The restaurant industry has been pummeled throughout the pandemic, but the latest casualty is not a permanent shuttering so much as a hiatus. For the first time in its 30-year history, the James Beard Foundation (JBF) will not be hosting its annual awards ceremony—at least not in the traditional sense.
Though Chicago’s shelter-in-place orders have loosened considerably since the earliest days of COVID-19, capacity restrictions would have still made the in-person event at the Lyric Opera of Chicago all but impossible. But rather than move to an online format as many special events and conferences have, JBF opted not to name any award winners. (The finalists across nearly 60 categories were announced in early May.)
Instead, the foundation will broadcast from Chicago, via Twitter, a ceremony that spotlights previously announced honorees in categories including America’s Classics, Lifetime Achievement, Humanitarian of the Year, Design Icon, and Leadership Awards on Friday, September 25.
While part of the decision can be chalked up to safety consideration (both for the gathering itself and for the travel involved for many to attend), it is also reflective of a more disturbing trend in the industry. Across the country, restaurants of all sizes and ages are closing for good in the face of insurmountable challenges brought on by the coronavirus.
“The uncertainty of this time for our industry is already a hard reality and considering anyone to have won or lost within the current tumultuous hospitality ecosystem does not in fact feel like the right thing to do,” said JBF CEO Clare Reichenbach in a statement. “An honor which we know is held in high regard, at the moment, feels minor when compared to the dire situation we are in. … We know that the right move is to step back and take stock of the nominees’ and honorees’ achievements.”
The foundation made another, albeit more preemptive, decision regarding its programming for next year. Because nominations are based on the previous calendar year, JBF will forgo its usual awards ceremony in 2021. Instead, the ceremony, which is slated to take place next May in Chicago, will showcase the industry’s resiliency and the leaders who have led the charge at a time when full-service, independent restaurants are most vulnerable.
The announcement regarding JBF’s events coincided with another news item, namely that it is beginning a year-long audit of its award processes. In a statement, the foundation asserted that the goal of this new initiative is to identify and root out systemic bias within the organization itself. The audit comes a month after an anonymous group of JBF employees sent a disparaging letter to senior leadership. At the heart of the letter were allegations that the foundation was not committed to diversity and inclusivity within its own ranks or in its public-facing programming.
Per a statement from the foundation, the audit will cover both internal and external operations with the intent to “address any bias and align the awards with the foundation’s mission of promoting sustainability, equity, and diversity in the restaurant industry.”
The foundation also announced that it has added chef, restaurateur, podcast host, and author Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, California, to the James Beard Award Committee. Though this was not explicitly linked to the systemic bias audit, the addition does fall in line with the anonymous letter’s demand for more high-level diversity within the organization.