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James Beard Foundation cancels 2020 awards, as restaurants struggle through COVID-19

The James Beard Foundation will not give out awards for best chefs or outstanding restaurant or bar programs this year. The culinary foundation announced Thursday that it will overhaul its 2020 award ceremony and not present awards in those categories. The winners would have been selected from a list of finalists announced in May.

Birmingham’s Automatic Seafood & Oysters was a finalist for this year’s James Beard Foundation award for Best New Restaurant in America.

The choice comes as the culinary industry reels from the effects of COVID-19 after months of forced shutdowns and re-openings under reduced capacity.

In both a statement on its website and a detailed press release, the foundation explained its decision:

Today the James Beard Foundation announced that its annual awards program will not present winners in the remaining categories at the upcoming ceremony on Friday, Sept. 25, an unprecedented decision in the Awards’ 30-year history. The choice comes as restaurants continue to suffer the grave negative effects of COVID-19, and as substantial and sustained upheaval in the community has created an environment in which the foundation believes the assignment of awards will do little to further the industry in its current uphill battle. The awards’ usual positive impact on restaurants and chefs’ businesses will likely not be fully realized due to the current state of the industry, with many restaurants closed permanently or temporarily or operating at minimal capacity. These factors helped to inform the decision not to assign winners during a time of such turmoil.

READ THE FULL STATEMENT HERE

“We did not come to this decision lightly,” James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach said in the statement. “The uncertainty of this time for our industry is already a hard reality and considering anyone to have won or lost within the current tumultuous hospitality ecosystem does not in fact feel like the right thing to do. In short, an honor which we know is held in high regard, at the moment, feels minor when compared to the dire situation we are in.”

The James Beard Foundation will hold a scaled back virtual ceremony on Sept. 25. The event, which will broadcast live on Twitter in the host city of Chicago, will instead celebrate the honorees in previously announced categories such as America’s Classics, Lifetime Achievement, Humanitarian of the Year, Design Icon, and Leadership Awards.

The foundation already announced its annual media awards winners on May 27 with a press release and virtual ceremony.

The James Beard Foundation also announced that it will forgo the traditional awards ceremony in 2021. Since the awards recognize work done in the previous calendar year, the foundation said the intent to hold a ceremony with those traditional categories after a year of unprecedented hardship in the culinary and beverage industries would be “unfair and misguided.”

Instead, next year’s ceremony will celebrate the independent restaurant community and those who have shown leadership and made significant impacts in their communities. The celebration will be held in Chicago and broadcast nationwide in May 2021.

The announcement comes days after California chef David Kinch, who was nominated for this year’s award in the Outstanding Chef category, said he would withdraw his name from awards consideration, reports Eater.

The awards will resume in 2022, but with changes to the nomination process. In the press release, the foundation also announced its awards committees would work with an outside social justice agency to overhaul the policies and procedures for the annual honors with the goal to “remove any systemic bias,” ” increase the diversity of the pool of candidates,” and “maintain relevance.” The change comes amid calls for the foundation’s awards and categories to properly and realistically reflect today’s culinary and media scenes as culinary and media professionals question the pertinence of the James Beard Foundation’s role in the industry. In the response to the calls, the foundation has slowly started heeding some of the advice, inviting thought leaders to share their opinions and making small structural changes on committees and advisory boards.

Since March, the James Beard Foundation has devoted programming, including webinars and informative guides, to help independent restaurants around the country navigate the effects of COVID-19 amid shutdowns and financial insecurity. In the spring, the foundation launched a relief fund, later issuing more than 300 grants and $4 million in funding. As independent restaurants plead the federal government for financial assistance tailored to the culinary industry, the foundation has partnered with the Independent Restaurant Coalition to lobby for changes. In early August, the foundation and the IRC released a study revealing that only 66% of restaurants were confident they could survive through October amid mounting debt, reduced capacity, and unpredictable shutdowns.

Alabama has a solid history of James Beard Award nominees and winners. The majority of restaurateurs and bar owners honored by the foundation have been able to reopen after the state permitted restaurants and bars to resume on-premise consumption on May 11.

Feizal Valli and Rachael Roberts of The Atomic Lounge retained the majority of their staff and were able to pay them out of a savings account while the bar was temporarily closed. But many other establishments are working with a reduced staff.

In June, Automatic Seafood & Oysters was one of the first restaurants in the Birmingham area to publicly announce it would close temporarily after learning that a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. The Atomic Lounge, The Bright Star in Bessemer and two of chef Frank Stitt’s restaurants — both of which had reopened for curbside only service — also closed temporarily for testing after staff members tested positive for COVID-19. All establishments have since reopened. Stitt still has not reopened Highlands Bar & Grill.

In Mobile, Chef Duane Nutter pivoted his fine dining restaurant Southern National to a barbecue concept in an effort to navigate the pandemic.

Chef Chris Hastings, who had initially planned to reopen Hot & Hot Fish Club and OvenBird in June, later decided to keep the restaurants closed due to the increase of COVID-19 number in the area.

Chef Rob McDaniel, a five-time James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best Chef: South, is fortunate to be starting from scratch as he forges ahead with plans to open Helen, his new contemporary Southern grill in downtown Birmingham. The restaurant is slated to open with a small core staff on August 25.


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