Last week, Chicagoans across town felt the flurry of activity as the country's most elite chefs descended upon our city. They may have spied Food Network's Ted Allen and Amanda Freitag taking a stroll along the Chicago river. Or possibly run into Christina Tosi or Carla Hall entering the hallowed gates of Alinea. Most likely, they salivated at the smells of BBQ and the sounds of champagne popping all across the city at the dozens (and dozens and dozens) of pre-parties. And on the evening of Monday, May 7th, glitterati of the dining world gathered within the gilded walls of the Lyric Opera for the event of the season—the James Beard Awards.
For years, there has been discussion on politics, hierarchy, sustainability, and diversity within the restaurant industry. This year's James Beard Awards celebrated a few clear themes that showed progress is possible. And that we still have a long way to go.
The Power of Women
Women took the stage 19 times as winners of an award.
Out of a total of 28 opportunities, women reigned nineteen times.
The restaurant industry has a long way to go in terms of supporting women-led and women-owned restaurants. And it's no secret that it has an even longer way to go with regards to sexual harassment. But for the few brief hours of the James Beard Awards, there was a roaring power in the room. And it was female.
Entitled voices may respond to this by crying out "reverse discrimination!" or other such nonsense. And the women in the industry know this. To quote Gabrielle Hamilton, winner of Outstanding Chef, "I would be so grateful if I didn't read tomorrow that the only reason I got this is because I'm a woman." Which is proof that while women are shining in the industry, there is still a lot to be done with regards to changing the conversation and status quo.
During a Women's Leadership breakfast panel hosted by Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach earlier that day, it was refreshing to hear not thoughts on morality but points of action that we can all take to help champion the hardworking women in food.
Key points included:
- Building more opportunities for funding (consider starting up a culinary angels group for investing)
- Cultivating leadership training and opportunities for women in the industry (the Beard Foundation has some fantastic programs but more can still be done)
- Actively seeking out and supporting women-owned and women-led restaurants (GrubHub did an excellent job with their RestaurantHER initiative)
- Keeping conversations about sexual harassment going so that people in positions of power are held responsible for poor behavior
- Celebrating women and their efforts (Jose Andres began and ended his acceptance speech in tribute to countless women who have worked for the good of humanity and for feeding millions)
Perhaps to most people, the thought of diversity in the form of accents would have never struck. But as a woman who grew up in India and occasionally lets the "Hinglish" twang to her tone break free, it was glorious to hear tongues from around the world both presenting and accepting awards: Indian, French, Hispanic, Vietnamese, and more.
The literal sounds of diversity put to melody the driving purpose behind restaurants—bringing people and cultures together.
Work for Good
Countless chefs around the country are working towards achieving good. Many are being recognized for their efforts in sustainable farming, employee equality, leadership training, emission reduction, sanctuary efforts, and more. It is my hope that I will bring those stories to life through my writing. But, for this particular section, it would be a disservice to readers if I did not quote directly from Jose Andres' acceptance speech as Humanitarian of the Year.
"My name is Jose Andres and I am a cook," he begins. And for roughly seven minutes he inspires, inciting cheers, tears, and goosebumps around the room.
"Food is a beacon of hope," he says. "I have a message to every man, woman and child. We care and we haven't forgotten. We are here for you. If you are hungry, we will feed you. People in need, they don't want our pity, they only want our respect and sometimes a plate of food is all the respect they need."
The focus was taken away from fine dining and culinary achievements as Chef Andres brought home why chefs really do what they do. "Food is hunger. Food is obesity. Food is health. Food is world peace. We feed the few but we cannot escape the reality that our destiny is in feeding the many...The future of a nation depends on how it feeds itself. Let us show what is possible when we all come together and just start cooking."
The theme of this year's awards was #Rise. Interspersed between presentations were videos and images of people in food discussing what they rise for—sustainability, dreamers, farmers, feminism, the hungry, family, and dozens more. These notions weren't just for show. Every chef or restaurateur that came on stage embodied a dream that became a vision. They rose for something, be it for themselves or for others.
Dominique Crenn, who took home the Best Chef: West award, encouraged the entire audience to literally Rise up on their feet and chant for "equality, humanity, and mother earth".
Jose Andres encouraged us to Rise for women, for the hungry, and for immigrants that "deserve to be a part of the American dream."
Our own Abe Conlon, who took home Chicago's only award with the win for Best Chef: Great Lakes, rose from the dream of owning a small dumpling shop.
Truly, it was a night where dreams became reality. But, more importantly, it was a lesson in converting dreams into action. All with the power of food.
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