The very best chefs, restaurants and bar programs were honored Monday night at the 28th annual James Beard Awards – the restaurant industry’s Oscars – during a glittering gala at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. This year’s winners were perhaps the most diverse group yet, signaling that inclusivity has finally become a factor worth considering in the first ceremony since the #MeToo movement shook much of the entertainment, political and business worlds in 2017.
Host Carla Hall of Top Chef and The Chew fame framed the evening’s progressive bent best on stage, saying, “I rise for making sure there’s a seat at the table for everyone.” During a year that eschewed the tired trend of awarding white male chefs with the lion’s share of honors, here are our top takeaways from the Beards:
Women won big
The theme of this year’s James Beard Awards is RISE, celebrating the collective spirit of our community and the power of food. Whether championing causes, speaking up for those who can’t be heard, or cooking their hearts out, our food community rises to make this world a better, more sustainable, and more delicious place for everyone. What do you rise for? . . . . @beardfoundation #irise #riseup #everyoneatthetable #diversity #diversitymatters
A group making up half of the human population finally took home half of the awards at this year’s Beards, which wouldn’t be big news in a perfect world, but in an industry long dominated by men awarding other men top honors, it was newsworthy and welcome to see so many women win. Previously nominated chefs Karen Akunowicz, Dominique Crenn and Nina Compton finally took home regional wins, along with first-time nominee Missy Robbins.
The #MeToo shadow still lingers
A change to the rules following the sexual harassment scandals of former Beard winners Mario Batali and John Besh removed credibly accused members from the voting body. But Tuesday morning headlines raised the question of whether the Beards had gone far enough in implementing new forms of due diligence when it was revealed that one of 2018’s winners, Miljenko Grgich, had also been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. Whether simply removing those accused of bad behavior from the voting pool is enough, or if nominees themselves should be subject to more careful vetting, is a conversation that will surely be had before the 2019 awards.
Nina Compton continued to buck her Top Chef runner-up status
After winning America’s hearts (and more than her fair share of challenges) on the New Orleans-based season 11 of Bravo’s award-winning cooking competition, Compton was forced to settle for second place after the judges passed her over in favor of Nicholas Elmi. The blowback was swift, with many questioning the entire credibility of the program. Since winning the silver, Compton opened two well-received restaurants in New Orleans, was named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef of 2017, and notched a Beard nomination in 2017. But this year, she finally earned the coveted title not just of Top Chef, but of Best Chef South at the Beards, one of the highest honors in the culinary world.
Diversity continued to grow
This year’s list of nominees was the second-most racially diverse group in Beards history, behind only 2017. Rodney Scott and Dolester Miles joined Compton on the Beards list of rare – but finally growing – people of color to win awards. Seattle’s Eduardo Jordan became the first African-American to win Best New Restaurant for JuneBaby. And in a feat of true excellence, Jordan took home a second award for Best Chef Northwest for an entirely different restaurant, Salare.
Don’t sleep on The South
The South represented at the 2018 Beards. New Orleans cocktail Mecca, Cure, finally won Outstanding Bar Program, after previously being nominated twice. This makes two wins in a row in this category for New Orleans, following Arnaud’s French 75 winning in 2017. Charleston’s FIG likewise won Outstanding Wine Program. And Birmingham, Alabama took home not one, but two awards for Outstanding Restaurant and Outstanding Pastry Chef, which went to Highlands Bar & Grille, and the restaurant’s Dolester Miles, respectively.