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Opinion

Cancel the James Beard Awards, Permanently

As with most everything else that has transpired in 2020, the annual James Beard Awards has been shrouded in uncertainty. After initially delaying the announcement of this year’s Best Chef and Outstanding Restaurant nominees due to the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, the organization eventually settled on holding a virtual ceremony in late September to reveal the winners.

This week, the Foundation reversed course yet again by canceling this year’s program altogether without revealing the winners. In a statement, Clare Reichenbach, the CEO of the Beard Foundation, wrote, “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.”

According to a scathing article in the New York Times that followed, Pete Wells reported that the Foundation’s choice to conceal the winners was marred by internal controversy. His article suggests that there were serious concerns among JBF’s senior leadership that this year’s list of honorees wasn’t diverse enough.

The organization was also privately struggling to parse allegations of unethical conduct made against numerous chefs on this year’s ballot. Even though some of the accused parties had already withdrawn their names from consideration, the Foundation was reluctant to honor chefs whose improprieties might overshadow the event. 

James Beard Awards
Kwame Onwuachi accepting the Rising Star Chef Award

This controversy is only one in a litany of others faced by the Beard Foundation in recent years. The nominating process itself was exposed for its inherent favoritism toward white, male chefs, resulting in an overhaul of the jury process over the last several nominating cycles.

There is no doubt that JBF executives are acutely aware of their own failure to fairly represent the changing face of the restaurant industry on the Awards stage. What’s unclear is whether or not the current leadership is capable of making the necessary changes to reimagine the JBF Awards in a way that lives up to the promise of diversity and inclusiveness. 

Whether the Beard Foundation wittingly or unwittingly buried this year’s list of winners to avoid embarrassment belies a more important question that no one—food media acolytes and JBF executives alike—seems to have the courage to ask: Do the James Beard Awards serve any meaningful purpose anymore?

The existential crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has hastened an unexpected reckoning where restaurant owners, even the most successful, are chewing off their own limbs to survive. This is no time for pageantry. 

Although many refer to the Beard Awards as the Oscars of the restaurant industry, the ceremony itself doesn’t have nearly the same storied history. In fact, the Foundation’s role as an ombudsman for restaurant excellence only began in 1990. Looking back at its legacy, it’s always been in the interest of self-preservation that the JBF Awards blissfully sprinkles confetti over the scabs and bruises of a deeply dysfunctional industry. It has no raison d’ être without the illusion that restaurant work is glamorous.

In some ways, the almost mythological coronation that accompanied being awarded a Beard exacerbated the industry’s backwardness. Chefs have always been a competitive bunch. Giving out medals every year only made the industry more susceptible to its own barbarism.

Regarding race and gender bias, the Beard Awards has always been a symptom of the restaurant industry’s dysfunction more than the cause of it. But its existence has helped to perpetuate a narrative that white, male chefs—even ones that cook food from cultures other than their own—deserve the highest accolades. The Foundation’s latest misstep suggests that its recent efforts to be more inclusive have fallen significantly short. According to the New York Times article, not a single Black Chef was voted best in all twenty-three categories, both regionally and nationally. 

The press release cancelling this year and next year’s Awards included commentary on JBF’s plan for the future and its commitment to eliminating systemic bias. According to this statement: “The objectives are to… increase the diversity of the pool of candidates, maintain relevance, and align the Awards more outwardly with the Foundation’s values of equity, equality, sustainability, and excellence for the restaurant industry.” The Foundation plans to enlist the services of an outside “social justice agency” to provide counsel for these initiatives. 

While these measures are admirable, the restaurant industry shouldn’t be looking to JBF to solve its equity problems and ethics issues. The Foundation’s yearly awards subconsciously promote a culture that views restaurants as something to be compared and judged. This fosters a divisive spirit where chefs and restaurants are commoditized in a way that prizes their contribution to gastro-tourism over their role in serving their communities. 

The New York Times story is particularly vexing as it pertains to issues surrounding how a chef’s conduct might impact his or her eligibility for a Beard Award. The article cites several recent examples of chefs, including Jessica Koslow of Sqirl in Los Angeles (of moldy jam fame), who have extricated themselves from the list of nominees amidst allegations of abusive behavior towards employees.

