On Monday night, the James Beard Foundation threw itself a hell of a party. The prestigious national organization handed out 22 awards, honoring the country’s top restaurants and chefs, in a ceremony rightly called the Oscars of the restaurant industry. When the glitter finally settled on the marathon five-hour ceremony, Texas had won its first-ever national awards. The first, captured by Julep in Houston, was for Outstanding Bar Program. In her speech, owner and mixologist Alba Huerta said, “Thank you to my city of Houston for loving immigrants like me and my family.” Edgar Rico of Austin’s Nixta Taqueria won the award for Emerging Chef. And an emotional Iliana de la Vega, chef-owner of Austin’s Oaxacan restaurant El Naranjo, scooped up the award for Best Chef: Texas.
Texas also scored two James Beard Media Awards (announced on Saturday): Austinite Jesse Griffiths took a prize for The Hog Book: A Chef’s Guide to Hunting, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Pigs, and our very own taco editor, José R. Ralat, won for his “Tex-Mexplainer” series.
At the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where the chef awards took place, the mood was—if possible—more jubilant than in years past. A two-year hiatus had finally ended, and the audience was ready to have some serious fun.
“It was a great ceremony, done right,” said attendee and Houston chef Chris Shepherd, a former Beard winner himself. “It was inspiring to see the winners’ faces and hear them talk about their communities.” Two-time nominee Tiffany Derry of Dallas’s Roots Southern Table also made the pilgrimage to Chicago. “I went to the Beards once before,” she said, “and I remember sitting in the audience thinking, ‘One day your time will come.’ About ten members of my team came this time. We may never be here again, and we’re going to enjoy the moment.”
The Beard awards and lavish after-party have always served—by definition— the best food in the nation, cooked by its brightest chefs. The spirit is always festive. But this year there was another mood in the air: relief. The organization had just spent the better part of two years recovering from an embarrassing misstep and was eager to show that it had corrected course.
The problem, according to reporting by the New York Times, began near the eve of the 2020 awards, when the organization’s staff and governing board quietly learned (from its independent vote-tabulating organization) that no Black chefs would be among the winners in 23 categories on the ballot. Bad and worse solutions were proposed to correct the inequity, the dodgiest of which involved tinkering with voter eligibility and then doing a recount to get more desirable results. Ultimately, the awards were canceled. The subsequent resignation of the foundation’s longtime chief strategy officer (he cited other reasons for the departure) cleared the way for what became a wholesale overhaul of JBF’s nominating and voting processes. The results of the year-long, build-it-as-you-fly-it protocols spoke for themselves at the ceremony, which was notable for its diversity. We spoke to several participants on the inside who are proud of the distance the awards have traveled since the near-miss disaster of 2020. Still, all involved emphasize that the equity work must continue in the years to come.
I happen to know a bit about the old process, because I was a voting member of the Beard foundation’s Texas delegation for more than twenty years. I served as the state chair from 2012 to 2018, when I stepped down because I was thinking about retiring. (José Ralat was this year’s Texas chair.)
Back then, the dozen or so Texas judges (as they were then called) and I took our duties very seriously, but we had no structure and no money. We dined at promising restaurants and nominated the ones we admired. In seven years, six Texas chefs won Best Chef: Southwest—Tyson Cole of Uchi in Austin in 2011; Paul Qui of Uchiko in Austin in 2012; Chris Shepherd of Underbelly in Houston in 2014; Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin in 2015; Justin Yu of Oxheart in Houston in 2016; and Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s in Houston in 2017. Prior to that, Texas had not had a winner since the 1990s. But the results were lacking in diversity: one chef was from Mexico, two were of Asian heritage. The rest were white and male.
Now, 25 judges have been subdivided into “scouts” and “tasters.” Scouts seek out new or unknown restaurants with potential and check them out. Tasters are assigned deeper dives, zeroing in on the most promising restaurants. Unlike the old days, their expenses are reimbursed (up to a point, of course; there is no unlimited dining on the Beard tab).
When I ruled the roost, and before, we emphasized restaurants with excellent technical skills and service; we didn’t actively seek out places headed by women and people of color or of any specific identity. Today, with new procedures in place, much more emphasis is placed on actively finding excellent restaurants in overlooked groups—among immigrants, among owners of color, among those who can’t afford advertising and public relations. Technical skill in the kitchen remains a top priority, but not the singular goal it was in earlier years. Along the way, there are forms to fill out that evaluate food, service, and atmosphere, and virtual meetings to share opinions with other members.
Importantly, issues such as sexual harassment and workplace ethics now have a forum. (You may remember the well-publicized case of New York’s Mario Batali, who has all but disappeared from the food scene after his behavior with some female employees became public.) The Beard foundation has retained the services of a private investigator to look into such claims. Prior to this year, we did address a few allegations like this at our national committee meetings, if they were brought to our attention, but there was no formal structure in place to investigate them.
How well has it all worked, according to the scouts and tasters in the trenches? I spoke on background with four individuals from the Texas group, who said positive steps have been taken, though the process is still far from perfect.
They were all pleased with the diversity of the list of semifinalists (released February 23). One said, “The message [the Beard foundation] hammered over and over was ethnic diversity, which is wonderful because it sends a signal to the entire food industry.” Another added, “Many of those restaurants are tiny places, [often with immigrant owners and staff,] where people are working very hard to make a go of it. This would not have happened under the old regime.”
Some worried, however, that the pendulum might have swung too far. One said, “We looked at factors like community involvement and fund-raising, which can exclude someone who is very good at simply cooking and running a restaurant.” Another observed, “It was tough. We were looking for the perfect package: the highly talented professional who is also a quality human being.”
Even with the emphasis on features aside from cooking, scouts and tasters agreed that the caliber of the Texas restaurants remained impressive. One taster said, “All of the five on the short list for Best Chef: Texas were high-quality, although some who deserved to be included didn’t make the cut. The Texas restaurants in national categories were pretty good too.”
Their consensus is that, despite the trial and error involved in breaking in a new system, the results show promise. “Improvement will be gradual. You can’t go from step one to step ten all at once,” said one.
Back in the Lyric Opera of Chicago auditorium, the newly crowned national Outstanding Chef, Mashama Bailey (of the Grey restaurant in Savannah and the recently opened Diner Bar in Austin), summed up the reason why these changes are worth fighting for. She said, “Today a little Black girl or a little Black boy can see themselves as a future Outstanding Chef and achieve something they never thought possible. Until just a few minutes ago, that was me.”