More than two-thirds of the winners at this year’s James Beard Awards were women or people of color or both – a dramatic shift for a ceremony that has historically rewarded the efforts of mostly white, mostly male chefs. The Beard Foundation wants to make sure its awards gala – often considered the Oscars of the food world – was not an anomaly but an early sign that the organization will continue to honor the ever-expanding diversity of the culinary and food-writing communities.
To that end, the foundation announced changes to its policies and procedures to promote inclusion at all levels of the awards process. Among the changes are efforts to diversify the powerful committees that help decide the nominees in a variety of categories: restaurants and chefs, books, design, journalism and more. The goal, according to the foundation’s press release, is to “increase diversity in its ranks at a minimum to represent (the) U.S. census, but with an intent to work toward parity over time.” The committees will strive to hit their diversity goals by replacing vacating members or expanding the number of members.
Changes, in fact, have already occurred in the journalism committee, says John Kessler, the former dining critic at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In the three years that he’s chaired the committee, Kessler has asked three people of color to join it. The nine-member committee is composed of five women and four men, he added.
“We have been trying to get a more diversified group of judges who are not just food writers and editors but people who are good writers and editors and academics,” Kessler said. “Different sorts of people, novelists, people who recognize good writing.”
In addition to shaking up its committees, the Beard Foundation announced two other award-based changes:
First, it will stop inducting people into the Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, a collection of chefs, authors, bakers, TV personalities and more, including such beloved figures as Julia Child, Anthony Bourdain and Mimi Sheraton. Originally launched in 1984 by Cook’s and Restaurant Business magazines, Who’s Who tends to skew toward white inductees, which is potentially problematic because only past honorees can nominate new ones. There’s also the issue of past inductees whose reputations have taken nose dives after allegations of sexual harassment, including John Besh and Mario Batali.
Second, it will ask the general public to recommend individuals for its annual Leadership Award, which honors people committed to resource sustainability, ag policy, food justice and other issues. Past winners include former first lady Michelle Obama for her work fighting childhood obesity and chef and author Dan Barber for his efforts to reduce food waste and promote sustainability.
The Beard Foundation has also decided to remove some financial barriers to entry for awards in the broadcast media, book and design categories. From Oct. 15 to Oct. 29, those wishing to enter these three categories can do so without paying a fee. Entrants can apply for an exception for works published after Oct. 29 until the final day of submissions on Dec. 30. The committees will review the exceptions on a case-by-case basis. For the journalism awards, the foundation will waive fees for all first-time entrants during the full submission period, from Oct. 15 to Jan. 2.
The “changes set a welcome table for diverse writers,” emailed Adrian Miller, the lawyer-turned-author who won a Beard Award in 2014 for his book, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.”
“Writers of color, and writers struggling to make ends meet, should be greatly encouraged to submit their work for consideration. I’m excited to see a more inclusive representation of the very best food writing,” Miller added.
As with last year, the foundation is encouraging committee members and judges to evaluate nominees not just on their work in the kitchen or dining room but also on their “restaurant culture and leadership values.” In the wake of sexual-assault allegations against multiple chefs last year, the organization issued a statement that asked judges not to nominate a chef, beverage professional or restaurateur if they had any “concerns” about the person.
The foundation’s Media Awards will be April 26 in New York City, while the Awards Gala for chefs and restaurants will be May 6 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.