Last week, the James Beard Foundation announced its first round of picks for its annual restaurant and bar awards, this year giving nods to a large number of South Florida names.
Established in 1990, the James Beard Foundation (JBF) restaurant and chef awards are among the organization's five recognition programs, beginning with semifinalists recognized across 23 categories, including this year's new award for "Outstanding Bakery."
For those in the hospitality industry, the start of the JBF award season is a tense moment, when each region's top chefs, restaurants, and culinary artisans are announced to be in the running for one of the nation's most prestigious honors.
Over the coming weeks, these semifinalists will be further curated when nominees are announced on Wednesday, March 29. The final winners will be named during the official JBF Awards Ceremony set to take place on Monday, June 5, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
This year, the JBF award season is especially exciting for South Florida, whose industry professionals garnered a large number of nods for toques and establishments representing a wide swath of culinary focus and background.
So, exactly how are the James Beard nominees chosen in the first place?
Pretty much anyone can support their favorite chef or restaurant to the JBF panel that determines the 20 semifinalists for each category — ranging from "Outstanding Restaurateur" to "Best Chef" for one of 11 regions. That can happen when individuals from the general public are invited to suggest their top picks for consideration online with the open call for recommendation that occurs each fall.
From there, local experts weigh in, reporting to committee members. Moving forward, the JBF committee members consider recommendations that will represent their territory. Once the committee members make their selections, the names go up for discussion at a national level, where a voting body selects the finalists and winners.
The voting body used to be made up of anyone who had won a James Beard award, a long-standing tradition that changed several years ago.
In 2020, the James Beard Foundation announced it would undergo an audit of its policies and procedures following criticism that winners were often white men or restaurants with menus that focused on classic European fare.
The resulting procedures required chefs and restaurants to be vetted via a more inclusive set of standards. The goal was to make the awards more equitable, a move that would attempt to remove systemic bias with a smaller, more diverse panel of committee members, judges, and voters.
This year, some of Miami's most beloved chefs are among the semifinalists in the restaurant and chef categories. They include Timon Balloo, the chef/owner at the Katherine in Fort Lauderdale, and the Chang family — Fernando, Nando, and Valerie — at Itamae in Miami.
While the spotlight the past few years has been on Miami's growing culinary presence, including the city's inaugural Michelin ratings, it's hard to ignore the JBF's 2023 recognition of Palm Beach County talent.
Out of the 20 candidates selected to contend for this year's title of best "Best Chef: South" — which comprises Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Puerto Rico — seven represent Florida, four of whom hail from Palm Beach County.
This year's four Palm Beach County semifinalists range from a relatively unknown chef crafting traditional Ethiopian fare in a sleepy West Palm Beach neighborhood to a former fine-dining toque's take on Caribbean- and Florida-inspired barbecue.
Those semifinalists include Jeremy and Cindy Bearman, the husband-and-wife duo behind longtime Lantana favorite Oceano Kitchen; former Ghee executive chef Pushkar Marathe, who offers travel-inspired global small plates at Stage in Palm Beach Gardens; Lojo Washington, an Ethiopian native who prepares soul food and the dishes of her childhood at Queen of Sheeba in West Palm Beach; and Rick Mace, chef/owner of Tropical Smokehouse in West Palm Beach's growing Dixie Corridor Restaurant Row.
For Mace, his first JBF recognition is humbling — especially when it comes alongside a number of colleagues he both respects and supports.
"There's always that stereotype that fine dining will come out on top, and to go from that environment, then branch out and do my own thing with a casual concept, it's very gratifying," Mace tells Miami New Times. "Overall, I consider myself lucky to be friends with all the chefs on this list. I've eaten at their restaurants, know what they're all about, and am proud to be in their company."
Mace is also happy to see the JBF awards evolving while bringing new and different names into the spotlight.
"I see that their messaging is becoming more relevant, exposing the many layers of the industry, and chefs with different backgrounds," adds Mace. "The difference between a good chef and a great chef is about cooking from the heart. Someone who really cares about what they're doing is going to create amazing food."