by Eric Barton | September 8, 2020

Can We Really Salvage the James Beard Awards?

As the foundation that runs America’s most venerated restaurant awards rethinks its process, it’s time to wonder why Florida and chefs of color keep getting snubbed.

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The dining room at Ariete in Miami, led by chef Michael Beltran. A Florida chef hasn’t won a James Beard Award since 2010. Photography courtesy of Ariete

The New York Times came to town in 2008, and Scott Joseph hoped Orlando would finally get some recognition.

Joseph reviewed local restaurants for the Orlando Sentinel for 20 years. Now he runs the city’s definitive dining guide, the suitably named Scott Joseph’s Orlando Restaurant Guide. It’s frustrating, he says, to try to bring attention to Orlando’s dining scene when most people visiting the world’s No. 1 tourist destination just end up at soulless International Drive chains or eating overpriced theme park chicken fingers.

But things looked promising when Times food critic Florence Fabricant showed up. Her article, titled “Call It Disney’s Food Kingdom,” promised to dive deep into the possibility of actually eating well while taking her granddaughters to Disney. The article ended with the last meal she ate in Orlando, at Victoria & Albert’s in the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, a restaurant Joseph says might be the city’s finest. Fabricant, it seemed, was not impressed. Even though the place is known for its multicourse, all-night chef’s tasting menus, the New York writer dismissed it as too long and expensive. “It was not a disaster,” was the best praise she could offer. 

The whole tone of the article was that she luckily didn’t have to spit out what she was eating, that she was so surprised to actually eat decent food in Orlando.
— Scott Joseph

The article left Joseph feeling like his city suffered from a drive-by critique by a writer who didn’t bother going off Disney property. Looking back on that article now with disdain, Joseph told me, “The whole tone of the article was that she luckily didn’t have to spit out what she was eating, that she was so surprised to actually eat decent food in Orlando.”

This snobbery against Florida reaches farther than Orlando. Chefs and food critics routinely pass over our restaurant scene. It happens yearly, when the nation’s top critics get together to hand out awards to the best chefs. In the past 10 contests, Florida chefs have been roundly, and oddly, snubbed by the James Beard Awards.

On Aug. 20, the James Beard Foundation announced it would cancel this year’s awards, originally scheduled for a Sept. 25 online announcement, and skip 2021’s. The foundation has promised it would use this time to “remove any systemic bias” from the process. While the foundation wasn’t specific on what kind of bias it identified, undoubtedly the winners over the past 30 years have been largely white, mostly men—and undoubtedly, that needs to change. 

But before the awards restart in 2022, the Beard Foundation also needs to ask why Florida has been so wholly passed over. In the last 10 contests, Florida chefs have captured no regional award for best chef in the South. They’ve also received just two nominations in national categories, when Hedy Goldsmith made it to the nominee round for Best Pastry Chef in 2012 and 2013. To be clear, not one Florida chef has won a James Beard Award since Miami’s Michael Schwartz took home a regional award in 2010.

As a former James Beard judge myself, I can attest to the built-in bias of the selection process, whether it be for race or region. Each year, I’d watch as the Florida chefs named in the semifinals failed to advance to the “nominee” stage. Joseph felt the same way, believing so strongly that the awards had become biased against Florida that, in May 2019, he wrote a blog post cutting his ties to an award he had participated in since its founding 30 years ago.

The foundation declined to make its staff available for interviews for this article, instead sending answer to questions by email. The response in part promises that it will be conducting a thorough review of its processes to remove “biases as we work to diversify the pool of candidates and nominees across the regions.” To understand the process better, we spoke to dozens of food writers and chefs who have volunteered for the James Beard Foundation, many of whom had to agree to a confidentiality agreement that forbade them from openly discussing the awards.

So, why would the nation’s third-most populous state, with a vibrant food scene in many cities, be shut out by what are regarded as the most prestigious culinary awards in the country? 

The answers might point to a far bigger problem with the yearly contest, an issue that might justify no longer paying attention to the James Beard Awards.

