This week I wrote about the how only one Charleston female chef has ever been named a James Beard Award semifinalist, a stat I found pretty awful considering the fact that the city has made the Beard “longlist” 45 times. And in response to my piece, today Hanna Raskin, a Beard judge, has her own explanation of why that’s the case. She points out three main reasons men seem to dominate:
“Once a chef surpasses the semifinalist stage to become a nominee, he or she usually – but not always – stays on the list until he or she wins or stops cooking.”
“Chefs have to have spent three years cooking professionally in the region in order to qualify” and “a chef must have worked in a professional kitchen for at least five years to be eligible for a Best Chef award.” That means, as Raskin explained in a tweet to me, “Five years or more of professional cooking, including the past three years spent working in the region.”
“It’s tough for a fine dining chef to win recognition in the Southeast. The only semifinalist associated with a restaurant in the same class as Charleston Grill is Steven Devereaux Greene, who’s at Herons in the Umstead Hotel. My guess is the problem isn’t so much a bias against fine dining as the price of the experience. Remember, voters are writers, and all of them are expected to pay their own way when dining out.
So let’s take a look at those points.
Saying that a nominee generally stays on the list until they win or stop cooking doesn’t really add up. Consider the following Charleston chefs who have made the list:
Louis Osteen (Louis’s) – nominee 4 times
Robert Waggoner (Charleston Grill) – nominee 4 times
Craig Deihl (Cypress) – semifinalist 2 times, nominee 2 times
Ken Vedrinski (Trattoria Lucca) – semifinalist 2 times
Joshua Keeler (Two Boroughs Larder) – semifinalist 3 times
Sure Vedrinski and Keeler follow Raskin’s reasoning, but not Waggoner or Deihl. While Waggoner left Charleston Grill after his fourth nomination in 2009, he continued to cook in Nashville, running Watermark, so he stayed in the region, didn’t stop cooking, and yet didn’t make the list again. Same goes for Deihl who was also cut from the list after being a nominee twice but continues to cook.
Raskin suggests the rules regarding the frame of time one has worked — helming a kitchen or pastry program in a region for at least three years — might disqualify some women as well. But based on my count, at least 17 Charleston women fit the bill. They are as follows:
Andrea Upchurch (Cypress)
Jill Mathias (Chez Nous)
Michelle Weaver (Charleston Grill)
Emily Cookson (Edmund’s Oast)
Lauren Mitterer (WildFlour Pastry)
Kelly Franz (Magnolias)
Martha Lou Gadsden (Martha Lou’s)
MariElena Raya (Gin Joint)
Chelsey Conrad (Butcher & Bee)
Blake McCormick (EVO)
Emily Hahn (Warehouse & Parlor Deluxe)
Amanee Neirouz (492)
Jen Parezo (Twenty Six Divine)
Denetra Richardson (Swank Desserts)
Sarah Fagan (Butcher & Bee)
Michelle Saleton (Wild Olive)
Carrie Morey (Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit)
Finally, Raskin says that the price point of fine dining is a deterrent for judges who are poor writers. If that’s the case, perhaps the entire judging policy needs to be reviewed. If fine dining — arguably where the traditions of service and skill are supposed to be at their highest — is ruled out because of price, the entire Beard Awards are biased toward new and cheap restaurants. Clearly that’s not the case. While Charleston Grill is expensive, you can run up a mighty high tab just as easily at FIG or McCrady’s with the addition of cocktails and wine pairings. But ultimately this is really where we begin to see the absurdity of the awards in the first place.
Phil Vettel, The Chicago Tribune’s restaurant critic and member of the 2016 James Beard Award overseeing committee, tells me, 600 total voters decide who wins these coveted awards. But ” there is no rubric beyond for the Beard eligibility guidelines and definitions themselves.” It appears, who wins or loses is based simply on a matter of taste and, as we all know, taste is one of the most subjective things in the world. But if all you’re tasting is hot new places because you’re limited by budget, those are the places that are going to win. Natch.
Now Raskin may dispute that, but there’s one thing she and I can agree on — as we both wrote, we’d both like to see more deserving woman, not to mention other minorities, make the James Beard semifinalist list in years to come.
Of course, if Raskin’s third point is true, don’t expect a female minority chef serving $40-plus plates at a white tablecloth spot winning a Beard any time soon.