Into the awards void

Why the Beards mattered more than you might think

The Food Section was designed to showcase various kinds of food writing, so I’m giving each format a moment in the Monday spotlight before the paywall rises. Since I’ve already published a topical feature on the value of Friends & Family dinners and an investigative report on a disruptive bar, I figured it was time for an opinion piece.

I was pleased to read in the local paper the other day that I’d won a prize for a piece I’d written in the darkest month of this dark juncture: The Society for Features Journalism had recognized my story about holiday dishes that victims of COVID-19 wouldn’t be here to make for their families. (The story’s here, in case you’re not already persuaded that manicotti can make you weep.)

For writers, one of the nice things about SFJ’s awards program is the prizes come with cash money. A first-place finish is worth $300, or about what the average reporter earns for every 13 hours of work.

The nicest thing, though, is the list of winners is long and annotated with thoughtful comments from the judges, so it functions as a terrific to-read list for folks who don’t subscribe to newspapers in Cincinnati, Salt Lake City or Norfolk, Virginia.

Reporters love awards. Even though they often seem to dwell somewhere between “arbitrary” and “wrong” on the precision scale, awards remain one of the best ways for journalists to gauge whether they’re doing their jobs correctly, since it’s crass to tally social media mentions, dubious to trust sources’ feedback, and hopeless to wait for a pay raise.

In other words, I might be biased on whether awards matter. But I think there’s good reason for Southern food professionals and enthusiasts to worry about the direction of The James Beard Awards, those coveted medallions which have long marked the restaurant industry’s pinnacles. Following a revision of the Beards’ mission statement, the awards will no longer be reserved exclusively for culinary excellence.

(Full disclosure: I served nearly four years on the James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Committee as the Southeast region’s representative, stepping down in June over my concerns about the organization’s integrity and transparency. For that reason, I can’t cover the awards program as a neutral observer but believe I am free to comment on the Foundation’s recent announcement of rule changes. I’m sure an attorney will tell me if I’m wrong.)

I first considered quitting the Restaurant and Chef committee following the 2020 debacle in which the foundation declined to reveal who won, reportedly because there weren’t any Black winners: While I was troubled by biases built into a voting system which placed too much weight on buddies and backslapping, I also believed the sudden move stood to harm the nominated women and people of color who could have ridden a prize through the pandemic storm.

After all, the South has seen again and again how a Beard award can magnetize tourist dollars and transform cities into dining destinations: The timeline which connects Rodney Scott’s parents’ pit in Hemingway, S.C. to Scott this summer opening Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Atlanta stretches across the James Beard Award stage.

In the end, I stuck it out because I believed there was a real opportunity to diversify the awards and correct for longstanding oversights. Yet as I read the Sept. 14 press release, that wasn’t the clear outcome of the foundation’s yearlong audit process, designed to address the root causes of the 2020 meltdown.

The Grants of Bertha’s Kitchen in North Charleston accepted an America’s Classic award from The James Beard Foundation in 2017/ Hanna Raskin

Instead, it appears the group has adopted several interrelated measures, which I contend will only shore up those already in power and privilege California and the Northeast over the rest of the country—much as it did when it initially attributed its 2020 awards cancellation to the persistent closure of restaurants, two months after Southern governors greenlighted reopening.

As you might have read, the foundation has adopted a social justice focus for its awards: Nominees will now be required to show a “demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, environmental sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive,” as well as, of course, exceptional talent.

That sounds lovely! But I’ve looked at enough restaurant menus to know pretty words don’t always match up with what’s served. With my little eye, I spy three potential problems:

First, there are countless restaurants which support and strengthen their communities with well-made food and caring hospitality. To demonstrate a commitment to specified causes beyond that requires time and money that many restaurant owners-particularly those who are undercapitalized and belong to historically marginalized groups‑can’t afford to spend.

How expensive is the fight for social justice? The five organizations celebrated as examples of resilience and leadership at the James Beard Foundation’s Sept. 27 ceremony, held in lieu of the standard awards gala, provide some sense of the money required to stand out, at least in the foundation’s estimation.

Not all of this year’s honorees are classified as nonprofits by the IRS, so it’s impossible to pinpoint financial assets across the board. We know that Restaurant Workers Community Foundation (RWCF) and Pimento Relief Services, both of which have attained 501(c)3 status, reported less than $50,000 in annual gross receipts in 2019 (although the latter is a spinoff of a million-dollar restaurant business.)

But other figures hint at the kind of money at play: RE:Her is sponsored by the Edward Charles Foundation, which in 2019 collected $12.5 million. RWCF in 2020 raised $7 million; Bakers Against Racism raised $2 million. The Independent Restaurant Coalition last year spent $110,000 on lobbying alone.

