Two years after accusations of systemic bias and a lack of transparency rocked the James Beard Foundation, the organization announced the winners of their restaurant and chef awards at the Lyric Opera of Chicago last night. Among this year’s recipients was Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah, Georgia, who took home the award for Best Chef. And Meherwan Irani’s Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina, was named Best Restaurant.
It was the first time the national culinary non-profit has handed out the typically-annual awards—which are colloquially considered the Oscars of food—since 2020, when the ceremony was put on hiatus amid the pandemic and public questioning of the foundation’s internal practices and the awards’ integrity. Central to the chaos were accusations that leaders proposed a strategic revote when the list of recipients included no Black chefs in any category; comments from the committee members that the foundation was acting in ways that negatively affected their professional reputations; and the withdrawal of several nominees due to alleged misbehavior.
This year’s awards sought to write a more inclusive script, and honored the most diverse set of chefs and cuisines in three decades. Erick Williams of Virtue Restaurant & Bar in Chicago, was named Best Chef in the Great Lakes Region. The Outstanding Restaurateur award went to Chris Bianco of Tratto, Pane Bianco, and Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Arizona. Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region was awarded to Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa in Philadelphia. And Edgar Rico of Nixta Taqueria in Austin, Texas was named Emerging Chef.
In response to both the internal and public scrutiny, the James Beard Foundation commissioned a comprehensive audit of their awards practices back in August, 2020—soon after protests for racial justice shone light on workplace discrimination and misconduct within the restaurant industry. The goals “were to address any biases in the system, increase accessibility and transparency, and align the awards more deeply with the foundation’s mission and values,” CEO Clare Reichenbach tells Bon Appétit. She says the organization wanted to “better reflect” America’s top restaurants and culinary talent, as well as increase the diversity of the awards’ voting body, clarify and communicate the nomination process, and ensure future events would be more inclusive.
This year, the resulting changes were manifold. All nominations had to include a statement about how the restaurant or chef is aligned with the foundation’s values, which include equity, transparency, and respect. Past winners were vetted by the awards committee before being able to vote on this year’s winners, whereas this eligibility was previously automatic. The Emerging Chef category replaced the Rising Star Chef award, with no under-30 age limitations. The Outstanding Hospitality category overtook the Outstanding Service award and sought to recognize the restaurants building exceptional dining culture for customers and staff. And in order to honor more chefs, California, New York, and Texas were given their own Best Chef categories.