THE RISE OF THE MANGO GANG

Norman Van Aken (pictured in 1997 when he won best chef in the Southeast) is one of the few chefs in Florida who has taken home a James Beard Award. Photography courtesy of Norman Van Aken

One stunning winter morning in 1986, Norman Van Aken carried an espresso to the dock overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Louie’s Backyard, the Key West restaurant where he was head chef. He had a notebook beside him as he awaited inspiration about the day’s specials. Even then, Van Aken had an impressive cookbook collection, and he stacked five or six next to him for reference. 

A boat came into his vision, off to the right, sailing away from Florida. He wondered where they were headed—Cuba, maybe—and what they would eat when they got there. That’s when he had an epiphany, when he decided to rethink the cosmopolitan hodgepodge of dishes then served by most Florida chefs. 

Van Aken began shopping at Caribbean bodegas on the island to find new ingredients. At the mom-and-pop restaurants in town, he’d ask about the ingredients of each dish. “I changed my chart,” Van Aken recalls. “I changed my point of direction.”

With an undeniably professorial way about him, Van Aken took two years to recalibrate. Finally, he filled his menu with foods of Florida and the Caribbean. At first, customers questioned black beans and plantains at a fine dining restaurant. “Taste it,” he would say. “This is white-tablecloth food.”

Van Aken was one of several Florida chefs in the 1990s who would come to redefine the state’s cuisine. Nowadays we call them the Mango Gang. Their movement may have faded into obscurity if not for recognition from what was then a new award being handed out by the James Beard Foundation. 

The foundation’s chef awards began in 1990 as a way to honor James Beard, the celebrated cookbook author. Beard had made it his life’s goal to recognize what was special about American cuisine, a phrase that previously held little esteem, and so it seemed appropriate that an award carrying his name would identify the country’s best chefs.

In 1992, the Mango Gang’s Mark Militello scored the title of best chef in the South/Southeast region, beginning two decades of multiple awards for Floridians. Van Aken would score several top awards, winning the regional award for best chef in 1997 and induction into the Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America in 2003.

In 1994, Miami’s Allen Susser took home the award for best chef in the South/Southeast region. The award was recognition, he says now, that the country had begun to pay attention to Florida cuisine. It’s true that back then, like many people, I went to Miami to eat ropa vieja at spartan Cuban lunch counters or matzo balls at Wolfie’s deli, not at white tablecloth restaurants. Susser says the Mango Gang set out specifically to change that, creating a food scene that simply hadn’t existed, defined by the foods available locally, a precursor to the farm-to-table movement.

Chef Allen Susser was part of the movement to put Florida’s cuisine on the map. Photography by Bernd Rac

“Twenty-five years ago, we were figuring out what spices were available here, what fresh fish we could find, what tropical fruits were available. It was a complete discovery,” he says. 

Things began to change for the James Beard Awards, and for Florida, after the 2004 arrest of Leonard F. Pickell Jr., the foundation’s former president. Pickell, who had taken over leadership of the foundation in 1995, had embezzled $1 million from the organization. He died in 2007 after pleading guilty to second-degree grand larceny and receiving a prison sentence of one to three years. Pickell left the nonprofit in major debt and facing criticism for rampant spending on lavish trips and meals. In an effort to rethink the awards going forward, the James Beard Foundation decided to make chefs part of the awards process by including past winners as judges.

The process begins by soliciting, from regional writers and the public, the names of chefs deserving of the awards. Those names get whittled down into a ballot sent out, according to the foundation, to 600 judges, whose names are kept secret by the foundation. 

The problem with that process is that places that have benefitted from James Beard Awards in the past decade have ended up with far too many judges. Chefs from those cities, it seems, vote for each other, creating an imbalance in our region that favors New Orleans over Florida. Since the changes, Florida chefs have received little attention from the awards. In the last 10 contests, Florida has just two national awards: Juvia in Miami for restaurant design and Bern’s Steak House in Tampa for its wine program—neither of which represent the work of a Florida chef. When asked about Florida continually getting passed over, the foundation responded by email: “As you know, The Foundation itself does not vote on the semi-finalists, nominees or Award winners. The Awards Committee and Subcommittees, made up of volunteer members from within the broader food, restaurant, and media industries, ultimately decide the outcome. To that point, the regional Best Chef categories have undergone several geographic shifts in the past to account for demographic changes found in our research and our experience with the dynamic culinary communities around the country.”

