It was a different world the last time the independent restaurant community gathered in Chicago, in their tuxedos and glittering gowns, to celebrate the winners of the James Beard Foundation Awards.
It was 2019. No one knew what COVID was. And America had yet to face the racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd.
The awards, which honor the best of the country’s independent restaurants and bars, took the two years of the pandemic off to reckon with its own issues of equity and inclusion.
Despite a tornado warning at the outset that sent many scurrying to the basement, the James Beard Awards returned to Chicago’s Lyric Opera Monday, with an audience, slate of nominees and award winners who were much more reflective of the diversity of American restaurants than in previous years.
Some awardees honored their immigrant parents, others accepted their awards in Spanish or Sioux, and others spoke of their struggles to build a life in the United States.
“Thank you for betting on Black,” Mashama Bailey of The Gray in Savannah, Ga., said while accepting her award for Outstanding Chef. “Black and brown folks, immigrants and mom-and-pop shops, have been bubbling underneath the surface of this industry, working hard for a long time. I stand on the backs of many of them. And today, a little Black girl or a little Black boy can see themselves as a future Outstanding Chef. They can see themselves in a space they have never seen themselves before. And until just a few minutes ago, that was me.”
Here are the night’s big award winners:
Outstanding Restaurateur: Chris Bianco; Tratto, Pane Bianco, and Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix. "I was so moved by all the stories," Bianco said through tears. "I started a pizzeria in 1988. I didn't know what the fuck I was doing then. I don't know what I'm doing now. What I do know is that I'm grateful."
Outstanding Chef: Mashama Bailey, The Grey, Savannah, Ga.
Outstanding Restaurant: Chai Pani, Asheville, N.C. "Every day, every act you do is an act of service,” said owner Meherwan Irani.
Emerging Chef: Edgar Rico, Nixta Taqueria, Austin
Best New Restaurant: Owamni, Minneapolis. "This is so much bigger than us. Owamni is more like a community spirit than anything else,” co-owner Dana Thompson.
Outstanding Pastry Chef: Warda Bouguettaya, Warda Pâtisserie, Detroit
Outstanding Baker: Don Guerra, Barrio Bread, Tucson, Ariz.
Outstanding Hospitality: Cúrate, Asheville, N.C.
Outstanding Wine Program: The Four Horsemen, NYC
Outstanding Bar Program: Julep, Houston
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