US food industry Oscars aim for gender, race equality

NEW YORK • Aqui, in Houston, was not on a best new restaurant list because its chef, Paul Qui, is awaiting trial after a fight that left his girlfriend bloody.

The Hearth & Hound, a muchanticipated Los Angeles restaurant from chef April Bloomfield and her partner Ken Friedman, did not make the cut for best new restaurant either.

Several staff members said they were sexually abused and groped by Friedman and high-profile guests.

Just as with the Oscars and Grammys, the James Beard awards have become a litmus test at a moment when race and gender inequities are rising to the surface.

The James Beard Foundation's sprawling list of more than 400 semi-finalists - announced last week - for the best chefs, restaurants and restaurateurs in the United States - usually does not get much attention, except from the people on it.

The real action comes in May when the winners are announced.

This year is different.

The foundation, for the first time, advised the people who nominate and vote for the winners to add a new set of criteria. Contenders must possess "the values of respect, transparency, diversity, sustainability and equality".

A committee of 18 food writers, editors and producers were charged with sifting through 23,000 nominations - from regional judges, restaurants and the public - to create the semi-final list.

This year's list looks noticeably different from past lists, with 40 per cent of the nominees being women, up from 27 per cent last year. The nominees are also more egalitarian and culturally diverse. Barbecue pits, noodle shops and fried chicken stands rub shoulders with high-style restaurants such as Vespertine in Los Angeles and Cote, a Korean barbecue outlet in New York.

The changes dished up come amid a challenging year for the James Beard Foundation.

Some of its marquee award winners, including chefs Mario Batali, John Besh and Friedman, have been accused of sexual harassment or worse.

The foundation has been criticised for not taking enough action against race and gender imbalances in the industry.

There have been calls to strip medals from previous winners, which the foundation has declined to do.

Instead, past winners who have faced public charges of sexual harassment or abuse have been barred from voting from now on.

But the new recipe to win over critics may not be easy to master, at least initially.

During a radio talk show in Boston, food journalist Corby Kummer said instructions to bar people if there are doubts about behaviour or the culture of a restaurant are "really shaded and difficult".

But there is no doubt that it will be full steam ahead. "In another year and another awards cycle, after this initial period of pulling back, there is going to be a new normal for what has been proven, how it has been reported and what goes on everyone's best of lists," he added.

Anne Quatrano, the Atlanta chef who oversees the foundation's awards, agreed that judging the character of a chef or the culture of a restaurant could be challenging.

"That's why we are, in some ways, in an awkward position," she said.

"But really, it's just making sure we feel comfortable that people on that list have integrity and that those restaurants have good leaders and that everyone can thrive in their kitchens."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2018, with the headline 'US food industry Oscars aim for gender, race equality'. Subscribe