The host of the James Beard Foundation Awards weighs in on the ceremony's theme. 
Carla Hall
Credit: Courtesy of Carla Hall

Carla Hall, host of The Chew, will present the James Beard Foundation Awards in Chicago on Monday, May 7. This year, the foundation featured two women hosts—journalist Tamron Hall served as emcee at the media awards on April 27. Asking two women of color to host this year’s ceremonies speaks volumes. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, chefs have been outed as serial abusers, and mounting pressure has been put on restaurants to end toxic kitchen culture while making kitchens safer, healthier, and more inclusive. Ahead of the awards, Hall talked with Food & Wine about what the theme of this year’s ceremony, ‘Rise’, means to her—and to the restaurant industry at large.

To Hall, the theme resonates with her on two levels. The first is focused entirely on the women who have been demanding proper credit and treatment in the kitchen, long before #MeToo.

“As a woman it means taking the opportunity to really rise to the occasion, to show what women chefs can do and have been doing,” Hall explains. “Historically, women have been cooks at home, and then when it became a profession, we were sort of separated out. It’s really about rising back up to be acknowledged in the kitchen."

However, there’s more to the theme than empowering women—as important as that mission is. Hall also thinks that chefs are in a position to uplift entire communities, much like Humanitarian of the Year José Andrés did in Puerto Rico.

“I think it also means to rise up with food advocacy because in terms of food insecurity, chefs are the trusted people in the community,” she says. “We’re are ones people are looking to … People listen to us.”

Chefs may work in restaurants primarily to create innovative dishes, but Hall stresses that it’s important to look at their work with a “360-degree view.” Chefs should create good food, but “what they bring to the community” matters just as much in her eyes.

“I think what the James Beard Foundation is saying, is don’t just vote for the chef and the food,” she says. “In that restaurant is a community— the neighborhood that [the restaurant is] in, their employees, and how those employees feel.”

At this crucial moment of change in the restaurant industry, Hall hopes that more chefs will start to address issues as they present themselves rather than waiting, ignoring, or trying to cover up systemic abuse.

Equally important as addressing those issues head-on is making sure that restaurants provide fair and equitable wages to both the back and the front of house staff, regardless of gender. Once those standards are in place, Hall says, more women will be able, and willing, to join the industry.

“If you’re not making enough money to [pay] for healthcare, you’re going to be like, 'I don’t want to work at a restaurant,'” she says. “There’s [also] long hours, and it used to be like, if you’re going to have a child, you can’t work in the kitchen.”

Hall is keeping a positive outlook, though. More and more, chefs are thinking about how to make restaurants healthier environments. The goal, ultimately, is to make sure the staff knows they are cared about, and taken care of.

Still, there’s work to be done. First and foremost, people from a diverse backgrounds need to be welcomed to the table. Only then can the restaurant industry have a broader perspective, more inclusive value system, and, obviously, better food.

“If you have a roundtable and everyone is facing each other, the people that are facing you have no idea what’s going on behind them and so the more people that you have at that table, the better perspective you have on what’s going on,” she says. “When a dish is considered cultural appropriation [it's] because the chef has not talked to a person from that culture. As creative people, we get a lot of inspiration from different places, and I think the take-away is to honor and give credit to where that inspiration came from.”