Look, as Tevye says, it’s not so terrible to have a small fortune: The fundraising abilities and generosity of the above groups went a long way toward making sure restaurants and the people behind them weren’t wiped out by the pandemic. Still, a restaurant which once might have been singled out by the Beard Foundation for the magnificent way it fried fish probably isn’t going to win recognition for backing a youth football team.

Second, there’s the matter of how the foundation plans to establish the scope of nominees’ contributions. According to the new guidelines, entrants must submit a written or recorded statement outlining how their work aligns with the values of equity, sustainability, and community. As many commenters have already pointed out, this is an assignment for a PR firm, which represents a massive advantage for the richest restaurants.

Third, I worry that the new framework doesn’t account for the vast cultural differences which influence restaurant operations. If environmental sustainability entails cutting back on waste, for instance, that’s easier to achieve in a place where city vehicles swing by for compost pickup, as opposed to paying a private company to pick them up.

Rodney Scott, right, won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef Southeast in 2018. Mike Lata, left, received the same award in 2009/ Hanna Raskin

Additionally, it’s important to remember that restaurant owners in conservative areas are forced to consider their financial security and personal safety when choosing to make statements that wouldn’t rate as provocative in progressive cities.

Obviously, in a perfect world, nobody would hesitate to post a Black Lives Matter sign. But solidarity requires acknowledging the legitimate reasons why, in this world, somebody might. The foundation’s vice president for awards has said they hope to goad award seekers into political action — “it’s aspirational for where we want to go,” Dawn Padmore told the Washington Post — but not everyone is similarly situated to act on that mandate.   

It’s very difficult to give out non-racist awards in a racist system: The hospitality industry has held back women and Black people for so long that the foundation yearly confronts a shortage of qualified candidates when it applies criteria involving tenure and previous recognition. That was the nub of the problem that The James Beard Foundation faced, so it did the 2020 thing and pivoted: Rather than hand out food awards, it opted to emphasize good works.

Even if the new system was fair and flawless, though, the end of awards based strictly on restaurant experiences would still represent a loss not just for Southern restaurants, but for the South itself.

And I’m not alone in thinking so: Scholarly research shows that industry awards have benefits that transcend their recipients. In the food world, whether they go by the name of Beard is immaterial, but the promise of national recognition has helped energize restaurant scenes; spur innovation and even playing fields.

Certainly, as this region creeps out of COVID-19, it could use a little of all of the above.

“I have not encountered a country that does not use awards,” says Jana Gallus, an associate professor of economics of strategy and behavioral decision making at the University of California, Los Angeles’ business school. Whether for great food, speedy swimming or used car sales, “Everybody uses awards.”

Despite their ubiquity, she says, economists are just starting to grapple with awards and how they operate.

According to Gallus, who co-authored the 2017 book Honours Versus Money: The Economics of Awards, researchers are still looking into how the nomination process affects winners’ feelings about their prizes. They’re studying ways to reduce stereotyping when evaluating candidates and whether it’s more effective to invest in an awards ceremony or cut checks for awardees.

Still, there’s little evidence that the “awards don’t matter” trope, usually recited by someone who’s amassed a bunch of them, has merit. Early findings show disciplinary awards can accomplish or advance the following, so long as they’re clearly defined and free of controversy:

  • They keep industry members engaged. In one experiment, Gallus invented the Edelweiss award, which she bestowed upon 4,000 contributors to the German-language version of Wikipedia. Editors who received the award were 20 percent more likely to keep contributing to the site, even though the award had no monetary or historical value.

  • They prompt non-winners to perform at higher levels. “Non-winners become more motivated even if the award is no longer up for grabs,” Gallus says. A study of the Fields Medal, a highly prestigious prize for young mathematicians, found that medalists tended to wander off the paths they’d taken to success, but also-rans became even more productive after being passed over.

  • They make women more confident (under certain circumstances.) While Gallus’ investigation was limited to women working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, she was able to show that women working in jobs stereotypically held by men are more likely to speak up and share their ideas after receiving a professional award in front of an audience.

“Being seen as an award winner closes the gender gap,” Gallus says.

Of course, the Beard awards are important not just for restaurants, but for the journalists who cover them. With its awards overhaul, The James Beard Foundation seems to have invalidated the media portion of its program: All entrants are now required to pledge to “further our industry,” which runs directly contrary to the defining principle of independent journalism.

That’s OK: Reporters have lots of other contests to enter. The same can’t be said of hospitality professionals, though. There are various award programs sponsored by media outlets and exclusive properties, but nothing yet to rival the Beards in terms of cachet.

For the sake of diners who care about the craft of cooking and art of hospitality, along with the people who practice them, here’s hoping something comes along.

Correction: Cumming, Georgia was misspelled in the Sept. 29 edition. The Food Section regrets the error.