This column is nearly 24 hours overdue.
My preferred way to report on the James Beard Foundation awards is to live tweet the proceedings, sharing choice quotes and audience reactions. (I leave the straight news coverage to other staff writers because I’m a member of the committee which selects the semifinalists; once the list goes to voters, we committee members are just as much in the dark as everyone else, but I still don’t feel comfortable taking on the role of objective observer.)
But as soon as I took my seat at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, built long before patrons were concerned about cell signals penetrating edifices, my phone turned useless. My only choice was to give the ceremony my full attention.
That was appropriate, not only because the evening’s honorees were more than deserving of it, but because so many of them have distinguished themselves by paying close attention to their employees and guests.
The depth of the connections forged within the industry were central to speech after speech, many of which culminated with teary hugs. The brother of the owner of Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti House, last night named an America’s Classic, told me he couldn’t imagine his colleagues in the law business putting on those kinds of familial displays of affection.
But taken as a whole, the latest group of winners makes abundantly clear that the future of hospitality will turn on how people treat one another.
At this level, deliciousness is assumed. I don’t recall hearing anyone reference hoity-toity dishes. In fact, winners were refreshingly candid about their love for plainer food.
“I am a black girl from Queens, New York, and my most influential cuisine is Peter’s Chinese takeout,” Mashama Bailey of Savannah’s The Grey said in accepting the Outstanding Chef Southeast award.
At her victory party, newly named Outstanding Chef Ashley Christensen served Cheetos alongside caviar.
“Good Food for Good” is the current James Beard Foundation motto. Note that goodness is cited twice as frequently as food in that sentence.
To be clear, I don’t think pricey restaurants are about to start serving slop. Increasingly, though, what’s separating standout restaurants from the rest is their value system.
Throughout the industry, there was a real fear that last year would prove a fluke, and a bunch of straight white men would dominate the awards in 2019. While white men won last night, by Eater’s tally, 10 out of 16 awards given to individuals went to women or people of color. Beyond that, Zahav’s acceptance speech for Outstanding Restaurant was delivered by its general manager, a Turkish immigrant who first joined the crew as a busboy.
In his speech, he reiterated the themes that were in large part responsible for the seemingly easy multiculturalism of the evening: Hard work and integrity.
Diversity, which was stressed endlessly last year, can be counted. But hard work and integrity can be practiced, and a group of winners which looks more like America is the happy result.
Both attributes are personified by all of the Southerners who won last night. In addition to Christensen and Bailey, pastry chef Kelly Fields of New Orleans and Vishwesh Bhatt of Oxford, Miss., won well-deserved awards. In keeping with the Beard motto, these are good people. And they are people who believe in treating others well. Christensen closed her speech by exhorting her 2000 listeners to be kind.
“Let us be sure we are not excluding people,” Bhatt said in his speech, which he later told me was completely off-the-cuff.
It’s tremendously exciting to think that Southern restaurants and their leaders could set a national model for inclusive hospitality.
One of the finest examples of that mindset was the final winner from the South, The Giving Kitchen. The Atlanta nonprofit was named Humanitarian of the Year for its work to support food service workers in times of crisis. Its director announced from the Lyric Opera stage that The Giving Kitchen is taking its work nationwide.
In other words, our region has so much more to offer than shrimp and grits and barbecue. As Bailey said, “We are moving the country forward.”