Cream of the Crop: James Beard Foundation Honors Chefs

Author: Cristi Kempf       

Women won in five of the 10 regional categories and two national categories at the 2019 James Beard Foundation awards. (Photo Courtesy Clay Williams)

“Diversity and inclusion,” watchwords for industries across the globe — including business events — resonated alongside “excellence” at the 2019 James Beard Foundation awards held Monday in Chicago.

2019 James Beard Foundation awards

Kwame Onwuachi, chef at D.C. restaurant Kith and Kin, was named rising star chef of the year. (Courtesy Galdones Photography)

Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, N.C. (home to “reimagined comfort food” like a famed mac and cheese), was named outstanding chef. Kwame Onwuachi, chef at Kith and Kin, a D.C. restaurant featuring Afro-Caribbean cuisine, and author of Notes from a Young Black Chef, was named rising star chef of the year. And women won in five of the 10 regional best chef categories, up from four last year.

“America’s restaurants are robust with diversity,” said Mary Pat Heftman, president of the Restaurant Show Group at Winsight Exhibitions, home of the National Restaurant Association Show.

“Our food,” tweeted event speaker and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, “is a reflection of our greatest strength: our cultural diversity!”

The Beard Foundation, criticized in the past for an honoree pool that was largely white and male, has sought to improve its record on inclusivity, a push that started with last year’s awards and includes such initiatives as women’s leadership programs and a series of policy and procedure changes put into place last year. But change can be slow. Women won in only two national categories: Christensen, and in the category of outstanding pastry chef, Kelly Fields of Willa Jean in New Orleans.

What wasn’t at issue was the celebration of “culinary creativity” the awards represent and their display of the power of restaurants and food to bring people together, Heftman told Convene.

2019 James Beard Foundation awards

Mary Pat Heftman

Other takeaways from the black-tie event at the Lyric Opera House that speak to the F&B part of event design? Heftman pointed to how the winners show that the guest experience continues to take center stage — as evidenced by outstanding restaurant honoree Zahav, a Philadelphia gem with a small plates menu that, it says, “encourages guests to sample the large variety of cultural influences on the cuisine of Israel.” Planners might consider how to make a small-plates menu work at their sit-down meal events, and how to branch into other ethnic cuisines to spark interest.

Heftman also noted the breadth of talent, with winners selected from cities big (New York and Chicago) and small (Scottsdale, Arizona, and Oxford, Mississippi). There’s a message in that for event organizers as well: Notable chefs and cuisines can be found by foodie attendees in well-known as well as lesser-known dining destinations.

Other notable winners Monday were New York’s Frenchette, which won best new restaurant, and San Francisco’s Bar Agricole, which won outstanding bar program and crafts a spirited concoction of Armagnac, vermouth rosso, aged Agricole, and bitters, fittingly named the Hallelujah.


Chef Kwame Onwuachi is one the most prominent black chefs currently working in the United States. Grub Street recently spoke with him on life for a black chef in the world of fine dining.

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