The most exciting thing about the Beards’ historic night is what happens next
On Monday night, I watched the James Beard Foundation Awards via its live Twitter feed. I’ve tuned in every year since 2012, but this year was going to be different: A lot has been written about how this was one of the awards’ most diverse years (according to a Mic study, in 2010, just 5 percent of nominees were chefs of color; this year, that number was 21.3 percent, a slight dip from last year’s mark). I was nervous to see if those nominations would play out in the actual winners; if the voting committee would ultimately favor business as usual over change.
But it was indeed a different show than in years past. Dolester Miles, the pastry chef at Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama, since 1982, won Outstanding Pastry Chef after being nominated three years in a row. Rodney Scott won Best Chef: Southeast; Nina Compton won for Best Chef: South, making her the first Black woman to do so. Edouardo Jordan added to the historic night with two wins: Best Chef: Northwest (for his Seattle Italian restaurant Salare) and Best New Restaurant (for JuneBaby, his ode to the Southern cooking that he grew up with). Jordan is the first Black chef to win the Best New Restaurant award.
Black chefs, authors, and writers are finally winning awards for telling their stories, in their own way
I cheered as I heard each of their names, and felt equal parts pride and admiration. As someone who is always rooting for women and chefs of color to receive more recognition, it felt affirming to see chefs that I’ve long admired be acknowledged: Their work declares that Black stories are, and always have been, a key part of the definition of “American” food.
To me, the Beard Awards have always held an odd polarity: Despite the Beard Foundation’s mission to highlight and celebrate the best of America’s cuisine, it historically gave the awards to chefs who cook European food. It’s partially the result of a Eurocentric fine dining tradition in this country, one that’s upheld by other restaurant awards, like the World’s 50 Best, and to a lesser extent, Michelin. (It’s interesting that the first two Black chefs to win James Beard chef and restaurant awards, Patrick Clark in 1994 and Marcus Samuelsson in 2003, were both awarded regional Best Chef awards for cooking European food — French and Swedish, respectively.) With a few notable exceptions, like Nobu (1995), Momofuku Ko (2009), and Pêche (2014), the Best New Restaurant award has mostly gone to restaurants that focus on contemporary Italian or French cuisine.
It may not have been the organization’s intent, but awarding the culinary world’s highest honors to the same type of restaurant and the same type of chef, over and over again, sent a clear message to the food world: that European cooking is the form of dining most worth celebrating. (The America’s Classics awards — which this year honored restaurants famous for their Peking duck, tamales, pizza, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and banh mi — were launched in 1998 and are a useful way of highlighting local restaurants that don’t meet the criteria for competitive award categories, but the recognition still feels flat. America’s Classics winners at this year’s ceremony, as in years past, didn’t get the same fanfare as the other categories and didn’t get to give an acceptance speech like other winners.)
The Beards’ tendency to highlight the European-influenced world of dining is a narrow way to view all of the cuisines that create America’s unique dining culture; it doesn’t truly reflect how great it is to eat in America. Since winning an award can create more media attention and attract guests, the signal that European food was the defining food of our culture became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Diners would see these restaurants as representative of America’s dining scene, and food media would interview the chefs that won or were nominated. Young chefs would want to work with the winners and nominees, and the cycle continued.
So what makes these wins particularly poignant is that chefs Rodney Scott, Nina Compton, Edouardo Jordan, and Dolester Miles are cooking interpretations of their unique history, from the present moment in the part of America where they live. Their complicated and beautiful act of reclaiming Black foodways and serving it to the public is too powerful to understate. They’re chefs who are making food that represents them — people who are connected to and inspired by the African diaspora.
Scott was incredulous as he took the stage to accept the award for Best Chef: Southeast. He learned whole-hog cooking from his family and opened his own namesake restaurant, Rodney Scott’s BBQ, in Charleston to share his love of the art. Although Africans “shaped the culture of New World barbecuing traditions, from jerking in Jamaica to anticuchos in Peru to cooking traditions in the colonial Pampas,” as food historian Michael Twitty writes, the Black contributions to barbecue are often stripped out by others considering its place in American culinary history; Scott’s win helps nullify that.
Compton’s speech placed her immigration story front and center: “I never dreamed, coming from a very small island of St. Lucia, of winning this award,” she said at the podium. Her New Orleans restaurant, Compère Lapin, is named for a character in Creole and Caribbean folk tales; on the menu, she blends Caribbean and southern food with French technique.
Jordan’s history-making Best New Restaurant win for JuneBaby elicited cheers from the crowd and from me on my couch at home. JuneBaby’s website includes an encyclopedia that starts by defining “Africa,” “African-American,” “Afro-Caribbean” and “African Diaspora,” stressing the importance of knowing this history at the onset of having a meal at the Seattle restaurant. (The latter term, the encyclopedia writes, includes “the descendants of West African slaves brought to the US, Caribbean, and South America.”) At JuneBaby, Jordan is not letting his food or his restaurant be defined by anyone else: “Southern food reflects hard times and resourcefulness and is nothing short of beautiful,” he writes.
And I cheered for Dolester Miles, the pastry chef at Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama for more than three decades, serving pies, tarts, and cakes that match the elegant southern dinner menu. “I can’t believe this happened,” she said at the podium, behind tears. As I watched, I felt happy that she was finally being recognized, but upset that it took over 20 years for her to receive a nomination. Until that moment, I had only seen Miles’s face and never heard her voice.
Black chefs, authors and writers are finally winning awards for telling their stories, in their own way (at the James Beard Media awards two weeks ago, I felt a similar pride when Michael Twitty and Osayi Endolyn won medals for their work; Twitty was the first Black author to ever win the foundation’s Cookbook of the Year award). This food and these stories have always been here, have always been interesting — think Edna Lewis, Sylvia Woods, and the author Jessica Harris — and the Beard judges are finally catching up. These are American chefs and stories; they should’ve been part of the conversation all along.
As the awards wrapped up, I felt optimistic. Not only because the top honors in food went to more women and people of color than ever, but because of what this could mean for the food landscape as a whole. Hopefully this will lead to more investment in businesses and restaurants run by women and people of color. Hopefully this means more media coverage for these chefs; hopefully it means more cookbook deals, too. Hopefully the Beards don’t revert to business as usual next year.
But mostly I’m excited to see what’s next for the chefs that won and what springs up in the trails they’re blazing. A more immediate change is that these chefs will become part of the voting body for next year’s awards; they can lead the charge when it comes to upholding the recent trend toward diverse nominees. I’m excited to see the chefs that will come after Compton, Jordan, nominee and Savannah chef Mashama Bailey, and others. As the brilliant chef, writer, and Black culinary historian Thérèse Nelson said in acknowledgement of Michael Twitty’s win, “Awards are dope, but that this work lives forever is the real prize.” I cannot wait to watch this work inspire a new generation of chefs to tell their American story.
By Korsha Wilson
May 9, 2018
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