Let’s F*cking Go! How a disparate group of voices is changing the culture of the James Beard Awards

Selfies by Serena Maria Daniels. From top left: Devita Davison (director of FoodLab Detroit and fellow committee member, left, and Serena). Serena and Warda Bouguettaya (winner from Detroit of the Best Pastry Chef award). Serena and José Ralat (JBF journalism award winner and fellow committee member) and Edgar Rico (JBF Emerging Chef winner), Serena and Don Guerra of Barrio Bread in Tucson (JBF winner for Outstanding Baker) Serena and chef Ji Hye Kim of Miss Kim in Ann Arbor, Serena (middle) with fellow JBF staff, Serena with chef Fernando Olea of Sazon in Santa Fe (JBF winner for Best Chef, Southwest), Serena and chef Wes Avila (his LA-based Angry Egret Dinette was a JBF finalist for best new restaurant), and Serena and Javier Bardauil of Barda in Detroit (JBF finalist for best new restaurant).

“We’re looking to reach diverse audiences and we thought of you…”

Sifting through the myriad requests I get, asking that I fill some gatekeeper’s DEI needs is not only commonplace, but it can also be exhausting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to chime in on my favorite taquerias, speak on behalf of metro Detroit’s huge Muslim population, or otherwise act as the unofficial Brown expert for little to no money or acknowledgment, and, at times with derision for not being “Brown” enough.

Rarely do I feel fully satisfied with fulfilling these requests. Editors dumb down my words to translate for their (mostly white) audiences. Event organizers forget to include my involvement in their Insta captions, the honorariums are almost always too little and usually arrive just a little too late to make my effort worthwhile.

These anxious feelings subsided briefly this past weekend when I got to meet the other members of the restaurant and chef awards committee for the James Beard Awards, one of the highest honors in the food world. We’ve been working together for close to a year now and this year, our group was made up of Black, Latino, AAPI, folks who are experienced in this process, and novices like me who went through this for the first time. Some came from “traditional” media, others write sponsored content for food and beverage brands. Many represented big cities, but then there were also folks like me from smaller, often overlooked regions in the culinary landscape. We met for months via Zoom, ranked and scored dozens of nominees, recruited judges, and tasted at restaurants across the country — all to name the finest in dining in cities big and small.

A disparate group of voices transformed this year’s Beards season and is responsible for advancing sustainable change in the industry. The awards took a two-year hiatus beginning in 2020 to “remove any systemic bias” and, according to the NYT, make the rosters of candidates even more diverse. We changed how local food entrepreneurs and chefs are recognized on a national scale.

This contest gave us a chance to recognize restaurants and individuals who’ve grown their businesses from the humblest of beginnings, such as Saffron De Twah’s chef Omar Anani, who first launched his business as a food truck and who, even though his brick and mortar space isn’t completed yet (he’s been building out the enclosed patio space), is now one of the most celebrated eateries in the country. Or Barda, the only Argentine restaurant currently in operation in the city, representing a segment of the region’s Latino population that rarely (if at all) gets any attention. And then, of course, there’s the story of Warda Bouguettaya, who brought Detroit home its first Beard award (for best pastry chef in the country) in some 30 years.

I felt the many months of our hard work culminate on Monday night as Latino, Black, immigrant, AAPI, and women chefs graced the stage of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It made me feel like, for the first time, the experiences and thoughts of Black and Brown writers, creators, and leaders aren’t just DEI requirements, but the future of food.

During the Beards festivities, I spent much of my free time hopping around Chicago with the homie José Ralat, a Puerto Rican writer based in Dallas, and the country’s only “taco editor,” who took home a media award for his “Tex-Mexplainer” series for Texas Monthly. I’m not sure it hit him yet the significance of what it means for him to win. But it was apparent to me, as well as all of his followers, and it’s something that I’ll take with me for years to come. He explained to me the many messages he’d gotten in the first hours after his win was announced. “LFT,” or “let’s fucking go,” was a common tag his followers wrote. It was like all of us Latinos, who are all too often accustomed to and annoyed by being asked to give away our cultural clout in the name of “diversity” or DEI, felt this collective sense of relief. Like finally, we’re being recognized, we’re being seen, we’re more than a footnote.

So I leave you with this: LFG. Let’s fucking go, let’s make things happen, let’s celebrate OUR wins. Let’s keep making history happen.

Serena Maria Daniels

Author: Serena Maria Daniels

Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit. She specializes in reporting on issues that intersect food, identity, and culture.

Find her one Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!

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