A year ago, the James Beard Foundation — named for an “exuberantly gay man” whose loves and lifestyle could not be embraced, let alone mentioned, in polite society during his lifetime — handed out 11 medals to women, people of color or both. This year, the names of another 12 women and/or people of color were called out from the podium. Inclusivity would appear to be the new normal for the James Beard Awards, less than a year after the organization announced rule changes to diversify its powerful committees that help decide the nominees.
Among this year’s winners are Kwame Onwuachi, the African American chef behind Kith and Kin in Washington (who was named rising star chef of the year); Philippines native Tom Cunanan, the chef at Bad Saint, also in Washington (best chef, Mid-Atlantic); Korean immigrant Ann Kim, chef and owner of Young Joni in Minneapolis (best chef, Midwest); Mashama Bailey, the African American chef at the Grey in Savannah, Ga. (best chef, Southeast); and Indian immigrant Vishwesh Bhatt, chef at Snackbar in Oxford, Miss. (best chef, South). (You can read the full list of winners.)
Onwuachi used his moment to urge his peers to fight for something larger than a great plate of food.
“As I stand on this stage, I understand that I have a job to do, and we all do,” Onwuachi said to the audience. “We can just continue to put out great food and give great service or we can advocate for something, to inspire the next generation and to include everyone in the conversation of cooking.”
Added Onwuachi: “Fifty-four years ago is when the last restaurant was integrated and Jim Crow was lifted, and here I am: my ancestors’ wildest dream.”
He then dedicated his medal to “my ancestors who have worked in kitchens for hundreds of years, with no recognition and no choice, just in order to survive.”
With his victory in the rising star category, Onwuachi joined a distinguished list of chefs, including Daniela Soto-Innes of Cosme in New York City; Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco; David Chang of Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York; Traci Des Jardins of the shuttered Rubicon in San Francisco; and Marcus Samuelsson when he cooked at Aquavit in New York.
Onwuachi’s mother, Jewel Robinson, a caterer and chef herself, was in the audience to watch her son win the award, the capstone to a turbulent, two-year period in which Onwuachi closed his dream restaurant, Shaw Bijou, and then resurrected his career at Kith and Kin. “She was screaming,” Onwuachi said to The Washington Post on Monday. “That award is just as much hers as it is mine.”
To celebrate, Onwuachi, his mother and his fiancee, Mya Allen, had burgers at Au Cheval. “We had cheeseburgers, french fries and Coke and called it a night,” he said.
Also among the honorees was Patrick O’Connell, the five-time James Beard Award winner and the chef/owner behind Inn at Little Washington, which earned its third Michelin star last year. O’Connell received the Lifetime Achievement Award for his four decades of work at the Inn, which he famously created out of an old garage with the help of his then-partner, Reinhardt Lynch.
“I’m living proof that you can hide out in a mountain village and still be discovered and recognized by your peers,” O’Connell said in receiving the award.
O’Connell’s honor was a moment of pride for the LGBTQ community.
The Beard Foundation’s efforts for inclusiveness will continue to feed on itself, generating more and more diversity as the years go by, said Onwuachi.
“They are setting an example for the rest of the industry,” he said. “It also empowers you to believe that I can do it, you know. If this person can do it, I can do it . . . That’s what it’s really all about.”
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