The finalists for this year's James Beard Awards — the first with a full slate of nominees and actual awards given since 2019 — are now out, and the Bay Area is well represented both in the California and national categories.
In light of the apocalypse faced by the hospitality industry in 2020, the James Beard Foundation declined to hold a ceremony or bestow awards — though they did, confusingly, put out a list of finalists in May 2020 before announcing the awards were canceled. The 2021 awards didn't happen for a host of other reasons, and a reckoning that began at the foundation continued into last year, with the entire restaurant industry facing the simultaneous reckonings with racial equality and the way recognition is doled out in the American food world, and with the mistreatment of restaurant workers — especially, but not only, women — that had long gone unaddressed.
As Eater reported in June 2021, this all "happened in a sort of slow-motion train wreck of crises," and the foundation vowed to audit itself before moving forward. The goal, they said, was the revision of "a code of ethics, composition of committees and judges, criteria for winners, and developing policies and procedures for unforeseen events,” all aiming to “ensure a more transparent and equitable process for the future."
While we can't know what went on behind the scenes in terms of the nominating committee or this year's process, the result is a slate of finalists/nominees that is noticeably more diverse than probably ever in the history of these awards — sometimes called "the Oscars of the food world," and we all know the Oscars have been having a reckoning of their own over diversity in recent years.
In the Outstanding Chef category, for instance, which has long been a who's who of well established chef names, a majority of them white, and only in the last decade has included about an equal number of women, we for the first time have three out of six finalists who are women of color. The nominees are: Reem Assil, Reem's; Mashama Bailey, The Grey, Savannah, GA; Peter Chang, Peter Chang, VA and MD; Jason Vincent, Giant, Chicago; Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, Joule, Seattle.
The category of Emerging Chef, formerly "Rising Star," this year includes Crystal Wahpepah, of the Native American-inspired Wahpepah's Kitchen in Oakland. Also, there is Angel Barreto of DC's Anju; Calvin Eng of Bonnie's in New York; Cleophus Hethington from Benne on Eagle in Asheville, NC; Serigne Mbaye of Dakar Nola in New Orleans; and Edgar Rico of Nixta Taqueria in Austin, TX.
Oakland's much acclaimed Horn BBQ made the finalist list for Best New Restaurant — a category that this year includes 11 finalists across the country.
And the Best Chef: California category this year includes all Asian finalists, in another first for these awards. The nominees are SF's own Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu's; Pim Techamuanvivit of Kin Khao and Nari in SF; Commis chef James Syhabout in Oakland; and a pair of Los Angeles chefs, Bryant Ng of Cassia in Santa Monica, and Sarintip “Jazz” Singsanong of Jitlada.
This year, the James Beard Foundation’s highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, is going to famed Bay Area chef and TV personality Martin Yan. The award is mean to honor one "whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, and/or think about food in America."
And last but not least, the other big Bay Area honoree is SF classic House of Prime Rib, which landed a nod in the category of Outstanding Hospitality.
The Restaurant and Chef Awards (which are held separately from the foundation's cookbook and journalism prizes) are being held again in Chicago on June 13, and tickets are going on sale March 20 here.
The full national list can be found here.