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Why We’re Announcing the 2020 James Beard Award Nominees Now

Mitchell Davis

May 01, 2020

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Nominee tag on the red carpet photo Eliesa Johnson
Photo: Eliesa Johnson Photography

With millions of restaurant staff furloughed or laid off, kitchens retooled to feed frontline healthcare workers, and the uncertainty of when, how, and even if most restaurants across the United States will ever reopen, you may be wondering why we decided to move forward with the 2020 James Beard Awards—beginning with our nominee announcement this coming Monday, May 4.

Originally slated for a March 25 ceremony in Philadelphia, this year’s nominee announcement was intended to kick off the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the James Beard Awards. The Restaurant and Chef Award semifinalists had already been released on February 26. All of the work of judging and balloting for the nominees had been done and we were just waiting for the date to come to make the nominees known.

As the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on everything—and especially on the restaurant industry, which was the target of the first government-mandated closures—began to take hold, it was clear that not only was a special event in Philadelphia not possible, no one in the distressed restaurant community would be able to take their focus off of the urgencies at hand.

Preserving the health and safety of staff and clientele while keeping their businesses afloat became every chef and restaurateur’s top priority (ours, too). Almost immediately, the Beard Foundation pivoted our programming to focus on rebuilding a more resilient industry and supporting individual restaurants in need. We became a founding partner of the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), a newly formed lobby group intended to represent the unique needs of independent restaurants in the politics of Washington. We established the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund to make $15,000 emergency grants to restaurants, and $4 million in grants has been distributed to date. We also started a robust program of online education and events to bring experts, advice, and a sense of collective community to bear on the unprecedented challenges facing the restaurant industry.

While this new programming direction took hold, the question of what to do about the 2020 Beard Awards persisted. We consulted with chefs, restaurateurs, and industry professionals from across the country to get their perspective on what the industry wanted and needed right now.

It was clear that those whose work in 2019 led them to be selected as a semifinalist—and perhaps ultimately a nominee or a winner—deserved the recognition they earned. Those we consulted felt the Awards could also offer a glimmer of hope to an industry looking for light in a very dark time. We decided to proceed with a virtual ceremony, announcing the nominees on May 4, the date originally intended for our 30th anniversary ceremony and celebration in Chicago.

What comes next—the announcement of the winners—is still a work in progress. The situation across the industry remains dire. The Beard Foundation itself is not immune from the effects of the pandemic, having shuttered the James Beard House and made the difficult decision to implement two waves of staff furloughs. Like the restaurant industry, the media industry has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, and yet their reporting has never been more valuable.

With social distancing, self-quarantine, and travel bans still in effect across the country, the timing and format of any in-person event remains a bit of a continuous unknown. We want every James Beard Award winner to have a chance to have their moment in the spotlight. We have partners who support this industry, who support the Foundation, who are willing to work with us to figure out what’s best for all. And we are aiming to announce the winners of the Restaurant and Chef and Restaurant Design Awards from Chicago later this year.

One thing we know for certain: the innovation, creativity, and mettle of the restaurant community will be key to its recovery. What’s more, so many more people now understand the true economic, social, and cultural value of their local restaurants. They literally make our neighborhoods, our local economies, our food culture come alive. And for that, we celebrate all of them.

Learn more about our efforts to help independent restaurants #openforgood.

Tune into our nominee announcement on Twitter at 4:00 P.M. ET.

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