series of events, the James Beard Restaurant Foundation Awards have been cancelled for 2020 and and possibly every category scrapped in 2021. At first it seemed to be for solidarity to avoid celebrating individuals but rather the restaurant industry as a whole during a time of panic and uncertainty. Then some speculated it was because several of the nominees were accused of unsavory practices including staff abuse, health violations, taking false credit, and Moldy Jam. However the truth seems somehow sadder. The James Beard Foundation have been accused of not announcing the winners because “No Black people had won in any of the 23 categories on the ballot”, though the Foundation denies this. Although there were talks of a revote, the plug has been pulled to prevent any mud from appearing on their faces and avoiding a trend similar to #OscarsSoWhite during the surging Black Lives Matter movement.
Unfortunately, the harm to their credibility this year has been done and their efforts at damage control only stoke the fire. The James Beard Foundation committee are now trying to distance themselves from The James Beard Foundation Awards. They’ve tweeted out an opinion piece about how James Beard himself would have hated the awards, written by someone who is a two time James Beard Award winner. It just seems odd to revoke the potency of the awards while having it as the first line in their bio.
The James Beard Foundation posted a contradictory “Behind Our Decision” piece that explains there was no revote, but what would they claim to have a long way to go to figure out how they can change and be more inclusive while touting their committee and judging criteria revamp from 2018. They’ve cancelled the restaurant and chef awards for 2020 and 2021, but are still honoring previously announced media and heritage winners during a virtual ceremony to be broadcast on September 25th. The foundation has said “given the crises that this industry is facing, naming winners and non-winners would not be an appropriate way to meet this moment.” The Foundation, instead of taking responsibility, is blaming the restaurant industry for dying out. All the while, the James Beard Foundation is charitable cause for Negroni Week 2020, a yearly event sponsored by Campari and Imbibe Magazine to raise money for charities with the sales of bitter cocktails in restaurants.
The reason I’ve been deeply saddened by the James Beard Foundation's actions is that I was part of the small team behind a former nominee. We were nominated three times in a row the first three years that Outstanding Bar Program was an award, and every time it was a celebration of our dedication. When that category was introduced, it seemed like the James Beard Foundation really had its finger on the pulse of the evolving restaurant industry.
In Los Angeles, the James Beard Foundation Awards carried more weight because of the void of Michelin star ratings in the city from 2010-1018. When we were nominated for a James Beard award, it put us on the map. It gave me freedom in my career to explore and push the boundaries of cocktails through flavor, technique and presentation. I was able to travel because of bartending, even doing a couple guest bartending shifts in London. It helped give me focus for my career. When I moved to Chicago on short notice, the nominations were the first thing on my resume. In a town where everyone knows each other and nobody knew me, the recognition of the James Beard Foundation helped get my foot in the door and eventually land a dream job.
2020 has easily taken so much from some many, but I never thought the James Beard Foundation would work so hard to take my pride.