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No James Beard Award Winners Means No First-Ever Best Chef: Texas Award

The foundation, which was set to include a category dedicated to Texas chefs the first time, decided to forgo the awards this year because of the novel coronavirus pandemic

The James Beard Award medal from 2009
The James Beard Award medal from 2009
Victor Spinelli/WireImage
Nadia Chaudhury is the editor of Eater Austin covering food and pop culture, as well as a photographer, writer, and frequent panel moderator and podcast guest.

The annual James Beard Awards, often likened to the Oscars of the food world, isn’t announcing winners this year, despite having announced finalists in May. This also means that the awards’ first-ever Best Chef: Texas category, which included two Austin chefs, won’t have its first-ever winner.

The reason the foundation decided to nix winners this year is because of the novel coronavirus pandemic and how greatly it has impacted and altered the restaurant world amid virus mitigation efforts and safety concerns. As the organization explained in a press release:

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.

The Best Chef: Texas category finalists included Austin’s Kevin Fink of New American restaurant Emmer & Rye (for the second time) and Michael Fojtasek of Southern restaurant Olamaie (for the third time). The other state nominees included Houston’s Anita Jaisinghani of Indian restaurant Pondicheri and Trong Nguyen of Vietnamese and Cajun restaurants Crawfish & Noodles, as well as San Antonio’s Steve McHugh of New American restaurant Cured.

Earlier this year, the foundation decided to create an entirely separate category for Texas chefs, who had been previously nominated under the Southwest category. This was recognize the importance of the state and its tremendous culinary influence. (The same happened with California, too).

The 2020 James Beard Award’s virtual ceremony is still being held on September 25 via Twitter. The event will honor the nominees as well as the already-announced winners in announced categories. This includes the America’s Classics category, which recognizes Brownsville, Texas restaurant Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, known for its barbacoa.

The foundation also announced that its 2021 awards won’t happen either for similar pandemic-related reasons. Alternatively, the organization plans on honoring those in the restaurant and food industry that have helped amid the pandemic with a ceremony in May 2021. Its usual nomination process for the 2022 awards will begin in the fall of 2021.

The foundation is also taking this break to reexamine how it determines nominees to make sure that it is fair and reflective of the grander country, as it shared in the press release:

The objectives are to remove any systemic bias, 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.

Previous Austin-based James Beard Award winners in Austin include Aaron Franklin (2015), Paul Qui (2012), and Tyson Cole (as part of a tie in 2011).

Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Foundation Awards.