This year’s James Beard Awards semifinalists look a lot different than years past. After years of criticism for not enough female and people of color representation that crescendoed with the #MeToo movement, the Foundation decreed that it would do better.
And, against all odds, it actually has. The anonymous judging panel — which includes some Eater editors — has 14 percent more people of color and 5 percent more women this year. This has resulted, at least in the New York City area, in higher numbers of women and people of color nominees, as well as more restaurants whose service are far more casual than historic nominees.
But the real test will be whether or not the representation moves past the semifinalist category. Last year, the long list also had a bunch of surprises that suggested the awards were diversifying on race, gender, and restaurant style. Once the finalist list came out, though, most of those nominees were gone.
Read on for this and other key takeaways from the semifinalist nominees this year.
Casual counter-service spots are getting recognition
Fast-casual restaurants cannot be stopped, and it was only a matter of time until they started appearing in awards. This year, four counter-service NYC restaurants are nominated in various categories. The chefs at Hometown Bar-B-Que, Superiority Burger, and Kopitiam are all up for best chef in New York City, while Xi’an Famous Foods owner Jason Wang has been nominated for outstanding restaurateur.
Typically, more refined venues like Le Coucou, Marea, or Daniel are what makes these lists, and while there are still plenty of upscale destinations represented — Aquavit, Balthazar, Atomix — there’s a strong move toward more casual venues representing various cuisines.
Female and people of color nominees have more than just token representation
Zoe Kanan, Sohui Kim, Angie Mar, Kyo Pang, Umber Ahmad, Daniela Soto-Innes, Helen You, Angie Rito — and the list goes on. Women are dominating NYC’s nominations this year, represented in 21 of 44 spots.
People of color have similar representation, in all categories ranging from JJ Johnson of Henry up for best chef in NYC to Ellia and Junghyun Park of Atomix nominated for best new restaurant.
In the awards overall, there is a 7 percent increase in representation of people of color and 34 percent of all nominees are female.
The awards are very Jersey strong
The oft-degraded New Jersey, of which this writer is a native, shows up in four categories this year. In fact, of the 44 nominations in the tri-state area, six — or 14 percent — are from New Jersey. It’s the second year in a row that NJ has gotten this many semifinalist nominations in the awards that are often referred to as the Oscars of the food world.
Most significantly, Cucharamama chef Maricel Presilla has been nominated as an outstanding chef for her Latin American cooking in Hoboken, the Japanese Sagami in Collingswood is on the outstanding restaurant list, and red-sauce Italian joint Chef Vola’s in Atlantic City is up for outstanding service. Three chefs are vying for best chef: mid-Atlantic: Joey Baldino of Sicilian Zeppoli in Collingswood, Randy Forrester of Allentown’s Italian Osteria Radici, and Dan Richer of popular pizzeria Razza in Jersey City.
New Jersey chefs and restaurants have been nominated plenty of times before, but don’t often make it past the semifinalist category. Past winners of the best chef: mid-Atlantic award include Craig Shelton, then of the Ryland Inn, and Maricel Presilla of Cucharamama in Hoboken. We’ll see if any more join them this year.