About two weeks ago, the James Beard Foundation announced it was cancelling the James Beard Awards for 2020 and 2021. The stated reason was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the food industry, but several media outlets have suggested otherwise.
I met James Beard once. He was a blunt, crusty guy, the type of person who didn’t suffer fools gladly—or at all. Over the course of his long career as a chef, cookbook author and media personality, he became known as “The Dean of American Cuisine.” Among other things, he was an early proponent of what would now be called the farm-to-table movement.
After Beard’s death in 1986, one of his students purchased his Greenwich Village brownstone and turned it into a shrine. The James Beard Foundation began hosting dinners prepared by famous chefs, with the proceeds earmarked for a scholarship fund to benefit rising culinary stars. Given that the 300-pound Beard (an openly gay man during an era when homosexuality was criminalized in America) was reportedly in the habit of parading naked through the brownstone, some people in the neighborhood probably regarded the dinners as an improvement. The annual James Beard Awards (self-described by the Foundation as “the Oscars of the food industry”) followed in 1990.
Leonard F. Pickell Jr. became president of the JBF in 1995 and resigned in 2004 after it was discovered he had been embezzling money from the Foundation. Rather than providing scholarships for young culinarians, the funds were being used to subsidize Pickell’s jet-setting lifestyle. He pleaded guilty to a theft of more than $1 million and spent a year in prison.
Scandal or no scandal, the JBF’s record on philanthropy is in the eye of the beholder. The Foundation claims to have given away $8 million between 1991 and 2018, or roughly $300,000 per year. While that sum is certainly better than nothing, it seems low when you consider that JBF benefactors include some of the wealthiest people in Manhattan—the same folks who would benefit from an ongoing culinary renaissance in this country.
Fast forward to August 20, when the JBF announced cancellation of the awards. Citing “sustained upheaval” within the restaurant community, they didn’t feel that giving out awards was appropriate. While few could argue with that position, a backstory was quick to emerge.
In addition to the pandemic, the awards were unfolding in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s death. According to eater.com, voting on the awards had been completed when the Foundation realized there were no black winners (even though there had been some people of color among the nominees). The New York Times reported that this was a key consideration in the Foundation’s decision to cancel.
Beyond the matter of race was the persistent pattern of sexual harassment that appeared to be business as usual in the nation’s kitchens. A few nominees asked to be removed from consideration because of allegations against them, and the Foundation requested that several others withdraw. The Times observed that “The restaurant-going public was rapidly changing its notions of which chef behaviors should be rewarded…”
Perhaps all of this will be sorted out by 2022, but there’s little doubt how outraged Beard himself would be if he could witness what was being perpetrated in his name. All of us can only hope to receive better treatment when we’re gone.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. His first two novels, Friend of the Devil and The American Crusade, are available on Amazon; his third novel, Impeachment, will be released on October 15.