The finalists for the 2018 James Beard Foundations Awards were announced this week. It was a nonevent for most of Central Florida given that for the first time in decades there were no semifinalists among the nominees for Best Chef: South. But seeing how there has never — not once — been a local chef on the long list make it to the finals, we’re pretty much in the same spot we’re always in.
The South region includes Florida along with Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Puerto Rico, and Louisiana. And by Louisiana, I mean New Orleans. Here are this year’s finalists:
Vishwesh Bhatt, Snackbar, Oxford, MS
Nina Compton, Compère Lapin, New Orleans
Jose Enrique, Jose Enrique, San Juan, PR
Kristen Essig and Michael Stoltzfus, Coquette, New Orleans
Niven Patel, Ghee Indian Kitchen, Miami
Slade Rushing, Brennan’s, New Orleans
It’s interesting to note that in almost all other categories, only five finalists are listed. The South has six this year. There’s no notation indicating why, but it might be that there was a tie when judges submitted the first ballot. Or maybe the organizers threw in one extra finalists so that New Orleans wasn’t dominating the category.
Nah, they don’t care. Just take a look at Best Chef: Great Lakes. All five finalists are in Chicago, so bug off, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and anywhere else in Illinois. (Not incidentally or even coincidentally, the winners will be announced in Chicago on May 7.)
This is where I insert my annual rant about the unfair unevenness of the awards process. But certainly you have it memorized by now.
The areas surrounding New York City don’t have the same problem as the South and the Great Lakes. Heck, chefs in the rest of New York don’t have to worry about competing against the heavyweights. That’s because New York City and its five boroughs have their own category. That makes sense. Judges are admonished to “Only vote for a chef whose food you have eaten. Only vote for a restaurant you have dined in.” (It’s interesting phrasing, suggesting that judges may vote for chefs if they’ve eaten their food somewhere other than in the restaurant for which they are nominated.)
Knowing that, and knowing that the judging panel is made up mainly of restaurant critics and food journalist, the preponderance of nominees from cities traditionally known for their restaurant scene makes more sense. It doesn’t make it right.
It’s time for the Beard Foundation to recognize the imbalance in other traditional food destinations. New Orleans should have its own category. So should Chicago. And San Francisco and Los Angeles, for that matter.
And take heart, Central Florida. The passing of the liquor law exemption for a special downtown Orlando dining district is going to start attracting more talented chefs. More talented chefs will help elevate the area’s reputation as a food destination overall, even outside of downtown. That will help attract the attention of visiting voters.
But that will take time. In the meantime, let’s get the word out to talented and innovative chefs, whether local or not: Orlando is open for business, and we’re out to win a Beard Award for Best Chef: South.