The world shifted a little last Monday night at the James Beard Awards: They hung a medal around Rodney Scott’s neck.
There are so many reasons why that’s a very big deal. It’s the James Beard Foundation, the most coveted award for chefs and restaurants. And Scott is African-American, and African-American chefs have struggled for recognition and professional respect in the culinary world. Scott is part of a tidal wave of black and female chefs and writers who swept through the awards this year, bringing more than a few shouts of “at last.”
An analysis of the history of the awards by the website Mic, done before Monday’s wins were announced, showed the steady increase in nominations for women and a big jump in nominations by black chefs.
But the biggest reason that ought to grab our attention? It isn’t just race. It’s his food: He’s a barbecuer, a pitmaster, a job that might be romanticized but is rarely revered.
Rodney Scott was nominated as a chef and he won as a chef. At last. At last.
Scott was one of five finalists in a category that included chefs at restaurants where the price of a single entree would cover the ticket for a family of four at his small restaurant, Rodney Scott’s BBQ, in Charleston. Others in the category for Best Chef Southeast were Katie Button of Nightbell in Asheville, Cassidee Dabney of The Barn at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis and Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah.
A room at Blackberry Farm starts at $1,400 for a single night. A barbecue sandwich at Rodney Scott BBQ is $9. And that comes with a side.
Now, it’s not totally unprecedented for a barbecuer to win a Beard medal. Aaron Franklin did it in 2015 for his Austin, Texas, barbecue restaurant. But Franklin and Scott both are part of something that’s been picking up momentum ever since David Chang burst out in New York with Momofuku Noodle Bar: The move to let dining be cooking.
The glitzy Beard awards show used to be a love song to fine dining, a night when big-time chefs swapped their white jackets for tuxes and applauded one another. Nominees were a roundup of the usual suspects. They also were usually male and always known for cuisine, not cooking.
Scott’s win wasn’t the only surprise on Monday night. This year’s Beard award winners were world-shifting all over the place. There were many more African-American nominees and winners, including Bailey, Scott’s fellow nominee, and the supremely talented Edouardo Jordan of Seattle, who pulled off a hat trick that’s almost unprecedented: Best Chef Northwest for Salare and Best New Restaurant for Junebaby. (Yes, some of the best Southern food in the country is now being made in Seattle. Thank you, Seattle, for receiving it with respect. You gave us Starbucks, we give you grits. You’re welcome.)
At the James Beard media awards, held a week earlier in New York, African-American author Michael Twitty became the first black author to win Book of the Year, for “The Cooking Gene,” so the diversity tide was rising there, as well.
There’s also much being made, and deservedly so, over how many women took home medals this year. Gabrielle Hamilton (at last!) was named Outstanding Chef for Prune in New York, and the girls’ club list practically doubled with wins for Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, Missy Robins of Lilia in New York, Camille Cogswell of Zahav in Philadelphia, Karen Akunowicz of Myers + Chang in Boston, Nina Compton of Compere Lapin in New Orleans and Caroline Stine as Best Restaurateur for the Lucque Group in Los Angeles.
I clapped so hard my hands were numb when Hamilton dared anyone to say she won because she’s a woman, not because she’s a chef.
But what really struck me wasn’t just the diversity of faces. It was the diversity of styles that won. Scott for barbecue. Dolester Miles of Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham won Best Pastry Chef (at last!) for her down-home Southern classics, like pound cake and a transcendent peach cobbler.
Here’s another example: The Best Chef Great Lakes winner was Abraham Conlon for Fat Rice in Chicago. I had the chance to go to Fat Rice on Sunday, the day before the awards. I was blown away, not just by the food but by the fun. It’s a tiny corner spot that’s more cafe than culinary temple. The seating on the patio is picnic tables, and three of us stuffed ourselves for around $100.
One of Conlon’s iconic dishes is a Southeast Asian take on a Rice Krispie Treat, for heaven’s sake. It’s delicious and profound and so crazy-good you have to laugh as you eat it.
Rodney Scott, Dolester Miles, Abraham Conlon, Gabrielle Hamilton: These wins aren’t just world-shifting. They’re rule-breaking. Let’s lift a glass of cheap but good wine to that.