JBF’s Ethics Processes Screwing the Pooch—Poached Talks It Out
The James Beard Foundation’s (JBF) prominent awards are recently shrouded in drama. The issues vary from multiple resignations that noted communication shortcomings and tokenism to the many chefs accused of abuse throwing tantrums in the press. Most recently, The New York Times reported on the JBA ethics committee’s investigation of Chef Sam Fore (of TukTuk) regarding some tweets denouncing domestic abuse and victim blaming.
Here’s our (perhaps) hot take—the failings of the James Beard Awards (JBA) reflect the shortcomings of the restaurant industry at large.
Too many old white men to adequately reflect culinary America? BIPOC chefs not being equally celebrated? Abusive chefs and toxic kitchen behavior ignored? Kitchens with sexist or machismo culture running unchecked?
We can’t blame JBF alone for these failings— we gotta look in the mirror, food & bev! Our industry has had many toxic behaviors swept under the rug for a long time. Ideally, we’re all trying to do better for ourselves and our industry—including JBF. All industries have shortcomings, and we are seeing serious strides toward improvement.
JBA has implemented many changes to increase equity efforts to improve its reputation. We should all aspire to the foundation’s level of transparency, but no organization is perfect. The clarity of their new systems allowed us to dig in and see where this system continues to fail.
The Long and Winding Road to the Ethics Committee
Upon closer look, we can see that the foundation has made serious efforts in the last decade to move away from the reputation of what the NYT called “historically honor[ing] mostly white chefs serving European-derived food in expensive urban restaurants.”
Starting with the 2017 awards, the foundation recognized the #MeToo movement and encouraged their judges to consider behavior in addition to talent. Upon a call from critics to be more inclusive in 2018, JBA introduced its first set of ethics requirements to increase the diversity of winners.
Then 2020 brought a global pandemic, putting our industry in a chokehold. As the pandemic raged on, everyone within the industry held their breath. At the same time, we witnessed the eye-opening atrocity of racial-based police brutality resulting in the death of George Floyd and countless others. This combination led to a (sometimes forced) long-overdue evaluation of business practices to be more equitable.
JBF canceled the 2020 awards last minute. It didn’t raise many eyebrows, except for the winners taping reaction videos for a virtual ceremony.
On the precipice of the 2020 award ceremony that never came to be, numerous toxic work environment allegations came out regarding award nominees who voluntarily withdrew or were asked to withdraw.
To top it all off, there were no Black award winners in 2020. While this was nothing new for JBA, it was finally deemed unacceptable with the number of Black chefs contributing to the landscape of delicious and innovative food in the US.
This realization in this political climate caused the first of two JBA cancellations and a deep dive into internal processes.
As a start, JBF decided to nix the system of former winners voting for successors to eliminate systemic bias and a nepotistic chain of winners.
While JBF might have had good intentions, these changes caused further controversy when Chef Vishwhesh Bhatt of Snackbar resigned as a judge and denounced his former wins. Bhatt took to Instagram, posting a photo of a blank wall where his award used to be. He felt the JBF was using him to exemplify judge diversity. Bhatt felt they were claiming his award under the old system was undeserved, so he took it down from where it had proudly hung.
Blueprints of the Ethics Committee
JBF created an independent investigative ethics committee during these changes. The committee relies on public-reported allegations, conducts private investigations, and sometimes interviews the accused nominee.
Herein lies the problem: the public kinda sucks.
And the second problem: the committee kinda sucks.
Increased transparency makes it easy to look into the JBA Independent Ethics Committee. The head of the committee is an older white man working in Compliance & Investigations for Pinterest, for example. The committee includes five seemingly well-to-do members not representative of the vibrant US population, despite what may seem like decent qualifications “on paper.” However, JBA has committed to ensuring 50 percent of “all annual new hires are BIPOC across leadership and staff positions.” Should it be more?
Most investigations we’ve come across make perfect sense. Men are all over the internet complaining about being disqualified while simultaneously admitting that they’ve contributed to a bullying or abusive work atmosphere. It’s as if hospitality and the larger US society have made people immune to understanding what they are doing is not okay just because it’s normal. But there is one investigation that stands out.
The committee investigated Chef Sam Fore who was reported for “targeted harassment.” The only BIPOC person and the only woman nominated in her category, Fore was reported for multiple social media posts raising domestic violence awareness. Fore told the investigator, “We’ve been talking for 90 minutes about these tweets, and you don’t know who I’m ‘targeting’ with them. How is that targeted harassment?”
Assuming the ethics committee saw the harmless posts in question, the fact that this interrogation went down at all makes one wonder if an investigation on that level is required for each report.
The page outlining the JBA Independent Ethics Committee says, “In any matter in which the Ethics Committee considers recommending that the Foundation take action, the Committee will direct outside counsel to contact the subject in order to provide the subject an opportunity to respond to the allegations against them.”
So the ethics committee did see the posts in question and somehow decided someone needed to put Chef Fore through the wringer as a result. Although they ultimately decided she would not be disqualified, it’s no wonder she is contemplating if she still wants to be a part of the JBA world.
The “Wrath” of the Ethics Committee
While we appreciate the ethics committee’s dedication to privacy so that violation reporters do not face retaliation, it is confusing that confidentiality is granted to all parties across the board.
Of those investigated, those who are disqualified have their nominations revoked privately. They are unable to associate themselves or their brands with that year’s awards, but no other repercussions have been stated.
So not much changes. Their name stays on ballots and programs. They could even attend the gala. If they do not ‘out’ themselves, no one will ever know— including those on JBF voting committees. This means disqualified nominees can win a majority of votes, and the award would go to the second-place winner.
Critics believe that JBF should do more and be more public about those who get disqualified, but the JBF has made it clear that it only wants to give awards to deserving winners. They aren’t going to become an advocate for the industry. JBF is certainly not trying to make an example of these abusive chefs. They’re just trying not to give them awards.
Hot Take on the Ethics Committee
The James Beard Foundation’s changes are more reactionary than revolutionary. The foundation doesn’t want to be in the spotlight for being behind the times but also doesn’t want to be called a witch-hunting institution— a safe and, honestly, neutral place to stand (once they stop investigating people who post about cut-and-dry social issues).
Where the JBA falls short reflects where the restaurant industry in our country falls short.
Our little world of hospitality can sometimes feel like an alternate universe where no one has learned to adult yet. While changes are underway to build a better industry—we still have far to go, not only as an industry but as a country.
So is it on JBA to quickly create a perfect system and staff with a complete representation of all races, genders, and cultures? JBF created an imperfect transparent system that works to increase equity and an ethics system to try and minimize the number of problematic winners. Our country, our industry, the foundation giving our awards, and we as individuals can always do better. If we try our best, that’s all we can do.
Are they trying their best? We’ll leave that up to you.
Image by James Beard Foundation via https://www.instagram.com/beardfoundation/