The James Beard Foundation’s sprawling list of more than 400 semifinalists for the best chefs, restaurants and restaurateurs in the country usually doesn’t get much attention, except from the people who are on it. The real action comes in May, when the winners are announced at a glamorous gala.
This year is different. As with the Oscars and the Grammys, the James Beard awards have become a litmus test at a moment when race and gender inequities are rising to the surface.
The foundation for the first time has advised the people who nominate and vote for the winners to add a new set of criteria. In addition to what’s on the plate and how a dining room executes service, contenders must also possess “the values of respect, transparency, diversity, sustainability and equality.”
The foundation’s language is brief and somewhat vague. But as a result, this year’s list of semifinalists, announced on Thursday morning, looks noticeably different from past lists. This year, 40 percent of the nominees are women, up from 27 percent last year.
This year’s list is also more egalitarian and culturally diverse (though the foundation was not able to provide any statistics on racial diversity). Barbecue pits, noodle shops and fried chicken stands rub shoulders with high-style restaurants like Vespertine in Los Angeles and Cote, a New York Korean barbecue restaurant with the DNA of an expensive steakhouse.
Some restaurants that topped critics’ lists in 2017 are noticeably absent, omitted by the foundation for either proven or perceived violations of the new code.
“When creating the semifinalist list, the committee certainly took to heart this moment of reckoning in the restaurant industry,” said Bill Addison, the chairman of the restaurant committee and the national food critic for the website Eater.
Aqui, in Houston, was not put on the best new restaurant list because the chef, Paul Qui, is awaiting trial after a fight that left his girlfriend bloody. But Jillian Bartolome, the restaurant’s pastry chef, won a nomination.
The Hearth & Hound, the much-anticipated Los Angeles restaurant from the chef April Bloomfield and her partner Ken Friedman, didn’t make the cut for best new restaurant, either. Several staff members told The New York Times last year that they were sexually harassed and groped by Mr. Friedman and high-profile guests, and that Ms. Bloomfield didn’t do enough to stop it.
A committee of 18 food writers, editors and producers are charged with sifting through 23,000 nominations — from regional judges, restaurants and the public — to create the semifinal list. In a sometimes contentious meeting in Honolulu last month, they grappled with how best to apply the foundation’s new standards for personal and corporate behavior.
Because committee members signed nondisclosure agreements, they would not publicly discuss why certain restaurants did or did not make the list.
“Obviously, the names in these categories are presented without context, but we hope that they reflect the foundation’s desire to present awards that will more accurately represent the nation’s true wealth of culinary talent,” Mr. Addison said.
It has been a challenging year for the Beard Foundation, which welcomes Clare Reichenbach, its first new chief executive in 11 years, on Tuesday. Some of its marquee award winners, like the chefs Mario Batali, John Besh and Mr. Friedman, have been accused of sexual harassment or worse, and the organization has been criticized for not taking enough action against race and gender imbalances in the restaurant industry.
There have been calls to strip medals from previous winners, which the foundation has declined to do. Instead, past winners who have faced public charges of sexual harassment or abuse have been barred from voting from now on. (Previous winners make up the bulk of the 600 or so voters who will use the semifinalist list as a ballot to pick the finalists in each category. The same voters then choose the winners.)
Clark Wolf, a food business consultant who has been honored by the foundation and who was a friend of James Beard’s, said the group needed to be more forceful. “The fact that they didn’t make a clear and definitive statement and didn’t take away those medals is problem,” he said. “We want to know where every leaf and bone comes from, but we don’t care that chef is a douche?”
Others said the guidelines for both the larger group that nominates contenders and the committee that selects the semifinalists were too open to interpretation.
During a radio talk show on WGBH in Boston last week, the food journalist Corby Kummer, a former longtime member of the restaurant committee, said instructions to bar people if there are doubts about behavior or the culture of a restaurant are “really shaded and difficult.”
The policy, he said in a follow-up phone interview, could be used at first in an unfairly draconian way.
“It’s a time of adjustment, and people are understandably cautious,” he said. “In another year and another awards cycle, after this initial period of pulling back, there is going to be a new normal for what has been proven, how it has been reported and what goes on everyone’s best of lists.”
Anne Quatrano, the Atlanta chef who oversees the foundation’s awards, agreed that judging the character of a chef or the culture of a restaurant could be challenging.
“That’s why we are in some ways in an awkward position,” she said. “But really, it’s just making sure we feel comfortable that people on that list have integrity, and that those restaurants have good leaders and that everyone can thrive in their kitchens.”
Other food journalists are drawing their own lines. Jonathan Gold, the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, gave a positive review to the Hearth & Hound although he engaged in some hand-wringing to do it.
“I think it may be more important that Bloomfield’s talent is heard. But I’m a white dude — this line is not mine to draw,” Mr. Gold wrote. “And whichever side of the question you lean toward, it is hard not to feel queasy at the result.”
Amanda Kludt, the editor in chief of Eater, is taking a harder line. She wrote in a column this week that the Hearth & Hound and other restaurants whose leaders had been caught abusing people would be stripped from the site’s lists, guides and other forms of non-news coverage.
“Why, with so much talent out there, with so many compelling restaurants to cover, would you review the one veiled in controversy?” she wrote.
Eater’s map of the “most iconic pizzerias” in the East Bay Area, for example, will not include Oakland’s well-regarded Pizzaola because its owner, Charlie Hallowell, sexually harassed his staff.
The policy is limited to cases in which the behavior has been investigated and publicly exposed. “I don’t think its fair to punish restaurants based on rumors,” she said.