SNUBBED BY SNOBBERY

Chef Niven Patel (above) of Miami’s Ghee has received national acclaim, outside of the James Beard Foundation. Photography by Ruben Pictures

John Lehndorff, a veteran food journalist in Colorado, says he was one of the first Beard judges back in the 1990s. From the start, he says the judges consisted of essentially an identical demographic. “From the beginning this whole thing was run by old white guys who leaned toward French cuisine. It was the big names, very New York oriented, a lot of snobbery to it, very few women chefs who got awards, very few chefs of color who won awards,” Lehndorff says.

In recent years, the Beard Foundation claimed to be making strides toward racial diversity, and the efforts did result in more women and people of color making it to the semifinalist list. The problem was that voters didn’t advance them to the nominee stage, keeping the Beard winners consisting largely of white men, even in an industry that has made strides in the last generation to diversify its top positions. 

All of this culminated this year in a cancellation of the contest without a clear reason why. An article in The New York Times claims the foundation had already tallied the names of winners when the vote was called off, in part because the list included no black people—and not for the first time. 

In its written response, the foundation indicated its governing body has realized it needs to improve its process. “It is not a secret that we believe that there is work to be done in adapting our Awards policies to have a more fair and equitable playing field. If this means changing the way things have been done in the past, adapting judging privileges that have likely perpetuated bias, and taking a stronger stance on nominee behaviors that violate our guidelines, we are ready to do that for the betterment of the Awards and the community they serve. That’s what the next year and the planned audit will be all about.”

As a judge in 2018 and 2019, I was continually frustrated by how things went down, and so were several of the former and current judges who spoke to me for this article. Even though I submitted multiple names of Florida chefs, few made it past the semifinalist round. This was especially true on the ballot in 2018, when the only Florida chef to be named a nominee was Miami’s Brad Kilgore of Alter. It wasn’t that more Florida chefs weren’t qualified—it was simply that they didn’t advance to the finals. 

Along with Kilgore, the ballot included restaurants and chefs from across the nation, and it always baffled me that I could vote for any of them, with no proof needed whether I had been. After a vacation to Oregon, I could’ve voted for the few places I visited, with absolutely no idea how they compare to others in the four-state Northwest & Pacific region. Bias isn’t any less likely here, where Florida is in a region that includes five Southern states and Puerto Rico. While I have eaten at many of the most notable South Florida restaurants, I’m admittedly woefully under-informed on the dining scene in other regions in my own state. I felt continually troubled when asked to decide whether Miami chefs deserved awards, even as I heard stories, for instance, of the growing Tampa Bay food scene.

The problem isn’t just that judges are being asked to vote on restaurants without any clear indication of how they compare nationally. At some point in the past few years, the balance of power among Beard Foundation judges shifted. Since the Great Recession and the implosion of the media industry, the number of food writers has dropped precipitously, while the number of former Beard Award winners has increased, meaning they likely make up a greater proportion of judges even as they may do less travel than food writers. This change, multiple people involved in the awards told me, created a flawed process that unfairly favors a handful of cities. San Francisco dominates the California region, for instance, and Charleston and Atlanta overshadow good food scenes in the six-state Southeast region. 

You can’t round up 400 people and take them on a massive road trip across the country to eat at every restaurant. It’s never going to be perfect.
— Kathleen Purvis

Kathleen Purvis, the former food editor at the Charlotte Observer, says the issue is that tourist centers simply get more attention than they used to. Purvis is now (like me and many journalists who once worked for corporate journalism outlets) a freelance writer. Previously, she spent 18 years as a Beard judge on several committees, ultimately serving as special liaison for the Awards Committee before stepping down two years ago. Back in the days when newspapers were flush with cash, Purvis can recall food writers flying to New York or Los Angeles for lavish meals covered by expense accounts, giving them a deep knowledge of the nation’s food scene. Nowadays, the awards rely on food writers traveling almost exclusively on their own dime, something required in these days of shrinking newsroom budgets and salaries. And if writers are traveling, it’s unlikely to be to a place like Charlotte, where most visitors come on business and end up at a chain steakhouse.

