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Four Black chefs headline a new of class of James Beard Award winners

Revamped selection process produced a more diverse group of honorees

A quartet of young Black chefs made a big splash in Chicago Monday night as the James Beard Foundation, the most prominent organization dedicated to the restaurant industry in the United States, hosted its 2023 awards ceremony. 

Among the winners were:

Outstanding Restaurant — Friday Saturday Sunday, Philadelphia
Hanna Williams (left) and chef Chad Williams, co-owners of Friday Saturday Sunday restaurant (right) attend the 2023 James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on June 5 in Chicago.

Chef Chad Williams has recalled his mom phoning his first restaurant job several times to get him fired after he dropped out of Howard University to pursue a career in food. After years of working in Michelin-star and Top 50 kitchens such as Manresa, Saison, and Eleven Madison Park, Williams is a James Beard Award winner as chef/owner of the renovated and reimagined Philadelphia mainstay Friday Saturday Sunday.

Best New Restaurant — Kann, Portland, Oregon
Chef Gregory Gourdet of Kann restaurant speaks onstage during the 2023 James Beard Media Awards at the Columbia College Chicago on June 3 in Chicago.

Portland, Oregon’s, food scene is known for its innovation, dedication to sustainable food practices, and relatively unstuffy approach. What it is not known for is Black folks. Chef Gregory Gourdet has sought to change that over a decade in the Pacific Northwest, much of that time at the helm of the Departure Restaurant and Lounge.

In 2020, he started planning a new restaurant, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed its opening. Sustained by a desire to bring the Haitian food he grew up with to Portland, the Queens, New York, native opened Kann (Haitian Creole for sugarcane) a few years later. And just three years after departing Departure, the former Top Chef contestant is a James Beard Award winner.

Emerging Chef — Damarr Brown, Virtue, Chicago
Chef de cuisine Damarr Brown (left) of Virtue Restaurant & Bar and a guest (right) attend the 2023 James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on June 5 in Chicago.

In 2022, when Erick Williams, executive chef and owner of Virtue Restaurant & Bar in Chicago, won the James Beard Award as the Best Chef in the Great Lakes Region, the celebration spilled out onto the street because even a power outage was not enough to stop the party. Here’s hoping that supporters of the Hyde Park establishment didn’t have to brave the summer heat to celebrate chef de cuisine Demarr Brown, who brought home the restaurant’s second Beard Foundation Award in as many years. Named one of the Best New Chefs in America in 2022 by Food & Wine magazine, Brown’s star is only getting brighter with this game-changing win.

Best Chef: Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma) — Andrew Black, Grey Sweater, Oklahoma City
Chef Andrew Black of Grey Sweater attends the 2023 James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on June 5 in Chicago.

Andrew Black was the only Black chef to win in one of the regional categories, and he did so in a category that has historically been dominated by restaurants in Las Vegas, Arizona and Texas (the last of which, like California and New York, now has its own, separate, category). Black’s Oklahoma City eatery Grey Sweater does not offer a set menu and encourages diners to give themselves over to the creativity and hard work of Black and his staff for a tiered collection of tasting menus.

Beyond the awards for chefs and restaurateurs, the foundation also presents Leadership Awards. This year, three of those awards went to sustainable foods activist Jim Embry of Lexington, Kentucky; Savonala Horne, an attorney who heads the Land Loss Prevention Project in North Carolina; and Ira Wallace, a seed saver, gardener, and protector of Southern foodways. Olivia Watkins and Karen Washington were awarded the 2023 Humanitarian of the Year award for their work supporting Black farmers in the Northeast.

The 2023 James Beard Foundation Awards were among the foundation’s most diverse ever. However, the road to Monday’s celebration was mired in controversy. The New York Times reported that the foundation’s decision to call off the awards in 2020, when protests for racial justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers attracted extra scrutiny on historically homogenous institutions, came when members counted the votes and learned that there would be zero Black winners. The organization ultimately decided not to make any awards that year. It canceled the nominations and awards altogether in 2021 while it examined its policies and practices.

Since then, the Beard Foundation instituted a new vetting process for nominees that considers their treatment of staff and patrons besides their culinary chops. It updated its categories (Emerging Chef was replaced with Rising Star Chef and its under-30 age requirement, for example). And it ended the practice of having former winners automatically become voting members in an attempt to mitigate systemic bias.

Those moves were also controversial, but the push to improve the diversity of the foundation and the chefs and restaurants it recognized has resulted in some change. Several promising new faces, including some from regions not known for being culinary hotbeds, have taken center stage since the awards returned last year. Time will tell whether this is a lasting trend or a historical blip. For now, the winners and nominees can celebrate their achievements and inspire the next crop of future stars.

Greg Whitt is a writer from Washington, DC. His work has appeared in VIBE, Genius, Consequence of Sound and several other publications. He likes to freestyle when he's by himself in the car.