Just about the only thing that anyone knows for sure about this year’s list of James Beard Foundation Award nominees is they don’t much like it.

Across the American South, editors of Eater’s city sites framed the March 29 announcement of what’s commonly called “the restaurant Oscars” in much the same fashion:

“Out of Eight Semifinalists, One Chef Will Represent Atlanta at the James Beard Awards”

“Nashville’s Only 2023 James Beard Award Finalist Is Bastion Chef Josh Habiger”

“New Orleans Snags Just a Few High-Profile James Beard Award Nominations”

That’s headline-speak for: What the heck happened here? As one Southern food writer messaged me, “The semifinalists [were] a laugh-out-loud joke. It’s so, so, so wrong.”

Explanations of the process that led up to the list haven’t alleviated industry insiders’ dismay, in part because even foundation representatives seem to have a tenuous grasp on it. It took the organization’s publicist five days to respond to basic procedural questions regarding the size of the voting body and award criteria.

Yet based on what we’ve learned thus far, it appears I was right to worry in 2021 that a new set of policies would “only shore up those already in power, and privilege California and the Northeast over the rest of the country.” 

Despite the foundation’s claim that overhauling the awards program would advance social justice, the revised system allows the influence of regional biases and massive public relations campaigns to flourish unchecked.

The James Beard Foundation Awards were established in 1990 to recognize culinary excellence. Excellence of any kind is subjective—and it’s impossible for any one person to dine in every U.S. restaurant—so there have been disagreements surrounding the awards from the start. But it was generally acknowledged that the award was reserved for professional achievements.

Then, in 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction between the foundation sending out its award ballots and collecting the results. Foundation leaders decided against revealing who won, reportedly because there weren’t any Black winners.

At that point, I had served on the foundation’s Restaurant and Chef committee, which creates the semifinalist list, as the Southeast region’s representative for several years. In the immediate wake of the 2020 debacle, I remained on the committee, hoping the episode might catalyze changes to a program that desperately needed to be modernized and diversified.

Unfortunately, the foundation continued to demonstrate a worrisome lack of transparency and integrity, prompting me to step down in June 2021, along with most of my fellow committee members. A few months later, the foundation announced that culinary excellence would no longer be the awards’ focus.

Instead, nominees would have to show “a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, environmental sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive.” Namely, they would have to show those qualities through an “alignment statement,” which they could write out or produce as a video. (While those are fantastic qualities in a chef, it limits the competition to people who share the foundation’s worldview—and have either the time or money to hire a PR firm to prove it—automatically cutting down on the diversity of the potential nominee pool.)  

And rather than relying on the insights of journalists and independent food scholars deeply familiar with their regions, the foundation brought more food producers and former chefs into the judging fold.

In the blur of the sped-up first awards seasons following the adjustments, nominees mostly carried over from previous years. Accordingly, North Carolina cleaned up in 2022, with Chai Pani in Asheville winning the Outstanding Restaurant award, Cúrate in Asheville winning the Outstanding Hospitality award, and Ricky Moore of Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham winning the Best Chef: Southeast award.

This year, though, there are only two finalists from North Carolina on the list: Neng Jr.’s in Asheville is up for Best New Restaurant and Sam Hart of Counter in Charlotte is a Best Chef: Southeast nominee.

Which brings us back to the beginning: What the heck happened? 

I think I have a pretty good guess.

The Restaurant and Chef committee was keen to seed its “longlist” with chefs and other food professionals who’ve either been outspoken in their support of progressive causes or made their identities central to their brands. That’s what the alignment statement is all about: The foundation’s spokeswoman told me that if an award contender hasn’t already self-nominated with an alignment statement, someone on the committee is appointed to write it.

In the Southeast, where there might be higher political and financial costs associated with taking an overtly liberal stance than in places with mandated living wages and municipal composting services, that requirement is bound to produce a wonky list. Combined with the current committee’s apparent desire to distance itself from previous nominees, it was good for some head-scratchers—or, to put it more plainly, what looked like a list designed so that eaters of various ethnic, cultural, and racial backgrounds could find a semifinalist with a similar demographic profile.

And here’s where best-laid plans go awry. Once the longlist is completed in January, the semifinalists are divvied up among the 25 committee members and 240 voters for scored visits.

“The scoring weights vary depending on the criteria of the award category, but factors include food execution, service, atmosphere, leadership, and community,” the foundation spokeswoman said, adding that the top five scorers in each category advance to the final round.

Not surprisingly, obscure candidates chosen for optics don’t stand a chance.

Nothing is racism-proof in this country. But when I was charged with putting together semifinalist lists for the Southeast, I made sure that voters would have a tough time stamping out the representation I sought to achieve. I valued a list that looked like the region, and my goal was to assemble a longlist oozing with so much excellence that diversity couldn’t be voted down.

Before the rule change, the last set of nominees for Best Chef: Southeast consisted of one male partnership and four women, including Katie Button of Asheville and Cheetie Kumar of Raleigh. I’m sorry we didn’t have a Black finalist, but that was in part because you’re ineligible for the category once you’ve won: Rodney Scott of Charleston had won in 2018, and Mashama Bailey of Savannah won in 2019.

In 2023, the Best Chef: Southeast group is composed of one Sri Lankan American woman and four white men.

We’ll find out who wins when the medals are handed out in Chicago on June 5, but we already know that the losers are North Carolina women. For me, a recent visit to Counter drove that point home.

Counter, a tasting-menu restaurant which reopened on December 21 after a five-month closure, is utterly OK. At $175 a head (before drinks, taxes, and tip), it’s an entry in the banking city’s tradition of assigning value to places that charge absurdly high prices. Many of the dishes are purposefully puzzling; a few are regrettably overwrought.

What is exceptional at Counter, though, is the dessert course. For a street food–themed menu, pastry chef Faith Morley created half a dozen offerings, including a sticky-sweet ball of popped sorghum, as well as its opposite on the elegance spectrum, a rounded warm orb of Korean-style cake, filled with a subtle mocha cream.

If the Beard Foundation still based its award decisions on culinary excellence—and drew on independent expertise to find it—Morley might have been up for a prize this year rather than her boss.

Hanna Raskin is editor and publisher of The Food Section, a newsletter covering food and drink across the South. You can reach her at hanna@theassemblync.com.