The Biggest Takeaways from the 2018 James Beard Award Semifinalist List

The industry is shifting, and here's how.

james beard award
Photo: ©  Victor Spinelli / Getty Images

In its 28-year existence, the James Beard Foundation Awards have come to be recognized as the top honor of America's restaurant industry—the Oscars of food. Unlike the French-originating Michelin Guide or the internationally-focused World's 50 Best List, the James Beard Awards are United States-specific.

Today, the James Beard Foundation announced its 2018 list of semifinalists in 21 Restaurant and Chef categories. Although other categories include Restaurant Design and Media, these are probably the most well-known and publicly anticipated part of the awards. The list of semifinalists announced today will be narrowed down to a shortlist of nominees, which will be announced March 14. The final winners will be crowned—or medaled, as it were; there's no financial prize—at a gala on May 7, in Chicago.

Here's how this year's list stacks up.

More geographic diversity.

At least in the first 25 years of the James Beard Awards' existence, New York has far outweighed other cities. This has been especially true in the Best New Restaurant, Outstanding Restaurant and Rising Star Chef categories.

Last year, three winners in the Restaurant and Chef categories were from in or around NYC. (No other single city had three wins in the category; Chicago had two.) Still, there was a surprising breadth to the winners pool, with smaller tier cities like Milton, Delaware getting recognized in national categories.

This year the nominees display inspiring geographic breadth. Annette in Aurora, CO (Best New Restaurant category) is a marker of the state's culinary scene that's been getting increasing national attention—including in the most recent season of Bravo's Top Chef. Southern National in Mobile, AL (also in the Best New Restaurant category) is so new it only has eleven Yelp reviews—and also appears to be getting well-deserved recognition, helmed by Atlanta transplant chef Duane Nutter.

Good news: There are more women nominees this year.

As reported by the New York Times, 40 percent of the nominees are women this year, up from 27 percent last year. It's tricky for the Foundation to navigate talking about this. They've previously been accused of disproportionately representing white men—Anthony Bourdain likened the winner's circle to a Republican National Convention—and are likely making a concerted effort to remedy this, while trying to refrain from cherry-picking for the sake of redemption.

"More than ever, in 2018, the committees took into account respect and integrity when making recommendations for the semifinalists," a James Beard Foundation representative tells Food & Wine. "And in turn, the committee reps asked the judges to do the same. We hold our judges and committees in high esteem and believe they will continue to do what is ethically correct."

The #MeToo movement has come into play.

It has been a record year for all the wrong reasons when it comes to issues of gender in the workplace, with restaurant titans like Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, and John Besh—all multiple James Beard Award winners—being accused by multiple women of varying degrees of alleged sexual harassment or assault. While the James Beard Foundation has declined to take away their medals, it has responded to mounting public pressure to address this in the awards process. While it doesn't look like there's any formal new criteria spelled out on the awards policy page, the James Beard Foundation did send out an email to judges earlier this year addressing this:

"When considering the candidacy of a person or restaurant, bear in mind that award winners are held up as role models. If you have concerns about a chef, restaurateur or beverage professional, or about the culture around a restaurant or restaurant group, leave the person or business out of your nominations." (You can read the full email, as published by Eater, here.)

Then, there's the unsurprising.

Nina Compton, who was nominated in the Best Chef: Southeast category, was named as a Food & Wine Best New Chef last year. The Top Chef runner-up opened a restaurant in New Orleans, where she had competed in Season 11, and since then, Compère Lapin has been no stranger to critical acclaim. Food & Wine restaurant editor Jordana Rothman called it a "tautly rendered torch song," which spins together flavors of New Orleans, France, Haiti and Compton's native St. Lucia.

Similarly unsurprisingly, Jordan Kahn's Vespertine was nominated for Best New Restaurant. The young chef's second restaurant straddles the lines of surrealism and otherworldly, with many of his plates not even looking like food. He too was named as a Food & Wine Best New Chef last year. Vespertine also topped the 101 Best Restaurant List last year, penned by L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold. JuneBaby and Felix Trattoria, also nominated in the JBF Best New Restaurant category, topped national best of lists from Eater and Esquire, respectively.

The James Beard Foundation Awards Gala, which will announce the final award winners, will be held at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on Monday, May 7, 2018.

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