Yesterday, the nominees for the James Beard Awards were released. The awards are a really big deal. The chefs that get the awards prominently display them in their restaurants, the awards get mentioned in chef bios, they drive business (at least from tourists), and they’re generally about the most prestigious thing a chef can get, (arguably) aside from a Michelin star.
Here’s the problem: The categories are broken, and Chicago is the reason.
The awards are laid out in two broad types: national awards, like Outstanding Service, Best New Restaurant and Rising Star Chef, and regional awards, like Best Chef: Northeast. For most chefs, it’s much more likely that they will be a contender for these regional awards, and in some ways, it’s more relevant to the average diner, since they can actually make it to some of these restaurants near their homes.
The country is split into multistate geographic regions, with one exception: New York City gets its own category. Why? Because if it wasn’t, the high volume of awesome restaurants in that city would presumably drown out either the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic regions, leaving chefs from Maine to Maryland with no chance of recognition. And that’s exactly what’s happening in Chicago.
Chicago is technically part of the Great Lakes category, which includes the rest of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. But do chefs from Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Detroit, or Cleveland get any love? Not really. And it’s getting worse.
Here’s how the awards work. They start with a semi-finalist round in February, where 20 chefs from each region are named. (Side note: if you’re actually looking to dine as a tourist, just print the Beard semi-finalist list for the last few years - the non-winners are usually amazing and slightly less crowded compared to those that go on to get the finalist nod.) In March, the lists are narrowed to five finalists. Then, at a gala award ceremony (in Chicago!) in May, the actual winners are announced. Let’s look at some numbers.
|Year||Semi-finalists from Chicago
|Finalists from Chicago
At the semifinalist level, it’s not as bad: As many as 12 chefs not from Chicago have been included. But at the finalist level, the problem becomes apparent. Chicago dominates, and in the last three years, Chicago dominates totally. And when you look at winners? One chef not from Chicago has won in the last 6 years, and guess what, a Chicago chef is going to win this year because no one else is nominated. It’s not just that Chicago needs its own category. It’s that Chicago has its own category. It’s just called something else.
Why do I care about this enough to regularly rant about it on Twitter and to my friends who couldn’t care less and slowly back away from me? First, it’s incredibly unfair to the innovative and hard-working chefs around the region, especially in smaller cities. In other regions, the diversity of locations is part of what makes these awards so rich. For example, in Best Chef: Southeast this year, four states and five cities are represented amongst the five finalists. And so, ok, other regions are dominated by their cities, but they tend to be at least dominated by more than one city – Midwest tends to have a lot of Milwaukee and Minneapolis noms, Mid-Atlantic a lot of DC. But no category is as unified as Great Lakes.
Second, and more importantly, Chicago has rightly taken its place as one of the greatest culinary cities. Thinkpiece after thinkpiece has named it the best dining city in America, our restaurant scene (despite some recent closures) is incredible, and, like New York, we dominate our region. And we do so at these awards in a way that, say, Los Angeles just doesn’t. The chefs who are Beard finalists this year are so uniformly amazing that I honestly don’t know I’m going to root for, but I’ll applaud really, really loudly when whichever winner takes his or her medal. But it might be nice to see some other nominees from the region get the same kind of recognition.