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Column Wed Feb 26 2014
The food world is currently abuzz with praise for nominees of the James Beard Foundation Award (JBAF), an honor bestowed only upon exceptional chefs and food journalists. As I scrolled through list of notable semifinalists, however, I realized the awards conveyed a rather homogenous message: that a great restaurant in the US serves expensive American food and that a great chef (not pastry chef) is an older, white male. It felt like a déjà vu of the "Gods of Food" article all over again.
Skewed demographics in the restaurant industry (or really, any industry) don't surprise me, but I was curious what the numbers actually revealed. In the spirit of brevity and (short attention spans for statistics), I conducted a very basic analysis on the list of nominees and found the following.
The data reveals that in general, white chefs receive the greatest accolades, followed by Asians, then by Hispanics earning slightly more than African Americans. This "color" spectrum reflects overall US socioeconomic trends. [PDF] In terms of gender, every category except "Outstanding Pastry Chef" exhibited a higher level of male recognition. Unsurprisingly, the price range for most restaurants were $$$ or above.
But why dissect the obvious? Why raise provocative, unsettling concerns? After all, the James Beard Award Foundation isn't responsible for social advocacy; their primary job is to dole out "the highest honor [to] food and beverage professionals working in North America." Leave affirmative action out of it. The same logic applies to people who argue that universities or workplaces should only accept applicants based purely on meritocracy, on personal achievement and individual perseverance. Unfortunately, absolute meritocracy is a fantasy, a concept used by the privileged use to justify the status quo, by minorities to continue persevering. Affirmative action doesn't just apply to higher education or the workforce; it applies to any opportunity or recognition that enhances one's socioeconomic opportunities. While the JBAF doesn't give out monetary prizes, the prestige and networking that come with the title are priceless.
Affirmative action frightens people, often eliciting indignant or angry responses. But the reality is that affirmative action doesn't blatantly favor the unqualified over the qualified, nor does it select potential applicants based solely on race or gender. It's a tool often wielded with discretion, and if utilized properly, can result in progressive change. To be clear, I commend JBAF for recognizing culinary excellence and promoting educational programs. I think all nominees on the list -- chefs and journalists alike -- wholeheartedly deserve their recognition. But better incorporation of affirmative action into the selection criteria conveys the subtle message that culinary talent and great restaurant experiences are not privilege-bound, but rather multiethnic, multi-national and multi-gender.