James Beard Foundation [official photo]

I’m confused

In late August, the James Beard Foundation announced that no Restaurant and Chef Awards would be handed out during the organization’s highly anticipated September 25 ceremony. The organization pointed to the restaurant industry’s precarious position during the coronavirus pandemic, and wrote in a press release that “substantial and sustained upheaval in the community has created an environment in which the Foundation believes the assignment of Awards will do little to further the industry in its current uphill battle.”

But in an increasingly bizarre turn of events, it seems the foundation will actually be announcing several awards. The New York Times reports that during the no-awards award ceremony on the 25th, the foundation planned to announce winners in the three Outstanding Restaurant Design categories, including Outstanding Design of Alternative Eating and Drinking Places, a new category this year.

According to the Times, Lori Chemla, an owner of Carissa’s the Bakery, in East Hampton, New York, received an email in September from James Biber, the chairman of the design awards committee, congratulating her on winning the inaugural Alternative Eating and Drinking Places award. The catch, according to Biber: “The Beard Foundation will not be publicly announcing the awards.” The winners were given the okay to share the news in their own P.R. material, though it was unclear how one was to go about publicizing or celebrating an award that the award-granting body itself was actively seeking to minimize. Similar emails were sent by Biber to winners in two other categories.

Then, according to the Times report, a foundation employee reached out to Chemla and other confused winners a week later to clarify that, actually, winners of the design awards would be announced at the no-awards just-kidding-there-are-awards award ceremony on September 25. And on the morning of Monday, September 21, in response to questions from the Times, a foundation official said the honorees would be announced later in the day. In an early Monday Tweet, the foundation shared the names of honorees in the Design Awards categories, which, they say “were unaffected by nominee withdrawal and removal, resulting in an uncompromised ballot”: Along with Carissa’s the Bakery, Heliotrope Architects (for Rupee Bar in Seattle) and Klein Agency and ORA (for the now-closed Auburn in LA) were winners.

This is just the latest (and perhaps most confusing yet) debacle in what has been a bizarre unfolding of events for the James Beard Foundation this year. After announcing in August that the awards were being cancelled as an act of solidarity with the restaurant industry, it came to light that the reasons for doing so were likely more complicated and less ideal: Some nominated chefs had removed their names from award consideration following allegations of abuse and toxic behavior in their kitchens. The Times also reported that before the awards were cancelled, an employee within the foundation voiced concerns that not a single Black chef had won any of 23 awards that were to be announced at the ceremony. The idea to restructure the voting committee and vote again was floated as one way to overcome potential bias, but before a decision was reached, the awards had been cancelled.

In its initial list of cancelled awards, the foundation did not explicitly state that the design awards were cancelled, but the announcement suggested as much, sharing that the foundation would not “present winners in the remaining categories.” It’s surprising for the foundation to move forward with the design award announcements, when the intent behind cancelling the Restaurant and Chef Awards is still so opaque.

In a recent press release, the foundation shared that it would be using the time between now and the next awards, presumably in 2022, to “remove any systemic bias, increase the diversity of the pool of candidates, maintain relevance, and align the Awards more outwardly with the Foundation’s values of equity, equality, sustainability, and excellence for the restaurant industry.” As of now, it’s not clear what — beyond a separate organizing committee — really sets the design awards apart from the others that were cancelled, or how this latest decision represents the foundation’s stated values.

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