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James Beard Awards ceremony reiterates commitment to new mission: inclusion, diversity, equity

The James Beard Foundation said the organization is conducting “a comprehensive internal and external review of the awards systems to address any systemic bias and align the awards with the foundation’s mission of promoting sustainability, equity, and diversity in the restaurant industry.”

The James Beard Awards ceremony in Chicago has been cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The 2020 James Beard Awards ceremony took on a new format and mission Friday night, in a virtual event streamed live from Chicago.

The James Beard Awards ceremony, considered to be the Oscars of the culinary world, was streamed live via Twitter from Chicago on Friday night with little pomp and circumstance, but a heaping helping of a new day.

The annual gala, usually held each May in Chicago at the Lyric Opera House, was canceled earlier this year due to the pandemic. It was announced shortly thereafter that winners in categories such as best restaurant, best chef in regional categories and outstanding chef would not be presented this year. Instead, the James Beard Foundation (JBF), which each year honors outstanding achievement in the culinary world, revamped its mission and purpose, and announced it would devote the awards evening to spotlighting the previously announced recipients for Leadership, Lifetime Achievement, Design, and America’s Classics honors.

It was the first time in the history of the awards that the full list of winners in all categories was not announced, a practice that will carry over into the 2021 season as well, due to the devastating impact on the restaurant and culinary industries this past year and the changes under way at the JBF.

In a statement, the JBF said the changes in the purpose of the awards and ceremony were made to allow the organization to conduct “a comprehensive internal and external review of the Awards systems to address any systemic bias and align the Awards with the Foundation’s mission of promoting sustainability, equity, and diversity in the restaurant industry.”

“It is our collective duty to do all we can to get restaurants through this,” JBF CEO Clare Reichenbach said in her opening remarks Friday night, during which she noted that next year’s event, planned to be in-person, will seek to “honor people in our community who have risen to the challenge of this moment.”

A recurring theme and heartfelt plea heard throughout the evening, which was hosted live from Chicago by food writer/media personality Ji Suk Yi, was support of local restaurants.

“Independent restaurants are the heart of every city across America. We can’t underestimate the social and economic value they represent,” Reichenbach said. The U.S. restaurant community employs 16 million people, it was noted at one point, and comprises an $860 billion industry annually — roughly 4% of the GDP. The pandemic has resulted in the closures (many of them permanent) of thousands of restaurants across the country and massive unemployment.

The ceremony recognized industry individuals and organizations working across the country to improve their communities through programs and initiatives that promote equity, diversity and inclusiveness at every level. In addition, the JBF announced a new initiative: the James Beard Foundation food and beverage fund for Black and indigenous Americans.

Here are the list of honorees from Friday night’s virtual event:

The James Beard Leadership Awards

  • Phillip and Dorathy E. Barker, co-founders, Operation Spring Plant, Inc. (OSP)
  • Rosalinda Guillen, executive director, Community to Community Development (C2C)
  • Abiodun Henderson, executive director, The Come Up Project featuring Gangstas to Growers
  • Mark and Kerry Marhefka, owners, Abundant Seafood
  • Caleb Zigas, executive director, La Cocina

Lifetime Achievement: Jessica B. Harris, who has worked as a food historian and journalist tracing the history of the African diaspora. “African cooking has changed the world in many ways,” she said in an interview taped from her home. In his introductory remarks, musician Questlove noted Harris’ writings, including 12 cookbooks, which have been dedicated to the history and the figures who’ve been “unseen and unsung, the butchers, bakers, farmers, farm workers, cooks, servers.”

“If I can remove myself from the personal aspect, what it also signals is beginning of acknowledgement of the extraordinary culinary legacy that it has been my singular pleasure to spend the better part of 40 years to write about,” Harris said.

America’s Classics

  • Lassis Inn, Little Rock, Arkansas. Owners: Elihue Washington Jr. and Maria Washington
  • Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth, Frankenmuth, Michigan, Owners: Al Zehnder, Susan Zehnder, and Martha Zehnder Shelton
  • Puritan Backroom, Manchester, New Hampshire. Owners: Arthur Pappas, Chris Pappas, and Eric Zink
  • Oriental Mart, Seattle. Owners: Mila Apostol and Joy Apostol
  • El Taco de Mexico, Denver. Owner: Sasha Zanabria
  • Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, Brownsville, Texas. Owner: Armando Vera

Design Icon: Chez Panisse, Berkeley, California. Owner: Alice Waters

Humanitarian of the Year: Zero Foodprint, which works across the country to foster a broader commitment to organic farming and carbon-neutral restaurants.

The evening closed with a virtual roundtable discussion on the state of the restaurant industry hosted by food writer/cookbook author Gail Simmons and featuring chefs Kwame Onwuachi, Tanya Holland, and Chicago’s Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark of Parachute restaurant.

“Even though we were barely breaking even during this pandemic, it felt really good to help our frontline workers and cook for the local hospital and give to the local senior citizen and Korean American community,” Kim said. “And we’re continuing to think of ways we can give back to our community, especially during the protests; Black Lives Matter brought a lot of attention to using our platform to talk about these issues as well as inequities in gender. People look to restaurants, believe it or not, they see us as leaders in the community, for social justice, and change.”