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Sorry, Manhattan. The James Beard Award spotlight has turned to America's smaller towns

The 2024 awards ceremony celebrated the diversity of the restaurant industry, from Appalachian-inspired cuisine in West Virginia and Senegalese food in New Orleans to a Japanese baker in Portland, Maine.
Gregory Gourdet of the Portland, Oregon, restaurant Kann was named Best Chef: Pacific Northwest. | Photo courtesy of the James Beard Foundation

The Palestinian-American chef Michael Rafidi was named Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation in a star-studded ceremony in Chicago on Monday.

Dedicating the award to Palestinians in the U.S., in Palestine and all over the world, Rafidi’s acceptance speech could have taken a political turn, but instead the chef and owner of the Washington, D.C. restaurant Albi, brought a group of his team members up to the stage at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago to give thanks, saying, “There’s no such thing as an outstanding chef without an outstanding team.”

In fact, the group acceptance speech was the theme of the evening, which is often described as the Oscars for the culinary world. Thanks to sponsors who helped nominees bring more staff members to the awards this year, many winners brought their teams on stage and spoke of the need for restaurant “families” to nurture and watch out for each other in a business that can take a toll on mental health.

Harley Peet, who won Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic for his restaurant Bas Rouge in Easton, Maryland, for example, urged the audience to watch co-workers for signs of struggle.

“If you recognize someone who’s having problems, please, before it’s too late, always reach out,” he said, as he tearfully dedicated the award to a co-worker saying, “We love you. We miss you.”

Jason Hammel, whose Chicago restaurant Lula Café won the award for Outstanding Hospitality, also spoke of the need for creating healthy work environments, saying, “Hospitality is a team award because the hard work of emotional labor is not about how we treat guests, but it’s about how we treat each other.”

Gregory Gourdet, chef-owner of the Haitian restaurant Kann in Portland, Oregon, was named Best Chef: Northwest and Pacific, bringing home his third medal (Kann was last year’s Best New Restaurant).

Gourdet spoke of his own problems with alcoholism and drug addiction and how he found purpose as a chef, with the help of hundreds of cooks, servers and dishwashers who helped along the way.

The James Beard Foundation’s efforts in recent years to recreate the awards system to celebrate the industry’s rich diversity has clearly paid off. As if to emphasize the point, many winners wore finery that represented their culture, from Japanese kimonos (worn by some with sneakers) and elegant Haitian-inspired plumage worn by Gourdet.

At his restaurant Kann, Gourdet said he created a hub for Haitian culture and storytelling “in the most random place, the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “My only hope is that we can continue to do the right thing, to continue to seek diversity and inclusion,” said Gourdet. “Let’s hope the next generation has it a little better than we do, and the one after that has it better than they did.”

This year’s ceremony also spotlighted many restaurateurs in small towns. In fact, there were no winners from Manhattan—the closest was Charlie Mitchell of the Brooklyn restaurant Clover Hill, who won for Best Chef: New York State. However, Washington, D.C., Chicago and even Portland, Maine, had multiple winners.

Paul Smith, who was named Best Chef: Southeast, was the first to bring a Beard medal home to West Virginia.

“You want to know the two words never said before at the Beard Awards? West Virginia,” said Smith, who founded the restaurant 1010 Bridge in Charleston with a menu that tells the story of Appalachia.

Christina Nguyen, of the Southeast Asian restaurant Hai Hai in Minneapolis, who was named Best Chef: Midwest, thanked the Beard Foundation for recognizing restaurants like hers, which in the past may have only been noted on lists for “best cheap eats,” she said.

Female chefs and restaurateurs won big this year, from Valerie Chang, Best Chef: South, who brought a medal home to her Peruvian restaurant Maty’s in Miami; to Atsako Fujimoto of the restaurant Norimoto in Portland, Maine, who came to the U.S. from Tokyo when she was 33. She had no kitchen experience, but started working in restaurants because she enjoyed it so much. She is this year’s Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker.

Presenter Ann Kim, who won Best Chef: Midwest in 2019, noted the number of women chefs and restaurateurs who were among the winners. Kim reprised her “mantra” from 2019 that went viral in a Tweet, telling women who doubt themselves to “fuck fear” and keep going.

“Women have come a long way on this stage,” said Kim. “Stepping back up here, I feel like I have a spiritual posse of all the women past, present and future, who have defined and redefined cooking on their own terms.”

Here are the winners of this year’s James Beard Awards for chefs and restaurateurs:

Outstanding Restaurateur: 

Erika Whitaker and Kelly Whitaker, ID EST (The Wolf's Tailor, BRUTØ, Basta, and others), Boulder, Colorado

Outstanding Chef: 

Michael Rafidi, Albi, Washington, D.C.

Outstanding Restaurant:

Langbaan, Portland, Oregon

Emerging Chef:

Masako Morishita, Perry's, Washington, D.C.

 Best New Restaurant:

Dakar NOLA, New Orleans, Louisiana

 Outstanding Bakery:

ZU Bakery, Portland, Maine

Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker:

Atsuko Fujimoto, Norimoto Bakery, Portland, Maine

 Outstanding Hospitality:

Lula Cafe, Chicago

 Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program: .

Lula Drake Wine Parlour, Columbia, South Carolina  

Outstanding Bar:

Jewel of the South, New Orleans 

Best Chef: California

Lord Maynard Llera, Kuya Lord, Los Angeles

Best Chef: Great Lakes (IL, IN, MI, OH) 

Hajime Sato, Sozai, Clawson, Michigan

 Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic (DC, DE, MD, NJ, PA, VA) 

Harley Peet, Bas Rouge, Easton, Maryland

Best Chef: Midwest (IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD, WI) 

Christina Nguyen, Hai Hai, Minneapolis, Minnesota

 Best Chef: Mountain (CO, ID, MT, UT, WY) 

Matt Vawter, Rootstalk, Breckenridge, Colorado

 Best Chef: New York State 

Charlie Mitchell, Clover Hill, Brooklyn

 Best Chef: Northeast (CT, MA, ME, NH, RI, VT) 

David Standridge, The Shipwright's Daughter, Mystic, Connecticut

 Best Chef: Northwest and Pacific (AK, HI, OR, WA) 

Gregory Gourdet, Kann, Portland, Oregon

 Best Chef: Southeast (GA, KY, NC, SC, TN, WV) 

Paul Smith, 1010 Bridge, Charleston, West Virginia

 Best Chef: South (AL, AR, FL, LA, MS, PR) 

Valerie Chang, Maty's, Miami, Florida

 Best Chef: Southwest (AZ, NM, NV, OK) 

Rene Andrade, Bacanora, Phoenix, Arizona

Best Chef: Texas 

Ana Liz Pulido, Ana Liz Taqueria, Mission, Texas

 

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