Clare Reichenbach stepped in as CEO of the James Beard Foundation early this year—just when widespread incidents of sexual harassment and misconduct in the restaurant industry hit the media. It was crisis control. Celebrity chef Mario Batali had just stepped down from his restaurant empire amid allegations of sexual misconduct in his kitchen; an embarrassment to the foundation, which had honored him with multiple James Beard Foundation Awards—the culinary equivalent of an Oscar—and named him to their Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America list. Worse yet, it came out that the hotel and restaurant industry is the largest single source of sexual harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Other high-profile restaurateurs and chefs accused of sexual harassment included Ken Friedman and John Besh, also James Beard award winners. She jumped straight into the fire, as they say, took on the Herculean task of trying to bring cultural changes to the industry.
“We believe that increasing the number of women at the business helm and in leadership positions will be a critical component of sustainable changes in the industry,” says Reichenbach. One of the key ways it is trying to prompt holistic change is by transforming the process of how it selects its high-profile award nominees and winners, with an aim toward much greater diversity.
Starting with the 2019 awards—to be announced in the spring and presented at the annual gala in May—there will be a mandate that the powerful committees that make the nominations and the judges who select the winners are at least as diverse as the United States population itself, in hopes that there will be far more recognition of ethnic and regional cuisines as well as women’s contributions. There will be no more additions to the Who’s Who list, which has been kind of an insiders’ club with previous winners acting as judges. Some of the costs for media and cookbook award entrants will be waived as a way of bringing in new voices.
“We believe that increasing the number of women at the
business helm and in leadership positions will be a critical
component of sustained step-change in the industry,”
— Clare Reichenbach
The James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards, which are aimed at raising awareness of such social problems as food sustainability, hunger, and public health by recognizing people who are making changes, will also see an overhaul. In the past, the nominations came from a standing committee and the input of previous winners; now the public will be able to nominate candidates. And winners will receive $10,000 to aid their work.
The 2018 awards were already a departure. The foundation had issued a statement to judges saying that “award winners are held up as role models. If you have concerns about a chef, restaurateur, or beverage professional, or about the culture around a restaurant or restaurant group, leave the person or business out of your nominations.” As it turned out, it was the most diverse set of winners ever; 11 of the 15 chefs to receive awards were women, people of color, or both. But the changes for next year are meant to ensure that the 2018 awards don’t turn out to be a one-off. Reichenbach says the foundation is also expanding a program called Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership, aimed at helping women chefs and restaurateurs grow their businesses, with more outreach and more efforts to help women get access to capital.
“We’re actively looking to uncover and shine a light on new players and voices in the broader food ecosystem that are driving positive change,” she says.