To combat the problem with some cities receiving too many awards and places like Florida getting ignored, the foundation several years ago moved some of its meetings to other cities, like San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Bangor, Maine. It exposes the Beard awards committee to new destinations, but it’s far from a fix, something Purvis acknowledges would be difficult to achieve. “You can’t round up 400 people and take them on a massive road trip across the country to eat at every restaurant,” Purvis says. “When people criticize that inability to see the whole country, my response is, ‘How do you fix that?’ It’s never going to be perfect.”

What the foundation could do instead is operate like other restaurant contests, which do far more to check the credentials and dining history of its judges. To produce the Michelin Guide, for instance, a panel of about 120 inspectors comb the globe anonymously in a rigid process that Michelin claims keeps out bias and gives judges a deep breadth of knowledge. It’s simply not possible to expect journalists and chefs to do the same on their own dime. And it’s not that the James Beard Foundation couldn’t figure out a way to pay for such a change. According to the foundation’s 2019 audit, its previous cash flow issues are well behind it. Corporate sponsorships of the awards have helped the foundation amass assets of $7.18 million. Much of that comes from the events the foundation holds related to the awards, bringing in $4 million alone. 

While I’ve never been, those awards ceremonies are reportedly a time when the country’s finest chefs and food writers all find themselves in the same room. For the past decade, Florida writers and chefs have rarely had reason to go. It’s New Orleans that dominates our region, and several involved in the awards say a cabal of Louisiana chefs who have won every year but one for the past decade continue to vote for others from their city. As the number of Florida winners stays constant, the number of the state’s food writers has declined, putting fewer votes out for our chefs. 

Susser, who gets a ballot every year as a former winner, says the snub shows a bigger problem. “I’m really surprised that no one has won in Florida for over 10 years. That’s really a shocker,” he told me. “This past year getting shut out so completely, it was odd. That was really odd.” 

The imbalance in the number of voters isn’t the only reason Florida keeps getting ignored by the James Beard Awards. Actually, it may be a far more local issue.

FLORIDA AGAINST THE WORLD

Some chefs, like Michael Beltran (above), believe it’s the perception of Florida that gets Sunshine State chefs shut out of the awards. Photography by Jaclyn Rivas

Just recently, Miami-bred chef Michael Beltran had a new line of hats and T-shirts printed up. “Miami Against the World,” they say, and it’s a sentiment he says sums up the bias that has always existed against Florida and its second-largest city.

The James Beard Awards are a great example of that, Beltran says. This year, Beltran landed on the James Beard Awards semifinalist list for the best chef in the South title. But the eventual nominees didn’t include any Florida chefs—one finalist was from Puerto Rico, and four out of five were from New Orleans.

It’s not that New Orleans isn’t a great food city. Beltran and other Florida chefs I talked to agree on that. “But we get snubbed year after year after year,” Beltran says. “It’s not because we’re not good enough, it’s because of the perception of our city and state.”

Perhaps part of this is an anti-Florida bias. Undoubtedly, the rest of the country likes to think of us as America’s dangling appendage, home to the Florida Man. There are those out there who, when they think Florida food, think of Tampa-bred Outback Steakhouse and, I’m sorry to remind you of this, Hooters.

We get snubbed year after year after year. It’s not because we’re not good enough, it’s because of the perception of our city and state.
— Michael Beltran

It’s not just that, though. The reason, many chefs say, is that our local tourism boards generally don’t promote the food scenes here. In Florida, Beltran says, tourism promotions concentrate on the beach instead of what’s being done by chefs from Coconut Grove, Wynwood or the Design District. “It’s mind-blowing to me that they don’t focus on the strengths of the city, and one of the strengths of the city is food.” Meanwhile, tourism boards in other cities take out full-page ads in food magazines to promote locally grown restaurants. Those promotions make an impression on Beard judges, many involved in the contest say, creating the perception that a select few places are culinary destinations. 

Several current and former volunteers for the Beard awards told me that the tendency of some cities to win disproportionately has become a perhaps fatal flaw in the process. In 2015, the event that announces the James Beard Awards moved to Chicago, and will remain there through 2027. This year, Chicago had 19 semifinalists and eight nominees, including a sweep of the best chef awards for the Great Lakes region.

