Revamped James Beard Awards seek to recognize diverse culinary innovators

For New York City chef Shenarri Freeman, being named a semi-finalist for a 2022 James Beard Award is an extra meaningful accomplishment.

"Black people and Black chefs are doing in this industry, we've been doing forever since the beginning of time," Freeman said. "So it's great that we're now being recognized and we're now being awarded for all of those things."

This year, the James Beard Foundation voting body has broadened to now include food experts beyond traditional food media and chefs. The goal is to be more inclusive and further diversify the committee. Freeman, whose restaurant Cadence in the East Village is plant-based, is being recognized for the first time in the Emerging Chef category

"I think it's like a really big deal and I think that we're kind of shining a light on vegan and plant-based food," Freeman said. "A lot of times we're left out of the conversation when it comes to restaurants and food."

For Kyo Pang, leaving her family in Malaysia and moving by herself to America when she was just 21 years old was one of the toughest decisions she ever made.

"When I first came to New York, it's more like if I can make it in New York, I can make it anywhere else," Pang said.

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Fast-forward more than a decade later, not only did she make it here, she's now flourishing as an accomplished chef, which is a skill set she learned from both her parents.

"Because I'm the eldest daughter in the family, it was my obligation to pick up all the skills that the family is passing to you — so I started to be in the kitchen when I was 7," Pang said. "It feels good to be recognized for everything we do because my parents were in the industry for generations."

Pang is the chef and owner of authentic Malaysian cafe Kopitiam on the Lower East Side. This is now her third time being recognized in the New York State Best Chef category by the prestigious culinary organization, which aims to identify the best chefs and restaurants in the country. 

"Everybody knows how this industry has been impacted, intensely impacted by COVID, and we're really glad to have the awards back," said Dawn Padmore, the vice president of awards for the James Beard Foundation.

The awards were put on hold these past two years, but now they're back — and with some other changes. The Best New Restaurant category includes restaurants that opened in the past two years — in 2020 and 2021 — which takes the pandemic into account. Usually, the awards are just based on one year. Also, the Emerging Chef Award used to be called the Rising Star Chef Award, and you no longer have to be 30 or younger for that category. It's a change that further aims to diversify the chefs who can qualify. 

The foundation's goal is to have 50% of its voting committee and judges be people of color by next year. 

"We had a full audit of our policies and procedures, and they tweaked some of them some more," Padmore said. "Just to continue working on looking for biases and continue working on more equity, racial gender equity, sustainability."

This semifinalist round is just the first stage. The next round will announce the nominees, which is a smaller list. Then, in June, we'll learn who the one winner from each category is.