The James Beard Foundation is instituting a major change in the judging process for its restaurant and chef awards this year. To wit: The judges will now actually visit the restaurants and taste the food of the chefs.
That might seem like a no brainer, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that that has always been the case. And it kinda sorta was, but not really.
Let me explain.
From the time the JBF Awards were initiated, in 1991, instantly becoming a sought-after coveted prize, the restaurant and chef categories were determined by panels of judges comprised of restaurant critics, food editors and other culinary experts. They made the initial recommendations for nominees, voted to cull the list to 20 or so semifinalists (choosing up to five favorites in each category), then ultimately voted on one of five finalists to determine the lucky winner.
(I was a charter judge and remained one for over 30 years but ended my relationship with the organization a few years ago; more on that in a moment.)
But the judges only had to attest that they had eaten in the restaurant OR tasted the nominated chef’s food. It did not matter if that restaurant visit or food consumption occurred last week or 10 years ago. There was also no attestation about where the food was consumed, maybe at the restaurant or at a charity food event the chef was attending. And judges could vote for restaurants outside their own regions. So judges could, in theory and certainly in practice, vote for a restaurant in, say, New Orleans that they visited and enjoyed several years ago without considering another nominee in, say, Orlando. (Both cities are in the South Region Best Chef category.)
A few years ago, the initial recommendation phase was opened up to accept nominations from anyone – restaurant owners, the dining public, a chef’s friends and relatives – with semifinal selections made by the official judges but still not requiring contemporaneous visits to the nominated restaurants.
But now that has changed.
“What happens now is we assign the judges to go out to semifinalists in their respective regions to experience” those restaurants, said Dawn Padmore, vice president of awards for the Beard Foundation. (Her position is new, another among a list of ongoing changes.) “And this is to really bolster the strength of the awards process.”
After the visits to the semifinalist, according to Padmore, who spoke with me from her office in Greenwich Village Friday, the judges vote and the list of five finalists for each region is announced. Then there is another round of tastings. “And then they vote again,” she said. “And that’s the new process.”
Padmore wouldn’t go into other aspects of the process, what she called the “gory details.” Such as: do the judges have a full dining experience with multiple courses or do they sit at the bar and have an appetizer and call it a day? Are the judges reimbursed for their visits? How many judges in each region, and are there the same number of judge visits to, say, New Orleans nominees as there are to, say, the Orlando nominee?
(Henry Moso of Kabooki Sushi is the sole Best Chef – South semifinalist from Central Florida; 10 New Orleans chefs are on the long list, representing seven restaurants there. Besides Florida and Louisiana, the South region includes Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Puerto Rico. Johnny and Jimmy Tung, owners of the Bento empire of restaurants, are semifinalists for Outstanding Restaurateur, a national category that likely would not involve visits from judges.)
still have questions but I applaud the foundation for moving in the right direction. The lack of fresh visits to restaurants as a requirement for voting was one of the reasons I decided to end my relationship with JBF and my tenure as a judge.
So would I go back? No, probably not. And that’s without considering whether or not they’d want me. Another change implemented in the past couple of years has to do with the diversity of the committees and judging panels. They can do with fewer old white guys like me. The foundation claims that the judges for the current awards are 45.17 percent BIPOC. The goal is to be over 50 percent this year and beyond.
I was proud to be a judge for those many years, even as my frustration with the unevenness of the process grew. The changes implemented this year are encouraging. I’ll look forward to more transparency of the process next year.