James Beard 2018 Medals Make History: Recipe for Real Change?

Life at two dining destinations in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood changed dramatically when the chef and founder of JuneBaby and Salare brought home history-making victories from the 2018 James Beard Awards. The number of local patrons and out-of-town visitors lining up for seats at the restaurants has turned up the heat on chef and founder, Edouardo Jordan and his staff.

“I do understand the significance of it. But, I just honestly personally haven’t had time to process it yet. We’ve been busy. To win two James Beard Awards pretty much changes the business structure in a heartbeat,” Jordan says with a laugh. He is the first African-American chef to win  Best New Restaurant in the 28-year history of the James Beard Awards. The southern-inspired cuisine at JuneBaby received the honor. He also won Best Chef: Northwest for his first restaurant, Salare, and is now the first black chef to win two medals. “It’s a good feeling that we can essentially be rewarded, I guess in a sense.  The work that we’re doing is going towards the greater good now,” says Jordan.

Expectations for the Seattle chef and the other James Beard Award honorees rise with recognition from the New York-based organization. What is often referred to as the Oscars of the food world looked remarkably different this year when winners posed for photos at the ceremony held in Chicago on May 7. For the first time, diversity ruled with 11 of the 15 chefs given medals being people of color, women or both.

Jordan acknowledged other black chefs honored when he accepted his award for Best New Restaurant. “I stand in the shadows of chef Patrick Clark, now chef Rodney Scott, chef Nina Compton, chef Dolester Miles, chef Marcus Samuelsson, chef Leah Chase and all the other chefs that never made it to this stage. But they’ve been pounding their knives against the walls and their cutting boards, and we finally cracked through,” said Jordan. “This is a beautiful time in our industry, that we’re able to capture the beautiful color and pictures that actually have made American cuisine—the food and the history.”

The theme for the 2018 ceremony was RISE, which is particularly fitting considering the record number of minorities who received nominations and took home medals. Outstanding Pastry Chef went to Dolester Miles, after three consecutive nominations for her artistry with classic southern desserts at Birmingham’s Highlands Bar & Grill. Rodney Scott took home the Best Chef: Southeast for his mastery of the whole hog barbecue served at his restaurants in Charleston. “Top Chef” contender Nina Compton won Best Chef: South for the Caribbean and Southern food she serves at her New Orleans restaurant, Compère Lapin, the first black woman to receive the award.

What made the difference this year? The chef and founder of Black Culinary History has a theory. “I think the idea of autonomous cooking that has been rewarded in recent years is making room for a wider more expansive and inclusive environment in which to work so that chefs of color can perhaps think more broadly about their culinary voice and still be validated,” says Therese Nelson. She and Jordan both dismiss any notion that minority chefs were given a free pass this year.

In fact, the James Beard Foundation’s history of honoring mostly white male chefs cooking European cuisine gives some black chefs reason to celebrate the 2018 victories with mixed feelings. “The mix feelings part comes from feeling like, what took so long? There haven’t been any black winners in any category since Patrick Clark in 1994 and Marcus Samuelsson in 2003,” says Dadisi Olutosin, co-founder/chief culinary officer of Plated Food Groupe, LLC.

The mission of the Foundation established in 1986 “is to celebrate, nurture, and honor chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse and sustainable for everyone.” Yet analysis of past awards by Mic online magazine shows only five African- American chefs have ever been nominated. That number includes a 2017 nomination for Jordan and the 2018 nomination of Mashama Bailey from The Grey in Savannah, Ga., the first black woman considered for the highest individual award of Outstanding Chef.

“I think if they continue to recognize talented young black chefs, it will at least get rid of that sentiment that they felt like they were being overlooked. It will exemplify some level of fairness because there was a time when they didn’t even consider us,” says Joe Randall. As a 50-year veteran of the culinary world, Randall has spent decades advocating for blacks through the African American Chefs Hall of Fame and other platforms.

Randall points out the critical importance of supporting blacks and females in the food and hospitality industry by patronizing their restaurants and sharing knowledge. “They need to understand what a press kit is, and we need some seminars teaching young entrepreneurs in the industry how to market themselves,” says Randall. “We need more food writers of color, who are willing to try and do what everybody else does, promote those people they care about.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2014, a little more than 51 percent of restaurant chefs and head cooks were African-American, Asian or Hispanic. Olutosin emphasizes the need for more financial investment in talented minority chefs to build on the momentum created by the 2018 Beard honorees. “Let me say this for the record, it means nothing if you don’t have black and female chefs opening restaurants of their own so that they can cook their food and see their culinary visions to fruition.”

It took 13 years for Jordan to win his James Beard medals. He advises young chefs to first concentrate on honing their cooking skills and culinary perspective if they want to earn their time to shine. “What I do with myself after winning two James Beard Awards is what matters the most,” says Jordan. “It matters that my businesses can stay afloat; that I’m being creative and not complacent, and that’s all built on the fact that I’ve worked so hard this far to get where I am that I’m already driven.”

Blacks and females also achieved new heights in other James Beard Foundation categories. Food historian Michael Twitty won two Media Awards for his book, “The Cooking Gene.” One for Writing and the other for Book of the Year. Nelson shared her perspective on Twitty being honored. “He is someone who has put in serious work for over a decade while enduring our own people misunderstanding the conceit of his work,” she says. “Work like Michael’s only comes about by selfless single-minded focus, and that has to be done with or without a promise of a prize.”

Writer Osayi Endolyn received a Journalism Award for her published columns. Two other black women, Dara Cooper, co-founder, National Black Food & Justice Alliance, and Shirley Sherrod, civil rights pioneer and executive director, Southwest Georgia Project received James Beard Leadership Awards.

Click through the pages of Cuisine Noir to learn more about talented blacks in the food and wine industries. You can follow Olutosin on Instagram and Facebook Check out Randall’s African American Chefs page on Instagram and Nelson with Black Culinary History online and Facebook.

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The joy of cooking became a part of her life when Phyllis was a child learning her way around the kitchen with her mother and grandmother. Her retirement from a demanding career in broadcast news has given her time to write about African-American chefs and restaurant owners as well as other black professionals succeeding in the travel and wine industries. Phyllis still loves to cook and try out new recipes.