By LISA KLEIN
In lieu of its prestigious culinary industry awards this year, the James Beard Foundation held a ceremony to recognize the impact that leaders in the independent restaurant world have had throughout the pandemic.
The James Beard Awards: Stories of Resilience and Leadership, hosted by 2019 James Beard Rising Star Chef Award winner and former Top Chef contestant Kwame Onwuachi, focused on honoring those that lifted their communities up from an industry hard hit by the COVID-19 crisis.
“Even when people were hurting most they still wanted to serve others,” said Claire Reichenbach, the foundation’s CEO, of the honorees. “Their stories are portraits of resilience and inspiration for the future of our food culture.”
The foundation, a nonprofit that celebrates and supports America’s food culture and cuisine, was named after pioneering foodie and cookbook author James Beard. Its annual awards recognize outstanding talents in the restaurant and hospitality business.
This year, the Monday evening, Sept. 27 ceremony looked a bit different, broadcast live on Twitter from Chicago with several intimate viewing parties happening across the country and a party kit for at-home viewers with appetizers by 2021 James Beard House Fellow chefs.
“This event is a perfect example of how culinary people get things done — we are resilient,” Chef Onwuachi said. “We’re actually kind of crazy if you think about it. We don’t give up.”
The honors highlighted five industry leaders that stepped up during the turmoil that was 2020 and 2021.
Bakers Against Racism brought together professional and amateur bakers across the country to hold bake sales and donate the proceeds to local organizations of their choice.
The Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation raised more than $8 million for a COVID-19 relief fund that distributed money to industry workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic.
The Independent Restaurant Coalition formed in March 2020 as a voice for the industry in Washington, fighting for government assistance for businesses affected by shutdowns nationwide.
Pimento Jamaican Kitchen & Rum Bar, a restaurant in Minneapolis near where George Floyd was killed, created a community food pantry when grocery stores boarded up during the ensuing protests. The eatery brought area leaders together to meet about moving forward.
Regarding Her began in Los Angeles to provide business funding grants, exposure through food festivals and other events, and community for women-owned restaurants.
“Faced with an existential threat, you came together with a united voice,” Ms. Reichenbach said of the honorees and entire restaurant community. “Positive change in this industry can truly change the shape of society at large.”
Keeping with the spirit of Monday’s honors, the foundation previously had launched the Open For Good campaign as a program that provides resources for independent restaurants affected by the pandemic.
Although the highly anticipated awards themselves were canceled in both 2020 and 2021, they will resume in 2022.
An audit is underway with the goal of making the awards voting more equitable, focusing on improving diversity in both the voting panel and the communities represented. The 2022 awards will incorporate recommendations from the process.
Meanwhile, after almost two years of indefinite restaurant closures, permanent losses, safety protocols and supply and staffing shortages, the Beard ceremony urged a message of optimism, echoed by Chef Onwuachi.
“We are too strong to give up,” he said. “We are too capable to fail. We are innovators.”