In a year of unimaginable challenges for the restaurant industry, there were a few reasons for owners and fans of Alabama restaurants to be hopeful. As is usually the case every year, the James Beard Foundation recognized several state establishments for their excellence as semifinalists for the prestigious James Beard Award.
Birmingham’s Automatic Seafood and Oysters, owned by the husband and wife team of Adam Evans and Suzanne Humphries Evans, was the only one of a half-dozen semifinalists in Alabama to advance to the finalist stage. The restaurant was among 10 finalists for the nation’s Best New Restaurant.
The announcement of this year’s winners was set for Sept. 25, giving struggling establishments and worried chefs and owners all over the country something exciting to anticipate. But on Aug. 20 – for the first time in the award’s 30-year history – the James Beard Foundation announced that no more winners would be presented this year.
“We did not come to this decision lightly,” said James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach. “The uncertainty of this time for our industry is already a hard reality and considering anyone to have won or lost within the current tumultuous hospitality ecosystem does not in fact feel like the right thing to do. In short, an honor which we know is held in high regard, at the moment, feels minor when compared to the dire situation we are in.”
“We are truly honored and appreciative of the James Beard Foundation for nominating us as a finalist, alongside all of the other well-deserving chefs and restaurants and hope that all of us in the (food and beverage) community continue to lift each other up during this difficult time,” Suzanne Humphries Evans said. “While we are somewhat disheartened by their decision to forgo presenting winners for the remaining 2020 Restaurant and Chef awards, we fully understand and respect the difficult choice that had to be made. In so many ways, we already feel like winners after being named a finalist for Best New Restaurant in the U.S. and dedicate all the praise to our staff for their tireless work and community for its enthusiastic support of our dream come true.”
Neither Automatic Seafood nor Alabama’s other semifinalists got the chance to experience the traditional James Beard “bump in business” that comes with being named a semifinalist. This year’s other honorees were: The Atomic Lounge in Birmingham (Outstanding Bar Program); Chez Fonfon in Birmingham (Outstanding Hospitality); and Bill Briand of Fisher’s Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach, Timothy Hontzas, owner of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, and Duane Nutter, chef and co-owner of Southern National in Mobile (Best Chef South).
The honorees, like others in the culinary industry, faced a deadly pandemic that forced them to close temporarily, or to pivot to curbside pickup and delivery. Even as COVID-19 restrictions were eased, reopening meant reduced capacity because of social distancing requirements.
Still, making the cut as a finalist was exciting for the Evanses. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a reason to be happy.
“It’s really, really special news,” Adam Evans told Alabama NewsCenter in May. “And although it comes at a bad time, it makes me very proud for what we’ve built here and for the team that helped us get the award.”
In addition to no Best New Restaurant award, there will be no awards for Outstanding Baker; Bar Program; Chef; Hospitality; Wine Program; or Wine, Beer or Spirits Producer. Likewise, there will be no awards for Outstanding Restaurant or Restaurateur, Rising Star Chef of the Year or any regional Best Chefs.
Instead of an awards ceremony, the Beard Foundation will have a live broadcast via Twitter from Chicago to celebrate previously announced honorees in categories such as America’s Classics, Lifetime Achievement, Humanitarian of the Year, Design Icon and Leadership Awards.
“We hope to focus our collective energy on helping our community get through this crisis and on addressing the inequities in the industry going forward,” Reichenbach said. “We look forward to bringing the awards back when the industry is once again ready for them.”
The “traditional” awards will not happen in 2021, either.
In their place, the foundation will host an industry celebration highlighting members of the independent restaurant community who have shown leadership during this crisis. The foundation will honor those people who have made a significant impact on the industry and in their communities when it was needed most. This celebration will be in Chicago and broadcast nationwide in May 2021.
In the meantime, according to the foundation, the awards committee and subcommittees, made up of volunteer members from within the broader food, restaurant and media industries, “will work with the foundation and an outside social justice agency to overhaul the policies and procedures for the awards. The objectives are to remove any systemic bias; increase the diversity in the pool of candidates; maintain relevance; and align the awards more outwardly with the foundation’s values of equity, equality, sustainability and excellence for the restaurant industry”
The James Beard Awards will continue in their more traditional, but overhauled, state in 2022. Eligibility rules will be expanded to include any relevant work that would have been eligible for a 2021 award.