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The Holes in the James Beard Awards

It’s a great award from a great organization, but it’s not a national award


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Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins (left) and Carl Schroeder

On Wednesday, the finalists for the James Beard Awards were announced. The awards are billed as the “food industry’s highest honor” and “the Oscars of the food world.”

This year, chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins of San Diego restaurant El Jardin was nominated as a semifinalist. She’s a great chef. And she didn’t make it to the finals. In its 29-year history, no San Diego chef or restaurant has won a James Beard Award.

Every couple of years, a San Diego chef or restaurant will be named a semifinalist. Local media heralds the potential for national recognition of the city’s top food and drink talents. And every year, the predictable happens.

It’s time to say it: James Beard Awards are not a national award. Which is fine. But let’s stop pretending they are until they devise a better, more inclusive system.

The James Beard Foundation is a great not-for-profit that has championed and propelled chefs/restaurants/writers/restaurateurs/bartenders to more acclaim, more hard-earned respect. I believe they do the best they can to cover chefs in every city. But it’s a big country. And San Diego is simply not in their coverage area. I’d imagine other cities also fall into their no-coverage zone.

Multiple top chefs I spoke with for this article (almost all off the record) said the same thing: a vast majority of JBA’s California judges live in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The JBF simply doesn’t have enough representation in San Diego to give the chefs or restaurants a real chance.

JBA’s website lists the 2019 Awards Committee, and it’s full of reputable food writers and editors. Two are from Los Angeles, two from the Bay Area. None are from San Diego. I know of one San Diego food journalist who has been cleared to vote for the JBAs. I asked JBA representatives multiple times to speak with someone about their San Diego coverage. They declined to comment.

That doesn’t mean they don’t travel to San Diego. But a quick look at the semifinalists over the last five years is pretty stark evidence:

 

2019
27 nominations from the Bay Area
17 nominations from the Los Angeles area
1 nominee from the San Diego area

 

2018
27 nominations from the Bay Area
21 nominations from the Los Angeles area
0 nominations from the San Diego area

 

2017
32 nominations from the San Francisco area
24 nominations from the Los Angeles area
0 nominations from the San Diego area

 

2016
39 nominations from the Bay Area
22 nominations from the Los Angeles area
3 nominations from the San Diego area (two went to Addison)

 

2015
38 nominations from the Bay Area
18 nominations from the Los Angeles area
2 nominations from the San Diego area (both for Addison)

 

I glanced over the nominations for the last decade or so, but didn’t bother tallying. It’s the same.

This doesn’t make the JBAs an empty award. This year they made great strides to ensure minorities and women had a bigger voice and a real chance. The chefs who win are almost always excellent chefs.

But the numbers tell a pretty vivid story—only certain cities in the nation really have a chance. San Diego isn’t one of them.

If the chefs and restaurants from one major city in California—the eighth largest city in the U.S.—aren’t included in these awards, then it’s a pretty wild exaggeration to call them the “highest awards in the nation.”

I’ve covered San Diego’s restaurant scene for 12 years, and been able to travel a good part of the country eating at restaurants for Food Network, Cooking Channel, and Big Ten Network. I’m not going to lie. For a long time, San Diego simply didn’t have quality restaurants on par with San Francisco, L.A., Chicago, Portland, Austin, and many other cities. New York and San Francisco will probably always be the culinary meccas of the United States.

But this year were forty four Bay Area and L.A.-area chefs and restaurants worthy of nominations, while only one from San Diego was? No.

From 2017-2018, were one hundred and four Bay Area and L.A.-area chefs worthy of nomination while zero San Diego chefs and restaurants were? No.

For the five years I counted, there were 163 for the Bay Area, 102 for L.A.-area, and six for San Diego area.

That math reveals the real story. James Beard Awards simply don’t have the bandwidth to cover cities like San Diego.

I conducted a poll among some of the top San Diego chefs, and all of them pointed to four who should have already won a JBA, and are among the best in the country: Carl Schroeder (Market), William Bradley (Addison), Trey Foshee (George’s), and Jason Knibb (Nine-Ten). They also pointed to newcomers who deserve a look-see if and when the JBA’s make it to town: Anthony Wells (Juniper & Ivy), Brad Wise (Trust/Fort Oak), Brian Redzikowski (Kettner Exchange), and Zepeda-Wilkins (El Jardin).

Addison has more certified sommeliers and world-class wines than most restaurants in the U.S. Even with Napa and Sonoma in the Bay Area, they deserve to be nominated for wine program just about every year.

In cocktails, one of the country’s best groups is Consortium Holdings (Craft & Commerce, Born & Raised, Noble Experiment, False Idol, Polite Provisions). Again, they deserve the short list every year.

Over the last couple of years, San Diego-based distiller Yuseff Cherney turned Cutwater Spirits into one of the biggest indie distilleries in the country (he recently sold to AB-InBev). Again, no nomination.

For beer, Stone Brewing Co. recently became one of the first craft beer companies to launch in China. We have the largest, most awarded craft beer industry in the country. 

The list goes on. It’s not San Diego. It’s very clearly a problem with James Beard Awards’ coverage of San Diego.

So what about solutions? How could JBA become more nationally inclusive? If JBA really wants to be a truly national award, it seems they need to be more transparent about where the judges live, how much they dine out, and where.

How about JBA judges “checking in” at every restaurant they visit? They could just keep a log, old-school on the honor system (but that seems a tad un-trustable in a new-tech world). Or they could drop a geotag on a map for the awards committee. If you want to really get technical, a judge could very easily upload photos of the receipt to a JBA site on Dropbox. That way, we—and they—could see where these judges are eating. JBA could paint a better picture of which cities, markets, and restaurants have been adequately covered, and which have been overlooked.

Imagine, when the 2020 awards are announced, JBF could say: “Our judges ate at 354 San Francisco restaurants, 185 Los Angeles restaurants, 12 San Diego restaurants, 20 million New York restaurants, 8 million Chicago restaurants, etc.”

Maybe this seems excessive. But the celebration of James Beard Awards is pretty excessive. If they truly want to be seen as the highest food award in the U.S., they need to utilize technology to ensure they’re inclusive enough to warrant that claim. To make sure they’re not missing entire cities.

I’m sure San Diego isn’t alone.

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