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Will the James Beard Awards Shift Shortchange Ambitious Upstate Restaurants?

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Some previously nominated chefs are concerned that the new regional categories will make it even harder for them to get a shot

A colorful bar area with a sandwich board listing specials. Lil’ Deb’s Oasis [Official Photo]

A shift in the regional categories for the James Beard Awards has left some upstate New York restaurateurs wondering how it will affect their chances at winning.

In the past, New York state was split, with the city comprising its own category and upstate grouped with the “Northeast” region, which included Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Now, all of New York state is one section, while the Northeast includes the rest of those states.

Ambitious upstate restaurateurs worry that it will be even harder to break out into wider consciousness with the swap.

“Having been grouped with NYC this year will certainly be one of the greatest challenges we will face,” says chef Victor Parra Gonzalez of Mexican restaurant Las Puertas in Buffalo, who was nominated in the former Best Chef: Northeast category in 2018 and 2019.

One of the most difficult aspects of it, Gonzalez says, is that the dining audience in New York City is more diverse and much bigger — which allows chefs in the metropolis to take greater creative license with their food, he says. It’s tougher in Buffalo. “The talent pool along with the dynamic of ever-changing diners offers a certain liberty to the chefs in the city,” he says.

Food media coverage, too, tends to favor restaurants in the city, say Carla Perez-Gallardo and Hannah Black of the Latin-inflected Lil’ Deb’s Oasis in Hudson, who were also nominated in the Best Chef: Northeast category last year.

The new organization “definitely feels like it could have a negative impact” on non-NYC restaurants in the state, they write. Since nominations come from the public, they’re hopeful that they’ll get on the long list again — but ultimately, judges who potentially have never heard of the restaurant will be making final calls on winners, they say.

“Restaurants that already have a lot of clout and visibility may have an additional leg up if they are located in the epicenter of a big food city with thousands of people reading about it and eating their food every day,” they write in an email.

But the Beards say that the changes were made in hopes of having more balance in the geography of restaurant nominees, not less, according to a press release. In addition to adjusting the regions, the organization is making adjustments to who gets to oversee the awards and who votes on them. It’s not known what that will look like though; the James Beard Foundation has never made it public who makes up the voting body. (Several Eater staffers have been judges in the past.)

And upstate New York has increasingly become a dining destination of its own. The Catskills has been adding modern restaurants that appeal to city diners, and Hudson Valley’s “hickster” restaurants are tailor-made for an audience that’s tuned into wider dining trends.

Many city chefs have been drawn to the area in recent years, decamping for the chiller lifestyle and cheaper real estate. Zak Pelaccio of Fatty Crab, Elisa Kornack and Anna Hieronimus of Take Root, and former Copenhagen chef Kristopher Schram have all chosen the area over nearby NYC. Even actor Kelsey Grammer has gotten in on the upstate action with a new brewery.

Though NYC is tough competition, New York state as its own area may be more tenable competition than entirety of the northeast. And despite nerves, Gonzales still thinks restaurants outside of New York have a chance at the awards.

“I look forward to this year’s nominations and will continue to do so,” he says, “hoping to read my name and my peers’ names that are keeping their vision true to the course.”