Though its intentions may be pure, the Foundation shouldn’t so easily absolve itself of its hand in creating the cutthroat competition that contributes to many of the dysfunctional behaviors that occur inside Beard-decorated restaurants or among the hopefuls. That said, the industry also shouldn’t expect JBF, or any other external organization, to act as arbiters of morality for its own dysfunctional workplace. The sad truth is that a lot of chefs are dicks, and many of them will continue to be dicks whether they have a medal around their neck or not. 

A more complicated piece to the puzzle for the Beard Awards going forward is that the traditional definition of a restaurant will likely change out of necessity. Safety precautions implemented due to the pandemic have forced many restaurants to adapt their business models to be more flexible—including developing grocery options, selling meal kits and offering in-house delivery. There will be less emphasis on table service until following CDC guidelines is no longer a precursor to serving guests.

The JBF Awards have historically bestowed the most recognition on upscale restaurants that offer full-service, sit-down experiences, especially those that feature elaborate tasting menus with multiple courses. That business model may no longer be tenable in a post-pandemic world. 

The Beard Foundation deserves credit for its many charitable initiatives, including its unflappable support of the restaurant industry in recent months. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, it has led a noble effort to raise funds to support independent restaurants across the country through its Open For Good program.

The annual Awards are a profit center for the Beard Foundation.

There is no question that the Beard Foundation’s existence raises awareness and appreciation of diverse food cultures and, at its best, helps to promote industry figures with expertise to enliven the culinary pursuits of its constituents. But the Beard Foundation’s financial health and foundational mission shouldn’t be pinned so tightly to an annual popularity contest that decides who stays and who gets voted off the island every year. 

The pandemic crisis and Black Lives Matter movement have caused the industry to dismantle the pale, patriarchal system that has systematically excluded women and people of color from proper recognition in the kitchen. Whether by design or not, culinary awards have always mirrored that dysfunction and helped perpetuate it. The dogmatic pursuit of Michelin stars, glowing reviews, and acknowledgment from the Beard Foundation has taken an irreversible psychic toll on restaurant professionals. Not by choice, but because the success of their restaurants often depends on it.

The James Beard Foundation may have squandered a golden opportunity to reinvent itself. Why not make a bold statement by choosing to honor chefs and restaurateurs not by judging their work against others’ but by celebrating individual achievement unbound by culinary discipline, geographic location, or level of formality? If the James Beard Foundation truly cares about the future of restaurants, it will take this moment to repent and refocus its mission around its namesake’s legacy—celebrating the simple act of cooking well without pretense. 

Categories
Opinion

Tipping Won’t Change Until America Does

The reports of the death of tipping in America have been greatly exaggerated. Last week, one of the most visible advocates of eliminating tipping, Danny Meyer of the Union Square Hospitality Group, unexpectedly revealed that he was abandoning his “hospitality included” model across all of his company’s full-service restaurants.

When he announced the initiative in 2015, Meyer was championed for having the courage to repair the broken economics of restaurant labor. As it turns out, eradicating tipping isn’t as simple as flipping a switch in the payroll fuse box. Try to imagine what would happen in your office if management announced one morning that everyone’s salary was being recalculated without any change in aggregate pay. Everyone would revolt, except the ones getting raises. That’s more or less what happened at USHG.

In arguing for change, Meyer and others have cited the racist history of tipping in America. When slavery was abolished, the tipping system became a backhanded way for white business owners to avoid paying fair wages to recently freed slaves, if they even paid them at all.

As America continues its long overdue reckoning with racial divisions through the Black Lives Matter movement, more evidence mounts that tipped minimum wages reinforce the income disparities that disproportionately affect communities of color. A recent report by One Fair Wage, an organization dedicated to ending sub-minimum hourly wages for tipped workers, explicitly details how women and communities of color have been systematically shortchanged when tips are the primary source of their income.

What often isn’t acknowledged in the controversy is how tipping is promulgated by free-market capitalism and sustained by conservative fiscal ideology. Over time, tipping has evolved into a renewable cycle of gladhanding that exists mainly to benefit white people. For too long, the hospitality industry has levered its own survival to the wealth of its patrons. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, prices at high-end restaurants had reached astronomical levels, and yet there was no shortage of buyers. The restaurant industry has always been the perfect dance partner for privilege.

