March 7

A Brief History of the James Beard Awards


Dust up on Your Culinary Knowledge With Our Brief History of James Beard, the James Beard Foundation, and the James Beard Awards.

It’s that time of year, y’all! The Oscar season of the culinary industry is upon us, and we’re here to join the fun with a brief yet highly informative history of the James Beard Awards! 
And, what better way to start than by learning a bit about the man himself, James Beard? 

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Born May 5, 1903, in Portland, Oregon, Beard was destined for food greatness. 

As a young lad, baby Beard and his family spent summers vacationing at the beach in Gearhart, Oregon. Like many Portlanders, the Beards lavished on coastal offerings, cooking meals with the day’s bounty (you know Beard acquired a taste for some spectacular flavors early on). 

Later in life, after expulsion from Reed College, Beard spent time traveling and pursuing a career in theater and acting. After realizing his dream of acting wouldn’t pay the bills, he leaned into his food-centric background and started a catering business and a little food shop called Hors d’Oeuvre (some things never change). 

One thing led to another, and his culinary career began to blossom—in the 1940s Beard published two rather popular cookbooks, Hors d’Oeuvre & Canapés and Cook it Outdoors, before briefly serving in the US Army during WWII.

Post-service, Beard returned to New York in 1945, continuing to write cookbooks and making a name for himself within the culinary community. 

By 1946, Beard was starring in the first cooking show on national television with his series, “I Love to Eat,” on NBC. This catapulted his career, making him one of the first celebrity chefs as we know them today. 

Beard was on the map in the budding US culinary scene, contributing to many food-related publications, shows, and radio, and even ran his restaurant in Nantucket. This man was unstoppable, influential, and the “It boy” amongst foodies nationwide. 

Later, he opened the James Beard Cooking School, where he settled his career and taught for 30 years while continuing to write cookbooks until he passed away on January 21st, 1985. 

So, How Did the James Beard Awards Start? 

There’s no denying that James Beard pioneered the US food scene. We wouldn’t be where we are today without his influence. This is why Beard’s friends and colleagues, including cooking school founder Peter Kump, fundraised to buy his estate and launch The James Beard Foundation (JBF) in honor of his death. 

Since its official opening in 1986, The foundation’s mission has adapted, but it’s always aimed to be a center for celebrating and developing culinary arts. 

Under Kump’s direction, the foundation served annual dinners and events to help fundraise, celebrate and elevate new culinary talent, and maintain Beard’s home as the center for America’s food community. 

In the 90s, the James Beard Awards for excellence in food and beverage and related industries came to fruition, directed by Melanie Young. 

In an article written for Eater, Young shared the backstory of the awards. At the time, other award programs already existed but were undergoing a series of changes, creating a perfect opportunity for JBF to launch its own award program. 

With funding and backing, Kump sought to create the nation’s most significant award program for culinary professionals—including bringing back the Who’s Who of Cooking in America, formally an award segment published in Cooks Magazine that ended in 1990. 

“The foundation sealed a deal with Bonnier Corp. to take over Who’s Who of Cooking and renamed it the James Beard Foundation Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America to give it a broader representation of the industry and its leaders,” Young wrote. 

Originally, the goal was to announce winners of The James Beard Awards around Beard’s birthday on May 5th, with the first awards granted in 1991. Over the next five years, the JBF Awards incorporated Journalism, Broadcast, and Restaurant Design. 

The awards had a slow start. The ceremony was even broadcasted on the Food Network for a few years, starting in 1994, but the network canceled the contract due to a lack of interest. But through perseverance and a growing desire for celebrity chefs and stardom, the Awards persevered, evolving into the high honor we know today.

How Do the James Beard Awards Work? 

It’s easiest to understand how the James Beard Awards work by first outlining the different award programs and achievement awards. 

The 5 Award Programs include 
1. Book
2. Broadcast Media
3. Journalism
4. Restaurant and Chef Awards
5. Leadership Awards

The Achievement Awards include 
1. Lifetime Achievement
2. Humanitarian of the Year Awards

The James Beard Award nominations and elections are overseen by the Award Committee, a volunteer-based group consisting of the chairpersons of each award program, members of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees, and at-large members from the food and beverage, food media, and related industries.

Then, each award program is administered by a volunteer-based subcommittee, reporting to the Award Committee. These volunteers agree to two-year terms and are ineligible for nominations in the award program they serve—though they could be nominated for an outside award program. 
The Awards Committee and the subcommittee must agree to the JBF code of conduct, conflict of interest, and non-disclosure forms. 

Around October, the James Beard Awards runs an open call for entries and recommendations for the Media Awards, including Book, Broadcast Media, and Journalism, and the Restaurant and Chef and Leadership Award programs. 

Anyone with $75 to spare can submit a nomination if the person, restaurant, or business meets the award program guidelines (in an effort to raise diversity, they’ve started waiving the $75 fee in some circumstances). 

Once the open call period ends, entries and recommendations are reviewed for eligibility by the committees. 

Then, the James Beard Foundation website states, “The voting body, including judges chosen for their expertise per program, then review and vote on the entries to determine the nominees and winners, as applicable to each program.”

The Lifetime Achievement and Humanitarian of the Year awards are not open for public nominations. These awards are given to candidates who are researched and recommended by members of the Award Committee, subcommittees, and judges from all award programs. 

To maintain transparency, the JBF website shares all the information about who is on the different committees. You can see who’s on this year’s committees here.

In recent years, the James Beards Awards received some heat around a lack of diversity and allegations against some nominees, influencing the award program to change its rules and regulations.

The award program has expanded the subcommittees and filled vacancies to represent the US population’s diversity. They also changed the Leadership Awards to allow for open call nominations, as it is today, and other efforts to become a more aware and inclusive award program. 

This year, the revamped and more-inclusive James Beard Awards are well underway, with the Restaurant and Chef semi-finalists announced this past January and nominees to be announced at the end of March. 

The buzz of the James Beards Awards will last until June 5th, when winners will be announced. 

A nationwide award program honoring our industry is essential, and it’s great to see new faces and restaurants acknowledged for their hard work and dedication. So long as the foundation continues to work toward a more inclusive award program—we’ll continue to love the Oscar season of the culinary industry! 


About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.

About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.


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