Stories / Awards, Impact

From Moment to Movement

What comes after the 2018 James Beard Awards?

Mitchell Davis

June 06, 2018


No one who sat in the audience at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, watched the live Twitter feed at home, or read about the 2018 James Beard Awards this May could help but notice that something important had happened. After a year of shocking revelations of sexual harassment in the industry and a broader, ongoing understanding that not everyone has had a fair shot at achieving the attention and success they want and deserve, the nominees and winners of the 2018 Beard Awards were noticeably different from years past. Missing were some of the boldfaced names that we have come to expect as finalists for the industry’s most prestigious awards. In their place were more women, more chefs of color, and the representation of people and cuisines that have too often gone unrecognized.

This wasn’t an accident. The Foundation has been working on issues of equity and equality for some time. Years before the current dialogue around women's representation in leadership and ownership roles in our industry, we started the Women’s Culinary Leadership program, and more recently established our Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership program. The chefs who participate in our Chefs Boot Camps for Policy and Change are diverse not only in race and ethnicity, but also geographic location and the type of food service business they work in. The James Beard House has hosted a roundtable about LGBTQ issues in the industry, several conversations about sexual misconduct, and convenings around other issues that affect our community.

But as we watched the 2018 Beard Awards, we realized there was still so much more work to be done. Whether you believe the barriers to inclusion and diversity in our industry are rooted in media attention, access to capital, endemic racism and sexism, a militaristic culture of machismo, or intractable power structures that keep those who are oppressed down—and feel free to pick “all of the above”—as an organization that plays a role in determining what matters in food, we are aware of the responsibility we have both to change ourselves and to help others change.

In the past several months, we have been reviewing our programs, our awards procedures, and our internal structures to ensure the industry change we’re starting to witness is systemic and long-lasting. We’ll be announcing some updates in the coming months and in advance of October 2018, when the 2019 Beard Awards season kicks off with our annual open call for entries. We are engaging different stakeholders, different voices in this process, listening to, and taking to heart what everyone from our biggest supporters to our harshest critics are telling us, and focusing on what we can do as an organization to help create positive, lasting change in our industry.

We can't say that we will be able to implement all of the changes that are suggested, or that we will be a different organization starting tomorrow. What we can say is that we are committed to making changes in our organization, our programs, and our industry to ensure that America’s food culture is more inclusive, representative of the true mosaic of our people, and that within it we will work to make sure everyone has the opportunity to thrive. We are committed to making May 7, 2018, more than just a blip—to have it stand as a milestone on the journey toward a great American food culture.

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Mitchell Davis is executive vice president at the James Beard Foundation. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.