This Year's James Beard Awards Are Effectively Canceled

COVID-19 has dramatically impacted our nation's restaurant industry, and that even extends to industry awards. Today the James Beard Foundation announced that it will be effectively canceling this year's award ceremony.

The news isn't entirely unexpected, and it's important to note that the ceremony itself hasn't been canceled. It will be broadcast virtually from Chicago as planned, but no winners will be announced for any restaurant or chef categories; the Foundation "will instead celebrate previously announced honorees in categories such as America's Classics, Lifetime Achievement, Humanitarian of the Year, Design Icon, and Leadership Awards." As written in a press release announcing the changes to the program [emphasis ours]:

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, September 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.

While this might not seem like a big deal, particularly during times like these, it's important to consider the impact that national awards can have on both restaurants and the individuals who run them. Chefs, cooks, and other restaurant employees are, on the whole, badly paid and poorly treated, and most restaurants exist on razor-thin margins. Formal recognition within the industry can be career-building, and can help winners gain industry mobility.

The annual event, which recognizes chefs, restaurants, and food producers on both a regional and national level, also helps to drive foot traffic to the winning establishments. And, perhaps more important than anything else, it makes the winners media darlings and can dramatically improve their visibility within food media, which, by and large, is skewed toward promoting and publicizing already visible talent.

The press release goes on to note that the May 2021 James Beard Awards will also be significantly altered to better suit the times:

The Foundation has also made the decision to forgo its traditional Awards presentations in 2021. The Awards recognize work done during the previous calendar year, so any intent to hold a ceremony in 2021 based on 2020 work would be unfair and misguided, taking into account the unprecedented hardships which restaurants and potential nominees faced this year. Instead, the 2021 ceremony will be a celebration of the independent restaurant community who have shown leadership during this crisis and honoring those who have made a significant impact on the industry and in their communities.