If the 2018 James Beard Awards are any indication, we may have made a serious turn in representation in the food world. The majority of awards given to chefs and restaurants, as well as awards given to food media, went to women and people of color. Among them, Michael W. Twitty, who became the first African-American to win the esteemed Book of the Year award, as well as the award for Writing; and Eduardo Jordan, who operates the restaurants Salare and JuneBaby in Seattle, took home the honors for Best New Restaurant and Best Chef: Northwest.
For some, the wins feel like the food-journalism version of Obama’s 2008 election — long-overdue recognition that offers something like hope. Eater called Jordan’s awards “unprecedented, and a historic moment for the American food world,” while The New Yorker highlighted the ceremony’s “remarkable elevation of women and people of color.” The Chicago Tribune deemed diversity the “biggest winner” of the night. Grub, too, made a point to call attention to the wins, and even the Beard Foundation itself hailed the awards’ celebration of “the collective spirit of the culinary community” — all of which highlighted just how rare an occurrence this kind of acclaim is for black chefs, writers, and journalists, and how performative it can feel when white-led institutions make a point to champion certain African-Americans while ignoring others.
Black points of view are common in film, music, fashion, literature, and politics, yet the slice of the journalism world that covers food, chefs, and restaurants as pop culture remains deeply un-integrated. The fact is, the handful of people who are in charge of deciding which chefs and writers are elevated from hometown heroes to national celebrities — prominent editors-in-chief, deputy editors, restaurant critics, and on down the mastheads — are white. “There is gatekeeping that happens in food media that has a real impact on the type of stories and recipes and cultural understanding that we could have,” says Shakirah Simley, a writer and food activist based in San Francisco. “There’s a real systematic oppression in place that limits black voices, black stories, and black experiences and that has filtered, I think, throughout the entire media and publishing world, but it’s especially problematic in food media.”
Look, for example, at the escalation in recognition for Jordan’s JuneBaby: The restaurant opened in April, 2017. In June, Providence Cicero at the Seattle Times gave JuneBaby a three-star review. Esquire’s Jeff Gordinier ranked the restaurant third on his list of the 18 best new restaurants of 2017. In December, Eater’s Bill Addison called JuneBaby the year’s best new restaurant. In March of this year, New York Times critic Pete Wells also awarded JuneBaby three stars. That review was followed by Jordana Rothman of Food & Wine and GQ’s Brett Martin, who both put JuneBaby on their own best new restaurants lists. And earlier this week, Jordan took home two James Beard awards. When all of these assessments are taken as a whole, it’s impossible not to notice that the critics and editors responsible for putting the national spotlight on JuneBaby — a restaurant that takes black cooking as its foundation — were white.
At present, it’s impossible to read about high-end restaurants through the eyes of a prominent black diner or critic. Korsha Wilson, a freelance writer and the host of “A Hungry Society” on the Heritage Radio Network puts it this way: “When we talk about restaurant reviews, the way that people of color experience fine dining restaurants in particular is different than how food critics experience restaurants. And let’s keep it real: people know what Pete Wells looks like.”
As Wilson points out, “it can be a completely different experience if you’re a person of color going into these spaces” and there should be a critic, somewhere, who can speak to that reality. “Restaurants are just as susceptible to all the different systems of oppression that work in every other part of our country, and so when we talk about restaurant criticism, we need to look at the fact that, dining is impacted by those same systems.”
A more diverse pool of critics also means a more diverse stable of restaurants that will get covered. And there’s more at stake than celebrity and ego: The right press results in very real business. “When Josh Ozersky wrote about me in Harlem at the Cecil, our sales went up 80 percent,” says J.J. Johnson, a chef who has similarly seen his public profile raised in the four years since that happened. “When you run a restaurant you want these people to write about you because they do have the power of putting butts in seats.”
In his six years of cooking in fine-dining kitchens, Johnson says he’s only been written about by two black journalists, Nikita Stewart at the Times, and freelance writer and cookbook author Nicole A. Taylor. He also keeps an impressively close eye on the habits of food media and says he’s noticed that there only seems to be room in the national restaurant conversation for one great black chef at a time, a problem that doesn’t affect chefs of other races. Johnson points to the Times’ three-star review of JuneBaby, an honor that feels unique, since “The last black chef to get three stars was Marcus Samuelsson in 1995. It’s been 20 fucking years.”
It’s impossible to believe that there wasn’t another black chef of note and considerable talent in those two decades, and a black person has still never won the James Beard Awards’ Outstanding Chef honor — but it is easy to believe that chefs like, say, D.C.–area chef Morou Ouattara or Atlanta’s Darryl Evans might have received more national recognition if a major media outlet had been run by a black editor. “Even though black writers are doing well for themselves,” Johnson points out, “they still don’t hold a seat at the table at a major publication.”
Perhaps no one is more acutely aware of that fact than Taylor, who is also the author of The Up South Cookbook. In her ten years as a food writer in New York City, the Georgia-born Taylor has never once held a staff position, despite applying for three at high-profile publications that have gone on to hire her as a freelance contributor. She’s become something of an authority on the movements of black food writers and how the discussion about black people in mainstream food has changed.
“The conversations that I was having years ago were about cultural appropriation,” she says. “Over time, my conversation has shifted, and it wasn’t just about who was appropriating our food, but who has power and control? Who has agency? You’ve got tons of articles about ‘Where is the Black chef?’ or ‘Who’s appropriating black food?’ or ‘Who owns Southern food?’ But there are no conversations about, ‘Where are the black people at such-and-such publication?’”
Taylor and Simley are both members of the advisory board at Equity at the Table, an organization founded by Julia Turshen that aims to combat gender and racial discrimination in food with a database that connects people who identify as minorities and highlights the work they do. The goal is to get to a point where black achievement in cooking doesn’t have to be viewed exclusively through a white lens. “If you don’t have black people who are editors and staff writers in decision-making roles,” says food writer and pastry chef Klancy Miller, another board member of EATT, “you’re not going to have an awareness of all of the multitudes that black people contain and you’re just going to fall on tropes. I love soul food, but we do everything. So show us doing everything.”
“I don’t really care about diversity,” says Simley, the Bay Area food activist. “I care about equity and I care about justice. Those are two very, very different things.” The idea of diversity, she says, “lets people off the hook — it relies upon tokenization, and it relies upon appearances by having the presence of folks of color.” True equity doesn’t happen unless there’s a power shift, “not just having folks of color at the table, but putting them at the head of the table and having their voices be the ones that are leading.”