“I stand because you stood.”
That’s how Damarr Brown, chef de cuisine at the Chicago restaurant Virtue, thanked his mentor and employer Erick Williams, a James Beard Award winner last year, on stage at the glittering James Beard Awards ceremony at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on Monday as he accepted the award for Emerging Chef.
It was a statement that captured what is fundamentally a goal of the James Beard Foundation’s evolution over the past few tumultuous years in trying to create an awards program that better reflects the rich diversity of the restaurant industry. Breaking down barriers for underrepresented communities creates a path for other talented chefs and restaurant operators to follow, the foundation has argued.
Monday’s ceremony marked the second year for the reworked chef and restaurant awards, and some critics continue to decry what they see as virtue signaling gone too far. But the controversy over the Beard Award evolution took a back seat on this night of finery and champagne. By all accounts, the foundation’s efforts appear to be paying off.
“When I was on stage for these awards 21 years ago, I didn’t see many people who looked like me,” said Tanya Holland, a Black chef and restaurateur who chairs the foundation’s awards committee. “Now we have a Hawaiian female restaurateur, a Haitian gay male chef, an Indigenous female chef, a queer Black wine educator, and on and on. That’s to be commended.”
The reworked Beard Award program also seeks to put the spotlight not only on restaurants in big cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago, but also towns that less often draw national attention for their food scene, like Boise, Idaho, or Monson, Maine. There was only one winner from New York City (Junghyun Park of Atomix, who won for Best Chef-New York State).
“Who would have thought someone from Boise would be up here,” said Kris Komori, for example, after winning for Best Chef-Mountain region for his restaurant Kin, which offers a five-course prix fixe seasonal menu and has been a semi-finalist for a Beard award five times.
In fact, Monday’s gala was indeed a celebration of breaking down barriers, with winners like Natalia Vallejo as Best Chef-South, who was the first Puerto Rican to win a Beard award for her work at the restaurant Cocina al Fondo in San Juan.
Sherry Pocknett was the first Indigenous woman to win a Beard award. Taking home the medal for the Best Chef-Northeast category, Pocknett, who is battling cancer, came to the stage in traditional Indigenous dress and said, “I represent the whole Northeast tribes, our cooking ways.”
She noted that it was also her grandmother’s birthday, a woman who had taught her “all kinds of things,” and who she felt was with her to share in the honor.
“I have cancer. I’m sure I’m not the only one in the room that does, but I’m almost through it,” said Pocknett. “This honor is unbelievable. It’s something that I never ever dreamed of. Thank you.”
Among the top awards this year, Gregory Gourdet’s Haitian restaurant Kann in Portland, Ore., was named Best New Restaurant; and the Philadelphia restaurant Friday Saturday Sunday won Outstanding Restaurant.
Another Philadelphian, Ellen Yin of High Street Hospitality Group, was named Outstanding Restaurateur. Her group includes the flagship seasonal restaurant Fork.
The Outstanding Chef award went to Rob Rubba of the Washington, D.C. restaurant Oyster Oyster.
This year’s Beard ceremony, however, did not come without drama. Last week, a New York Times article raised questions about an ethics code policy that has resulted in the elimination of some nominees, including Best Chef-South nominee Timothy Hontzas—though Beard officials did not confirm he was eliminated. Three judges reportedly resigned as a result of the dispute and another former winner posted photos of his own award smashed with a brick in protest.
Touching lightly on the controversy before announcing the Best Chef-South winner, host and Puerto Rican chef and TV personality Monti Carlo said the category has “brought more drama than a Mariah Carey concert,” but she noted that two Latina women were nominated for the category.
“You know, we’ve been running these kitchens for many years, we’re finally filling out this room,” she joked.
Here’s the full list of winners:
Rob Rubba, Oyster Oyster, Washington, D.C.
Friday Saturday Sunday, Philadelphia
Best New Restaurant
Kann, Portland, Ore.
Ellen Yin, High Street Hospitality Group, Philadelphia
The Quarry, Monson, Maine
Best Emerging Chef
Damarr Brown, Virtue, Chicago
Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker
Margarita Manzke, Republique, Los Angeles
Yoli Tortilleria, Kansas City, Mo.
Outstanding Wine and Other Beverage Program
Ototo, Los Angeles
Bar Leather Apron, Honolulu, Hawaii
Itaru Nagano and Andrew Kroeger, Fairchild, Madison, Wis.
Kris Komori, Kin, Boise, Idaho
Natalia Vallejo, Cocina al Fondo, San Juan, P.R.
Sherry Pocknett, Sly Fox Den Too, Charlestown, R.I.
Andrew Black, Grey Sweater, Oklahoma City, Okla.
Terry Koval, The Deer and the Dove, Decatur, Ga.
Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon, Kalaya, Philadelphia
Best Chef-New York State
Junghyun Park, Atomix, New York City
Justin Pichetrungsi, Anajak Thai, Los Angeles
Best Chef-Northwest and Pacific
Vince Nguyen, Berlu, Portland, Ore.
Benchawan Jabthong Painter, Street to Kitchen, Houston
Best Chef-Great Lakes
Tim Flores and Genie Kwon, Kasama, Chicago
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