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The Beard Awards Need to Recognize Black Achievements

How to ensure diversity wasn't a one-time thing

Nicole Taylor

September 26, 2018

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Nicole Taylor Photo: Lade Ademu-John
Photo: Lade Ademu-John

Something was different at the 2018 James Beard Awards. More women, more people of color, and more diverse voices were recognized than ever before. But the question of whether this was evidence of more profound change taking place in our industry remained unanswered. As a leading organization of the food movement in the U.S., we wanted to do more to support equity in the industry and access to its highest honors.

For advice, we reached out to some of the most thoughtful, vocal members of our community to share their opinions about how the Beard Foundation could improve. Today we begin by publishing the first of a series of four op-eds that resulted from this outreach, and will continue to post throughout the week.  

As we digest the writers’ suggestions, we intend to operationalize several changes which we believe will have a substantive impact on the Awards and the industry. We will share changes to the policies and procedures for the 2019 James Beard Awards ahead of the “Open Call for Entry” on Monday, October 15, 2018. This is the beginning of a process, not the end, and we know there is much more work we can all do to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive.

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One night last May, I lay in bed re-reading Uplift the Race: the Construction of School Daze by Spike Lee and Lisa Jones, when a friend watching the Beard Awards ceremony live on Twitter texted me the names of the winning restaurants and chefs. I had been reading about how Spike Lee made the movie School Daze on a budget, how he was part of this cultural renaissance, and when I saw the year’s winners—with chefs Nina Compton, Edouardo Jordan, Rodney Scott, and Dolester Miles on the list—it felt like a whole new renaissance was bubbling up.

Days before at the Journalism Awards, wins by Michael Twitty, Osayi Endolyn, and the ghost of Princess Pamela had also given a universal “I see you” to black writers and cooks who toil in isolation. A time capsule was unburied. Generations of bakers whisking frothy buttermilk, men whacking down pecan or pimento trees for firewood, and dandy butlers polishing silver trays rose from our African diaspora graves. The 2018 James Beard Awards signified that black cooks, black writers—both dead or alive—mattered.

The wonderment of this year’s achievements shouldn’t be a once-in-a-blue-moon occasion. Why had this moment taken so long to come? There are two major reasons: the first is that the Beard Award categories—and the types of restaurants and publications nominated—don’t reflect the realities of today’s dining and media scenes.

My own infatuation with eating out started in Atlanta in the early 2000s. Swiping my orange-and-black Discover card at Canoe, Atlanta Fish Market, Two Urban Licks, and Pura Vida was a pastime. Rolling the names of those restaurants off my tongue denoted a certain level of cosmopolitan aptitude. At that time, black fine-dining chefs like Todd Richards, Duane Nutter, and the late Darryl Evans were Atlanta stars, but few people were paying attention. Back then, the only path to gain recognition as a chef was to work in a white tablecloth, fine-dining restaurant—the kind of restaurants with a high barrier to entry for young chefs. Fast forward 20 years later, and chefs Omar Tate, Greg Collier, Kia Damon, and Mike and Shyretha Sheats have gone out on their own, creating different kinds of spaces where excellence and creativity converge. In Charlotte, Brooklyn, Athens, and Tallahassee, supper clubs and pop-ups have replaced white tablecloth experiences. Not only are these sorts of eating experiences more representative of how people eat and consume food culture, but they’re a lot easier and less expensive for entrepreneurial chefs to launch. These are the sorts of spaces where the Beard Awards should look for nominees.

The media landscape has undergone a similar evolution. I’m a digital subscriber to the Charleston, South Carolina–based The Local Palate, to New York Magazine, and to the New York Times. I no longer receive mainstream glossies via snail mail. There were times when friends would gift me niche publications like Edible Hawaii; now they bring back titles like Whetstone and Crwn. I consume culinary podcasts and Instagram for savory rhubarb recipes, food books for tips on growing windowsill herbs, and articles on food apartheid. A movie night is inhaling United Shades of America’s “The Gullah” and Ugly Delicious’s “Fried Chicken” episodes. The definition of professional food writer has shifted—having a staff gig no longer denotes success. By the time magazines like Bon Appétit have published a piece on a restaurant trend, we’ve already heard about it on our favorite food podcast. Indie media makers are the new voices. Times have changed. The Beard Awards should reflect these changes.

There’s another reason that moments like this past year’s are so scarce, and one look at the people who are choosing the nominees and winners gives us a major clue: out of the 54 Beard Award committee members, fewer than six are black. If power is measured by who occupies a seat at the table, a person who looks like me has little influence.

To ensure the ongoing recognition of black achievements by the Beard Awards, we must take a closer look at the term limits and selection process of the individuals who make up each of the committees that select the nominees and winners of the award categories: broadcast media, books, journalism, design, and restaurant and chef awards.

As it stands, the committees or recognition programs are often brimming with individuals serving multiple three-year terms. The current bylaws state that “members serve staggered terms of one to three years” but doesn’t address what happens if members move from committee to committee. According to the James Beard Foundation governance structure, an additional group (bringing the total to eight) oversees the Awards program as a whole; this committee consists of the chairperson of each Awards category, members of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees, and members at large. A bylaw change to address the makeup of these groups will help to foster a permanent shift in voters and nominees.

In recent years, organizations like the Grammys and Academy Awards have addressed similar issues, after receiving criticism for the lack of diversity on their ballots (thanks in part to the #oscarssowhite campaign). In 2016, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences modified membership to mix up the pool of voters. This past May, the Recording Academy created a diversity and inclusion task force to “examine barriers affecting women and underrepresented voices”; the group includes former chairman and CEO of BET Networks Debra Lee and hip-hop artist Common.

I’m a believer that institutional knowledge anchors the ship. Our professional community needs infinite wisdom, plus a new leadership overhaul. Equality means making the system fair, and equity means transferring power. All of our collective culinary past and our future should see themselves reflected in the backbone of the James Beard Foundation Awards’s governing body: entrepreneurs from small rural towns; Caribbean souls planted in port cities; mature Southern black women; an East Coast–born man living in the Pacific Northwest; catering chefs running grassroots organizations: a food scientist turned stay-at-home mom.

The clock starts now.

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Do you have thoughts about how the culinary industry and/or the James Beard Foundation can be more inclusive? Please share your feedback with us at awards@jamesbeard.org.

Editor’s Note: Nicole Taylor has previously served as a judge for the James Beard Foundation Book Awards.

Nicole A. Taylor is a food writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She has written for Food & Wine, Esquire, and the New York Times. Nicole serves on the advisory board of EATT (Equity At The Table), a database for food-industry professionals featuring only women/gender non-conforming individuals and focusing primarily on POC and the LGBTQ community. Find her on Twitter.