This year’s list of James Beard Award finalists and semifinalists looked different from previous years—and not just because Colorado chefs made up the entirety of the Best Chef: Mountain finalists. (See below for a full list of local honorees.) The James Beard Awards have long been considered one of the most prestigious honors a chef and restaurant can achieve. But in August 2020, the James Beard Foundation (JBF) announced an audit of their policies and procedures, following criticism that the winners were, too often, white men cooking European fare. The goal was to make the awards more equitable, removing systemic bias and increasing the diversity of the committee members, judges, and voters—who are appointed to choose the winners.
Looking at the 2022 Colorado semifinalists—which included a tiny Hmong fusion restaurant in Lafayette and multiple women and persons of color—the list certainly looked different and more diverse than previous ones. Which got us thinking: Just how are the James Beard nominees chosen in the first place? Who nominates the culinary pros, votes on the finalists, and, ultimately, selects the winners?
“We’re really trying to change the conversation around what is a James Beard restaurant,” says JBF committee member (and former 5280 food editor), Amanda Faison, who joined the Restaurant and Chef committee in 2019. “There’s been a huge effort to be more inclusive and representative of what this industry really looks like,” she says. “It’s a very important mission for the foundation, and I do think you see it reflected on the list.”
We asked Faison to take us inside the JBF process, from how the restaurants and chefs are selected, to what changed this year. Here’s what we learned.
How do the James Beard Awards work, anyway?
Anyone can throw a restaurant or chef into the ring, Faison says. Really, anyone. To come up with the 20 semifinalists for each category—which range from Outstanding Restaurateur to Best Chef in 11 regions—it starts with an open call for recommendations in the fall, when the public can suggest their favorites by submitting chefs and restaurants for consideration online.
Local experts weigh in, too, including appointed judges spread across each region. The Mountain region, which encompasses Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, has 20 judges. Those judges all report back to committee members, of which each region has one to two. The JBF committee members sift through the recommendations and put forth the best, most interesting options, representing their territory to the rest of the country.
Once the committee members make their selections, the names go up for discussion at a national level, where a national voting body selects the finalists and winners. The voting body used to be made up of anyone who’d ever won a James Beard award, but that was one of the changes implemented after the 2020 audit. Previous restaurant and chef winners—the majority of which were white males—no longer become default awards voters. To foster diversity in judging and to avoid cronyism, it’s now a smaller group of voters, selected by committee members every season, and everything is tabulated by an outside source. The 20 semifinalists are whittled down to five finalists, which compete for awards in various categories.
“I think a shift this year is recognizing that anyone who’s a semifinalist, anyone whose name is brought to the table, there’s tremendous worth and value in that, and celebration. If you’re only populating a list with people who can win it at a national level, you’re not doing your job,” Faison says. “One of the really big shifts this year was who can we shout from the rooftops, even if they may not win a national category. I really love that distinction. I think being a semifinalist on this list can change someone’s life and a business, so why not spread that wealth around a bit more?”
So, who are our regional judges and committee members?
Faison is one of the Mountain Region’s JBF committee members, along with Montana-based author and radio personality Stella Fong. Local culinary historian Adrian Miller is the national Restaurant and Chef awards committee chair.
The 20 regional judges are an anonymous collection of food and beverage writers, editors, restaurant critics, authors, and culinary instructors. Individuals are nominated by committee members to be judges, then must apply and be approved by the foundation to serve their duties.
“It’s a mix of different people with broad-based knowledge of their area,” Faison says. “As we’re coming into that recommendation period, you may or may not have eaten everywhere. Hopefully we have, but with multiple states, that’s hard. That’s why finding our judges, those 20 people, is so critical…The tasting panelists receive a stipend or honorarium, but it’s pretty modest. You do this because you love this industry, you believe in this industry, and you believe in really championing the best.”
Do judges and committee members eat at every spot?
While the 20 semifinalists may not be visited by every judge and committee member, the final five chefs’ restaurants will be tasted by at least one judge or committee member; probably both, and usually more than once. Faison has eaten at all the restaurants belonging to the Colorado finalists this year, and she’s pleased with the variety.
“We’re always looking for the exceptional,” Faison says. “I think the important thing this year is recognizing that exceptional does not denote fine dining. It can, but it doesn’t have to. A little place that doesn’t have white tablecloths, that has paper napkins, whatever, that is excellence in its own way. Changing the framework of what has conventionally been considered the tip top has been really important this year.”
What’s changed for the James Beard Awards in 2022?
The main reason the list looks so different this year is because of new regional judges and that smaller, more diverse national voting body. Both groups bring fresh perspectives and different palates to the, well, table. While Faison says she, Miller, and Fong didn’t start from scratch with the 20 regional judges, they did overhaul the group with an eye on being more inclusive in all ways, including racial, gender, and geographic variety.
“There aren’t just tons and tons of experts hanging around—you need to find someone who knows food, who knows the scene, who can weigh it against the national scene. That expertise is really, really critical, but we looked for a lot more diversity in the judges, and I mean in all ways, including geographically,” Faison says.
She hopes that diners feel inspired to try something new from this year’s semifinalists and finalists, and that there isn’t just the sense of it being the same old, same old. “There’s so much work put into these lists, to have them brushed off or thought of as, ‘Of course it’s this place,’ that really undermines the work that’s being done. I hope there isn’t that sense this year. I hope people are like, ‘Oh wait a sec, I haven’t even heard of this place.’ ”
James Beard Award winners will be announced on June 13.
Colorado James Beard Award Finalists
Category: Best Chef: Mountain
Jose Avila, El Borrego Negro
Cody Cheetham, Tavernetta
Caroline Glover, Annette
Dana Rodriguez, Work & Class
Eric Skokan, Black Cat
Category: Outstanding Wine Program
The Little Nell, Aspen