Colorado is among the places that have seen better results because of promotional efforts, says John Lehndorff, who writes for Boulder Weekly and hosts “Radio Nibbles” on KGNU. As a Beard judge, Lehndorff became increasingly frustrated on behalf of the talented Boulder and Denver chefs who got ignored in favor of chefs from cities with better-known food scenes. That changed when local officials began promotional efforts like Denver Restaurant Week, which Lehndorff wholeheartedly supports. Meanwhile, Boulder started promoting itself as “America’s foodiest town.” The efforts resulted in Beard nominations and wins, including 18 semifinalist listings and six nominees this year—a success for Colorado, but also an indication that Florida’s lack of foodie promotions has hurt our chefs’ chances in the Beard awards. 

While many Beard volunteers declined to speak publicly because they had signed confidentiality agreements with the James Beard Foundation, Hanna Raskin offered up a defense of the awards. Raskin is a respected, longtime food critic, currently at the The Post and Courier in Charleston; she has served on the Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee. When asked prior to this year’s awards announcement if there are problems with the awards that make them illegitimate, she said, “I mean, that’s for the public to say, not for me, because I’m part of the process. I don’t think it makes it illegitimate in any way because the rules are transparent and announced.” After the cancelation of this year’s James Beard Awards, Raskin told the Times she was “troubled by the lack of process and transparency.” 

Raskin did acknowledge that “there are some powerhouses,” like her current city, while other places, including Florida, get shot down. Chicago “has an advantage” by hosting the awards, she says. Beard judges who attend the Foundation’s events naturally go out to eat, meaning they’re simply more exposed to restaurants in those cities. 

That shouldn’t entirely discount the heft of the awards, Raskin says. Instead, she offers that the Foundation still recognizes great restaurants. “I would hope that you look at who won in the South. These are talented, deserving people.”

There are also those who say Florida’s neglect by the James Beard Awards might be a sign that we’ve got work to do. Van Aken maintains that too many Florida restaurants present menus that could just as easily stand in Milan or New York or Los Angeles, with no sense of place. Even if they’re serving high-quality dishes, it makes our scene here less unique, he says. 

Florida restaurants simply don’t stack up to the ones that are winning, attests Laura Reiley, the former Tampa Bay Times critic who’s now writing about the business of food for The Washington Post. Since the pandemic, Reiley has worked remotely from Florida, and she’s been reminded of the problems Florida restaurateurs face.

Eric Barton believes there are a host of Florida chefs crafting inventive, locally sourced menus deserving of a James Beard Award, such as Boia De in Little Haiti (pictured above). Photography by David Bley

The biggest knock against our restaurants is that they’re playing it too safe. “We would be Alabama without tourists,” Reiley says. “And what do tourists want? They come to the beach. They’ve got flip-flops on, wearing some cockamamie Bermuda shirt, and they’re not necessarily looking for chef-driven restaurants.” Chefs here, Reiley says, don’t serve “gastronomically ambitious” menus, unlike the “renegade moxie” of chefs in cities like Minneapolis or Richmond, Virginia.

There’s also the fact that restaurants in cities like New York benefit from having multiple seatings per night, while a chef-driven spot in Florida may only have one or two. More seatings allow New York restaurants to have the best servers and ingredients. Yes, Reiley concedes there have been great strides in cities across the state, like in Tampa-St. Pete, where cheaper rents have allowed more chef-driven menus to flourish. But do we actually stack up to cities elsewhere? “When you’re talking about the best in the country in a particular arena, best chef or sommelier, it’s hard to do it unless you have really deep pockets.” 

With respect to Reiley, there’s an argument that disputes the idea that Florida restaurants remain too staid. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Florida was continually winning awards, we had just a handful of great chefs. Now, there are dozens of Florida chefs and restaurants that I’d argue are putting out novel menus largely sourced locally, the kind of food that would make their restaurants succeed elsewhere, too. Just looking at South Florida, which is what I know best, I’m thinking of the entirely original mishmash of cultures presented at the eponymous hole-in-the-wall restaurant from Chef Timon Balloo in downtown Miami; or the creative, whatever-they-want-to-cook menu from the pair of wildly talented chefs running Boia De in Little Haiti; or the inventive Nikkei-inspired plates at the Design District’s Itamae.

