I spoke with James Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro this afternoon about the fact that so many of the 397 semi-finalists for this year’s chef and restaurant awards are newcomers to the list.
As I mentioned when I reported on the semi-finalists last week, more than half (the actual figure is 53 percent) were on the list last year, too. But considering how many of the same nominees return year after year, that’s pretty good turnover.
Susan explained that the nomination process has been democratized.
Although just about 400 people — past winners and the media — judge the awards, anyone can nominate a chef. That’s been true since 2008, when the awards went all-electronic. That year more than 9,000 people submitted nominations in the 17 chef and restaurant categories. Last year 15,000 people participated in the process, and this year it was more than 21,000.
Then in most categories the awards committee picks the top 20 names, and those are the semifinalists.
An exception is the Rising Star award, which goes to chefs age 30 and younger, so they have a limited window in which to win it. The awards committee takes that into consideration and lets a few more names slip on.
The result is the ungainly-looking list of 26 names you see meandering down the upper right-hand side of this page.
Susan told me one of her goals as president was to try to alleviate the foundation's reputation as an elitist group focused on the East and West Coasts (I'd accuse it more of being New York-centric, actually), and to extend a hand to the masses.
Has she succeeded?
Well, if you look at that list, only one nominee is from New York, but that was true last year (it was Ryan Skeen from Irving Mill, in case you were wondering).
This year’s list has more chefs from cities in the interior* — Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, Denver, Cleveland, Minneapolis and Peoria Heights, Ill. There's also a nominee from Hawaii’s smallest major island, Kaua‘i, Colin Hazama from the St. Regis hotel there. I guess that’s off the beaten path in the grand scheme of things.
But he was also a nominee last year. So was Sameh Wadi from Minneapolis. The rest weren’t on last year’s list and the only other interior cities that were represented were Farmington, Pa., Rochester, Minn., and Memphis, Tenn.
Okay, so this year’s list isn’t that much more geographically diverse than last year's. It’s still dominated by coastal cities, but then again, coastal cities are most of the country's major population centers.
I do wonder why Chicago’s not represented, though. Maybe too many great young chefs split the local vote.
*for these purposes I’m going to classify Philadelphia and its suburbs as East Coast, even though it’s technically not, because it is culturally, and the rest of Pennsylvania as interior; and Las Vegas as West Coast; New Orleans is unclassifiable, but since it has always been considered an important food city I'm going to say it's not interior, but I'll go ahead and say Houston is interior. That’s just how I roll. Chicago is always well represented in the awards, although it doesn’t have any rising star nominees this year, unless you count Peoria as a suburb, and I think that’s stretching it a bit.