Tipping

As with other capitalist endeavors, the rules of engagement in restaurants are shaped by money. Upscale restaurants have become meritocracies. Order an expensive bottle of wine and your meal won’t be rushed; have an appetizer as your entree and your check will arrive before you ask for it.

Affluent guests learn quickly how having money can curry favor—fast tracking reservations, ensuring preferred seating arrangements and facilitating complimentary items. Tipping has become a natural extension of that moneyed dynamic. The promise of a gracious tip keeps the servers’ interests aligned with the owners’—to extract as much money as possible from their most valuable guests.

The blameless environment of a restaurant makes rich people feel powerful. Regulars become codependent on the false affection money affords and servers are lured in by the handsome sums they receive in exchange for manufacturing concern. Once both sides get hooked up to the drip, it’s difficult to kick the habit. Of course, both parties are equally irritated when these capitalist forces turn against them. Servers seethe when they’re tipped poorly without proper cause. Parties with reservations waiting at the bar bristle when a group of regulars tips the maître d’ and is whisked immediately to their table ahead of them.

Market forces also dictate the supply of qualified labor. Tipped employees choose jobs based on their economic best interests. All things being equal, if a restaurant is busy and management has devised a system to facilitate its staff making good money, it will attract talent and staff will be loyal. If a restaurant isn’t consistently busy or the system of distributing tips is ill-conceived, retention will suffer. If restaurateurs want to attract and retain qualified labor, they must find a formula that keeps wages competitive with the market. Danny and USHG learned this lesson the hard way. 

Of course there have been many restauranteurs that have successfully implemented non-tipping models, but in general those experiments have occurred on a much smaller scale. Fostering the necessary trust and a sense of shared responsibility is a harder sell for larger restaurant groups.

We see the same tensions infecting our national politics. Shared wealth has struggled to be embraced as a mainstream political idea. You don’t have to look very far to see the unsuccessful attempts of progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to center socialism as the dominant ideology of the Democratic Party. Republicans, on the other hand, spend most of their energy vilifying anything related to the notion of collective prosperity.

Just as many independent restaurants have successfully eliminated tipping on a local level, a new generation of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have burst onto the national scene with a socialist message that mirrors the changes in political attitudes in their home districts. This dichotomy suggests that changing the tipping system with the mindset of grass-roots community organizers might be more effective than a top-down approach that relies heavily on proselytizing and PR spin. 

At the end of the day, this isn’t a problem unique to the restaurant business, it’s a contradiction at the heart of the American ethos. E Pluribus Unum is E Pluribus Over. The disunion and moral decay began long before Trumpism, but the current political climate exacerbates the wealth gap between the winners and losers. Making America “Great Again” requires removing any barriers that impede one’s acquisition of personal wealth. To free-market capitalists, rewarding the resourcefulness of a convincing server with a commission of his or her sales drives both revenue for the restaurant and income growth for the server.

The problem is that capitalism can’t be bothered by the hardship that besets the people it leaves behind. Free markets must have winners and losers. It’s part of the game; The Art of the Deal, if you will. In our ruthless quest to amass capital, Americans view coming out on the losing end as a sign of personal weakness. But it isn’t fair to measure the aptitude of the players on a playing field that isn’t level.

Americans have a gift for deluding themselves into thinking that everyone is given a fair shake. The conservative pundits who want to scale back federal stimulus during the pandemic, for example, are convinced that we should all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Unfortunately, not everyone’s boots have straps. Some people are barefoot.

The tipping system won’t go away until America is ready to face its demons. In most fine dining establishments around the country little has changed through the decades—the kitchens are filled with underpaid Black and brown people while the staff of most dining rooms are well-paid and overwhelmingly white. Other thriving industries like finance, technology, medicine and law systematically exclude communities of color from the prosperity they generate. Those industries, in turn, perpetuate a cycle of transferring wealth to high-end restaurants where white owners and white servers are the primary beneficiaries.

To eliminate tipping, we must first dismantle white supremacy by demanding equitable pay and an end to racial discrimination and gender bias. To do so means we have to care about each other first—a seemingly insurmountable task in America today. Deaths from the Coronavirus continue to reach nightmarish levels, conspiracy theories flourish, politicians point fingers and Karens throw daily tantrums at Trader Joe’s about wearing masks in public. For a country founded on Christian values, it’s clear that loving thy neighbor isn’t exactly our strong suit.

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