Stories / Awards

The James Beard Awards Turn 30

Mitchell Davis

February 11, 2020


James Beard Awards medallions photo by Eliesa Johnson
Photo: Eliesa Johnson

Thirty years. In food and restaurant years, that’s a long time. According to national labor stats, about as long, in fact, as the average food worker is old.

In 1990, when the James Beard Awards were established (the first medallions were given in 1991), there was no Food Network. Digital cameras were rare and expensive. Cell phone networks were only available in Finland and Japan. The first food blogs were still a decade away and social media was even farther off. There were no Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods. Molten chocolate cake was a novelty.

I started at the Beard Foundation in 1993, having missed just two Beard Awards ceremonies. When I look back over the 30-year history—the nominees, the winners, the events, and their coverage—with the benefit of hindsight, you can spot markers and milestones that foreshadowed the dynamic, delicious and ever-enlightening food and restaurant culture we have today.

An early challenge was getting folks to take food in America and “American food” seriously in the first place. During his life, James Beard certainly laid the groundwork. But much of the credit for legitimizing American restaurants on the global gastronomic stage goes to early James Beard Award–winning chefs, many of whom arrived from or studied in other places (namely France).

Since then, as American food, American restaurants, and American chefs have evolved, themes have emerged that reflect the dynamism and singularity of our nation’s food culture. A scan of the Beard Awards’s history of nominees and winners across all categories reveals some trends that have come to define the American culinary landscape and that provide the context for the work of the James Beard Foundation:

  • Growing participation and recognition of women in the industry
  • Increasing inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds
  • Professionalization of workplace culture
  • Mainstreaming of international cuisines
  • Casualization of fine-dining and the rise of fast-casual restaurants
  • Increased emphasis of plant-forward eating
  • Growing interest in local and sustainable sourcing, including seafood
  • Rise in value placed on authenticity and regional specificity
  • Increased influence of social media and citizen reviewers
  • Recognition of the interconnectedness of politics and food
  • Increasing value place on the craft of cooking and other food production
  • Acknowledgment of food and the restaurant industry’s power to make change

During the build up to the 2020 awards, we will be exploring these themes in various ways, looking at the past, present, and future of food in America. We will highlight moments that can be considered inflection points, indicators of change to come, new trends on the horizon, and others that mark the end of certain eras, passings of the torch, if you will. Of course, it’s easy to pick out indications of hope that, depending on your perspective, could be seen as mere tokens. Patrick Clark was the first African-American chef to win a Beard Award, way back in 1994. But it would be 25 more years before a new generation of Black chefs would be recognized for their excellence and achievements. Change doesn’t always come quickly.

As these same trends and topics continue to evolve—and others emerge—they will no doubt take us far into a delicious future. Provided, that is, we at the James Beard Foundation continue to deliver on our commitments to sustainability, gender equality, inclusion, equity, and access for all—in short, as we deliver on our mantra to support and celebrate Good Food For Good™.

Thank you for being with us on this important and delicious journey.

The 2020 James Beard Awards are presented by Capital One. Read the full release.

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Mitchell Davis is chief strategy officer at the James Beard Foundation. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.