The James Beard Foundation is instituting a major change in the judging process for its restaurant and chef awards this year. To wit: The judges will now actually visit the restaurants and taste the food of the chefs.
That might seem like a no brainer, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that that has always been the case. And it kinda sorta was, but not really.
Let me explain.
From the time the JBF Awards were initiated, in 1991, instantly becoming a sought-after coveted prize, the restaurant and chef categories were determined by panels of judges comprised of restaurant critics, food editors and other culinary experts. They made the initial recommendations for nominees, voted to cull the list to 20 or so semifinalists (choosing up to five favorites in each category), then ultimately voted on one of five finalists to determine the lucky winner.
(I was a charter judge and remained one for over 30 years but ended my relationship with the organization a few years ago; more on that in a moment.)
But the judges only had to attest that they had eaten in the restaurant OR tasted the nominated chef’s food. It did not matter if that restaurant visit or food consumption occurred last week or 10 years ago. There was also no attestation about where the food was consumed, maybe at the restaurant or at a charity food event the chef was attending. And judges could vote for restaurants outside their own regions. So judges could, in theory and certainly in practice, vote for a restaurant in, say, New Orleans that they visited and enjoyed several years ago without considering another nominee in, say, Orlando. (Both cities are in the South Region Best Chef category.)
A few years ago, the initial recommendation phase was opened up to accept nominations from anyone – restaurant owners, the dining public, a chef’s friends and relatives – with semifinal selections made by the official judges but still not requiring contemporaneous visits to the nominated restaurants.
But now that has changed.