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Diversity Was Served At The James Beard Awards, But Largely Missing From Boston's Diet

This year's James Beard Award winners represented a diverse swath of identities. (Courtesy)
This year's James Beard Award winners represented a diverse swath of identities. (Courtesy)

The James Beard Awards, presented Monday evening, are often called “the Oscars of the food world,” which feels apt; they’re both important honors handed out in problematic ways. Historically, the James Beard awards have struggled to adequately and fairly represent chefs of color and female chefs.

It is tempting to ignore awards like these, but that would also ignore the power they have. Awards reflect and reproduce the realities of inequality in our society. They have real impacts that we can track over time, and seek to influence in a positive way. The snapshot of our food world the awards provide is worth examining because it says something about who we are in this time and place, and can shape who we will become in the future.

For someone like me — a young restaurant owner, a five-time award semi-finalist, a woman of color concerned with problems of equity and representation — this year’s James Beard Awards was a bright ray of hope. Among the winners was a greater variety and higher quality of food, prepared by chefs with different and new perspectives. Much to my delight, this year’s winners are more diverse than ever: of the 13 Best Chef awards, six winners are chefs of color and seven are women. The usual backslide I feared after last year’s very diverse awards didn’t happen. Instead, women and people of color kept the ground gained last year, and more.

I teared up listening to Kwame Onwuachi’s acceptance speech. “Fifty-four years ago is when the last restaurant was integrated and Jim Crow was lifted,” he said upon becoming the second black person to win the Rising Star Chef award, “and here I am, my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” As Best Chef Southeast Mashama Bailey said, it feels like “We are moving this country forward in the right direction.”

This progress is due in part to the Foundation’s intentional efforts to increase access and transparency for the 2019 awards. And because selection of finalists relies on a ballot-based system in which more than half the voters are former winners themselves, the voting body becomes more diverse every year as female winners and winners of color join the taste-making class.

There are also cultural currents that dovetail with these structural changes. Increasingly, critics and the diners who follow them are seeking underrepresented perspectives and unique, personal interpretations of classic or traditional foods. We’re looking for restaurants that are, in the words of Eater National critic Bill Addison, culturally “super-juicy.” We want what Ellie Tiglao of Tanám in Somerville calls “narrative cuisine”: dining experiences that “tell stories that don’t often get told, shared by the people who live those stories.”

When it comes to my hometown, though, I feel a little less optimistic. What does this year’s snapshot say about us? Boston took home one award — Tony Messina of Uni was crowned Best Chef Northeast — a good but not excellent performance compared to Washington D.C.’s three or Seattle’s two. (New York, Chicago and San Francisco also won two or more awards.) Drilling down into the demographic and geographic statistics provides some food for thought. Where are we now and where can we go?

On the long list, Boston felt a bit underrepresented in the Best Chef Northeast category, with only six Boston-area chefs. By contrast, 11 Portland chefs and 11 Austin chefs made their respective Best Chef lists. The glass half full conclusion is that the Northeast simply has a great variety of excellent, far-flung restaurants; the glass half empty is that Boston, somehow, comes up short. Supporting evidence for the empty glass: in the nationwide categories, five Boston area restaurants appeared on the long list, but none became a finalist.

Female chefs have historically been pretty well-represented in Boston, and have represented Boston well on the national stage; any canonical list of local chefs rarely fails to include the likes of Lydia Shire, Barbara Lynch, Jody Adams and Ana Sortun — all James Beard Award winners. Chefs of color, by contrast, have not fared as well. Six local semi-finalists of color were all cut after the long list was pared down. And, as far as I can tell, no black chef from Boston or the Northeast has ever been nominated for any James Beard Award.

It’s not a huge surprise, given that the vast majority of Boston’s celebrated chefs are white. But, if the James Beard Awards are increasingly focused on addressing the unevenness of our industry’s playing field, I’m not sure how well Boston will fare in future years. We might remain a stronghold of whiteness on an increasingly diverse list, or we might stop winning awards altogether. Let me be clear: I’m not denigrating white or male chefs. Many are like Messina: talented, driven and deserving of celebration. But I am wondering why chefs of color telling deeply personal stories are so few and far between in our city, even as they grow more present on national lists.

Boston needs to do better. We must eliminate structural and discriminatory barriers to opening successful restaurants and we must demonstrate demand for new cultural and culinary perspectives (and willingness to pay for them). Winning awards isn’t a good or adequate reason to work for equity, but it could be one of many positive outcomes. I’d be thrilled to be a diner in a town where talented chefs with unique stories and under-represented cuisines are able to open successful and celebrated restaurants, regardless of their race, gender, socioeconomic status, or industry connections. More James Beard Awards for my hometown would be the icing on the cake.

Irene Li Twitter Food Columnist
Irene Li is The ARTery's food columnist. She operates Mei Mei Street Kitchen and Mei Mei Restaurant in Boston.

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