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Vice committee chair for the 2022 James Beard Awards, Allecia Vermillion discusses the commitment to substantive change and the ebbs and flows that come with it.
Call it the waffle principle.
If I get served a burnt waffle at a well-known chef’s restaurant, I’ll likely tell friends about this sub-par experience. As a food writer, I might theoretically chronicle it in print. Aggrieved diners don’t usually place blame for kitchen mishaps on the line cooks, hustling and unseen, to keep up with endless brunch orders. They’re more likely to credit that regrettable waffle directly to the chef whose name is on the door—even if the person wasn’t even in the building that day.
This example framed one of many (and I mean many) discussions during the nine-month audit of the James Beard Awards and the processes that yield our winners. As a member of the Restaurant and Chef Awards committee, I sat in conversations with chefs, consultants, and members from the Books, Journalism, and Broadcast Awards committees. All of us had strong opinions on how to consider the character and culture of our honorees while keeping an unwavering focus on excellent food—be it a tasting menu, takeout carton, or DM-to-order pastries.
One idea we discussed was changing our regional Best Chef awards—perhaps honoring regional restaurants rather than individual chefs. This could cast an award’s shine across all the people whose talent and effort create the runway for this recognition.
A restaurant owner who participated in these conversations pushed back, hard. She posited the test case of a burnt waffle. The person whose name is on the building takes on enormous responsibility and receives the Yelp slings and arrows when things don’t go right. Inversely, when systems hum at the level that deserves an award, that person deserves it.
I don’t run restaurants; I write about them. Her perspective sticks in my mind these months later because it illuminated the limits of my own view. Then again, the locus of restaurant culture has shifted. It takes a community to survive a pandemic—and to conceive, prep, plate, and serve that waffle entrée.
That’s the level of discourse we brought to all aspects of the Awards over the past year. Of course, no amount of Zoom deliberation can match going through the semifinalist process in real time. Even nine intense months didn’t prove enough time to address everything that could be better. Before this, I assumed the Awards process was a monolith, enshrined in stone somewhere and adjusted only on occasions of magnitude. Now each committee knows we can tweak written rules each year as the industry evolves.
Thus far, with our new systems in place, this year’s Awards cycle has been a fitful sort of revelation. Different voices ask tough questions; the level of respect my committee retains, even amid vigorous deliberation, gives me the faith in humankind I don’t exactly get from news coverage of Congress these days.
Sometimes this process has sped along to hit necessary deadlines; other times things move agonizingly slow as ideas percolate through various parties. It’s hardly perfect. I sleep at night because the audit yielded this promise: if these carefully considered changes don’t have the necessary impact when we put them into practice, we will figure out how to make it better. If the call for change was mere window dressing, it wouldn’t be nearly this messy.
In the end, we decided to not rush any decision on our regional awards and will revisit the topic this summer, armed with the learnings of our first post-audit Award cycle. We’re sure to burn a few waffles along the way, but like a good restaurant, we’ll make it right.
Allecia Vermillion is the executive editor of Seattle Met magazine and oversees its food coverage. She serves as vice chair for the James Beard Restaurant and Chef committee.