Despite cooking for Oprah, Kenny Gilbert still struggled to get food writers to his restaurants in Northeast Florida. Photography by Kristen Penoyer

Consider also North Floridian Kenny Gilbert, a cook so good the Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island promoted him to chef de cuisine when he was just 23. Appearing on Top Chef made him known, and then cooking for Oprah—for five years now—sure has helped his cred. When we talked by phone, he was taking a break from shooting a segment for the Vice Media channel Munchies. Gilbert says that in one instance he ran into a national food writer at an industry event and invited him to his restaurants in Jacksonville and Amelia Island. The reaction was a resounding no thanks. The writer explained that he would never travel to Northeast Florida, planning instead to go to Miami or Orlando if he were to visit the Sunshine State. Gilbert says he couldn’t help think the response was, at least in part, due to the color of his skin, something he’s discussed publicly in a way the industry needs. 

“The whole thing needs to be blown up,” Gilbert says. “The whole thing shouldn’t be a popularity contest. The intentions are good, but the system is flawed.”

Florida as a whole has been locked out, but this is especially true when you look at chefs working in smaller markets. “I know people who are doing really great food, and they just get snubbed,” Gilbert says. 

And then there’s Miami’s Niven Patel. Here’s a chef who changed the way many of us think about Indian cuisine in America, using produce from his own Homestead farm to make it fresher and more vibrant. He recently scored a feature in The New York Times, and Food & Wine magazine named him one of the best new chefs of 2020. Yet when it comes to the Beard awards, he can’t get out of the semifinalist stage. The fact that Patel doesn’t have a wall of Beard awards is, to me, proof alone of an anti-Florida bias.

The whole thing needs to be blown up. The intentions are good, but the system is flawed.
— Kenny Gilbert

Susser agrees that Florida’s food scene needs more attention. He says we’re a state that’s far more “mature as a culinary destination” today than we were back when we were picking up Beard awards 25 years ago. There aren’t just great restaurants in Florida cities, there are great restaurants clustered in individual neighborhoods, Susser says. In Miami, that includes sophisticated spots, like Brad Kilgore’s Alter, and also mom-and-pop shops producing incredible foods. (Among the best things I ate in the last year was the humble Cuban hamburger, Frita Traditional, from El Mago de Las Fritas.)

It’s important to note, too, that a James Beard Award isn’t just about recognition. For those Mango Gang chefs who got them back in the day, the awards created instant celebrity, allowing for TV appearances, cookbooks and multiple restaurant locations. The Florida chefs passed over for the past decade have had to forge ahead without this help. 

Among them is Brandon McGlamery, whose Orlando restaurants Luma on Park, Luke’s Kitchen and Bar, and Prato should be getting far more attention. McGlamery has been a semifinalist twice for awards but never made it to the list of nominees. 

“People ask me, ‘Do the James Beard Awards matter much?’ It matters if you’re on them,” McGlamery says. “And if you are, it matters the world.”

He says it was humbling to be a semifinalist, and he’s proud of that accomplishment. But it also irks him that he and his fellow Florida chefs—he mentions Jeremy Ford, Ferrell Alvarez, Brad Kilgore and more—continue to get brushed off by the Beard Awards. 

“If you look at New Orleans, they have so many people in that area who can have a vote,” McGlamery says. “I would love nothing more than to see one of my peers and colleagues from Florida take best chef in the South, and we do not get to that stage. You see the same people from New Orleans get focused on consistently, and they’re not doing anything different than what we’re doing. Do we get snubbed as a city [of Orlando] and as a state? Yes. We’re the fastest-growing state, and we have the talent here.” 

For himself, McGlamery figures he’s past the stage where he might win an award. He has talented chefs working the line in his kitchens, and he says it’s their names he wants to elevate. Perhaps he has decided that the Beard Awards aren’t for him, and maybe not for Florida.

“We need to get the respect of our customers,” McGlamery says, “and that means so much more than an award.”

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