The James Beard Awards are considered one of the most prestigious honors in the U.S. food business, but the foundation running the awards has been beset in recent years by pandemic problems and a controversy over how the organization handled misconduct allegations. Concerns over the lack of diversity in its nominees prompted the cancellation of the 2020 awards and an audit of the organization’s practices.
The 2022 awards will be its first since that reckoning, so folks that follow the industry have been waiting to see a list of this year’s semifinalists, wondering if the James Beard Foundation’s (JBF) promises to truly cast a wider net would come to fruition.
In a press release sent Tuesday, the foundation announced that list of award contenders, a group that food publication Eater characterized as “one of the most diverse — across race, gender, geography, styles of service, and styles of cuisine — in the foundation’s history.” It’s also a list that includes only six East Bay chefs and venues, all in Oakland. It’s a definite change from the 2019 list, which listed seven local spots and included restaurants and producers in Berkeley and Alameda.
For the 2022 list, the East Bay was completely passed over in the category of “Outstanding Restaurateur,” which the JBF says is reserved for “a restaurateur who uses their establishment(s) as a vehicle for building community, demonstrates creativity in entrepreneurship, integrity in restaurant operations, and is making efforts to create a sustainable work culture.” To be nominated, the chef must have at least five years of restaurant experience, and “must not have been nominated for a James Beard Foundation Chef Award in the past three years.”
When it comes to the next category, “Outstanding Chef” (“A chef who sets high culinary standards and has served as a positive example for other food professionals”), Reem Assil was singled out as a contender. Her Oakland restaurant, Reem’s, was the source of controversy in 2017, when it opened with a mural depicting Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian activist convicted in 1970 of a fatal bombing in Jerusalem. The restaurant closed in April 2020. Last fall, it moved to the the kitchen facilities at Restore Oakland but isn’t currently open to the public. “We are working towards the dream of a flagship bakery in Oakland, where one can walk into a worker-owned space and feel the warmth of our fresh bread and hospitality,” Reem’s said on its website. “This move is part of our continuous journey.”
The East Bay is again without any nominees in the category of “Outstanding Restaurant,” which honors a place “that demonstrates consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, hospitality, and operations while contributing positively to its broader community,” and has been open for five years.
When it comes to “Emerging Chef” (“A chef who displays exceptional talent, character, and leadership ability, and who is likely to make a significant impact in years to come”), Crystal Wahpepah of Oakland’s Wahpepah’s Kitchen (3301 E. 12th St., Oakland), is a semifinalist. This is notable not just because Wahpepah is one of the few indigenous people (she is Kickapoo) to be honored by the JBF, but because her restaurant is in the former Reem’s space in Fruitvale. Is there perhaps some sort of James Beard magic within those walls?
Scrolling down the list, the East Bay doesn’t make another appearance until “Outstanding Wine Program,” when The Punchdown (1737 Broadway, Oakland) gets the nod. “Outstanding Bar Program” also lists Friends and Family (468 25th St., Oakland) as a contender.
“Best Chef” is such a vast category for the Beard awards that it’s broken down into regions. For the California semifinalist list, only one East Bay chef made the list: James Syhabout, the chef/owner at Commis (3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland), which is also the East Bay’s only restaurant to be afforded any Michelin stars.
The full list of semifinalists is online, and the winners in each category will be announced during a Chicago ceremony on June 13, 2022.