Shut Out

Former James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards subcommittee member gives an honest take on Richmond's recent lack of nominations.

Want to learn how the sausage is made? Talk to the sausage maker. When it comes to the long list of James Beard semifinalists announced every January, that would be members of the Restaurant and Chef Awards subcommittee. So, I asked one of them for the recipe.

Last month, I penned an article for the Richmond Times-Dispatch titled “Richmond snubbed by James Beard for third year in a row. So, what gives?” The piece detailed some of what might have factored into the James Beard Foundation’s sustained recognition of Richmond restaurants and chefs throughout the 2010s and our city’s recent dry spell.

Many readers were surprised to learn of the seemingly outsized role that the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards subcommittee played; and to learn about the importance of regional representation and awareness among the delegation of this elite body, whose inner workings are not well publicized.

“There would have to be some level of awareness” within the subcommittee’s ranks, even if it was simply a matter of getting one’s name out there through old-fashioned word of mouth, confirmed Hanna Raskin, a two-time James Beard Award winner for food writing and seven-time nominee.

Raskin would know. She served on the subcommittee during the 2018 to 2020 award cycles. Those years proved to be some of the most fruitful for Richmond’s dining scene: a second semifinalist nomination for Brittanny Anderson of Brenner Pass; a second, third, and fourth for Sub Rosa siblings Evin and Evrim Dogu; two each for Mekong’s Vietnamese beer meister, An Bui, and Lehja’s Sunny Baweja; and an “Outstanding Service” nod for the Mama J’s crew.

In an exclusive follow-up interview, Raskin, who now publishes The Food Section, an independent digital news outlet covering food and drink across the American South, shared her recollection of how the process worked and opined on certain Richmond names that have been unjustifiably overlooked by the subcommittee in the last few years.

The room where it happens

Raskin began her tenure in the Fall of 2017, after being tapped to join the ranks by acclaimed critic Bill Addison. As then-food editor and chief critic for Charleston’s The Post and Courier, she was chosen as its sole representative for the James Beard’s Southeast region, a jurisdiction comprised of the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

What was, when Raskin started, an 18-person subcommittee had two sitting members from the Mid-Atlantic region: Philly-based food writer Adam Erace and David Hagedorn, a dining critic from the D.C. area. Of the states in that region, Hagedorn had purview of D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Hagedorn’s predecessor was Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema, who sat on the subcommittee with Erace until 2016. (Neither he nor Sietsema accepted my requests to be interviewed for this story.)

“The representatives were granted a tremendous amount of autonomy,” Raskin admitted. According to her, there were no rules about what sources she and other subcommittee members were required to consider when compiling the initial list of national and regional award semifinalists. Nor was there strict uniformity in their approaches.

An open-call process, in which members of the public and industry folks were invited to recommend names of candidates, was conducted the preceding fall of every award cycle. On paper, this information was to be reviewed and considered by the subcommittee.

But in practice, “it was never really used,” said Raskin, claiming that, “99% of the time,” semifinalists chosen by the subcommittee did not come through the external submission process.

“You were provided the information, but it was left entirely up to you if, or how, you wanted to use that,” she explained. More often than not, Raskin and her colleagues would lean upon their own base of knowledge, while keeping their ears close to the ground and consulting their local contacts, many of whom they’d asked to help in subsequently selecting the final nominees and award winners.

As much as Raskin believed the process could have benefitted from information beyond what was on a subcommittee member’s personal radar, the open-call list, a large, unsorted document of names in which the same restaurant or chef might appear hundreds of times, was rarely useful or usable. Certain submissions were also plainly put forth by PR firms.

“It was just sort of this unwieldy document we were handed,” she said. “You’d have to individually research every name presented to you. …. Maybe if the Foundation had done a little bit of that background research, it could have been useful.”

Richmond’s competitive advantage also came out of what Raskin recalled being an intentional and concerted effort to build awareness. The annual Elby Awards, a local version of the James Beard Awards hosted by Richmond magazine, “played a huge role in that,” said Raskin, who was invited to come and judge the competition in 2018.

The former Charleston critic took it upon herself to conduct independent field research, touring every state in the Southeast region at least once per year. “There was a lot of power associated with [my position], and I wanted to be responsible about it,” said Raskin who, during these road trips, made sure to try as many new places as possible, typically on her own dime, based on stuff she’d heard or read about from others.

Some subcommittee members even had the added luxury of a liberal food and travel budget. “There certainly were people who had been on the committee for a very long time, who came up in the days when publications would send you everywhere to eat everything,” Raskin said. “Think about where Tom [Sietsema] went when he was on the committee and what kind of knowledge he was bringing to that table.”

“That is no longer the case,” she added. Seeing as how so many newspapers have folded, scaled back their food coverage, or cut back on discretionary spending, Raskin doubts that journalists on the subcommittee nowadays have the same breadth of dining experiences their predecessors did.

Former James Beard award seminfinalist Brittanny Anderson shown inside her new Union Hill project, The Pink Room.

Richmond’s subcommittee support in the 2010s

Given how James Beard semifinalists are decided, “it helps to have committee representation,” said Raskin. “Or at least it did during my tenure.”

Richmond, back then, had a few things going for it. Members of the Restaurant and Chef Awards subcommittee were not only aware of the buzz about the city’s restaurant renaissance. They were also somewhat responsible for it.

The well-traveled Raskin, along with those nearby like Sietsema and Hagedorn, had all, at some point, developed their own Richmond dining guides. (Sietsema’s writeup happened to be one of the first things I ever read about our food scene prior to moving here.)

“Here’s proof you should dip into Richmond’s diverse restaurant scene,” wrote the Washington Post critic in 2016, mentioning the likes of L’Opossum, Metzger Bar & Butchery, and Peter Chang’s Scott’s Addition location. “Experience the South’s best-kept culinary secret,” Raskin chimed in exactly one year later. “Virginia’s capital city is having a moment in the national culinary spotlight,” added Hagedorn in early 2020.

Hagedorn was “really a big supporter of Richmond,” Raskin noted. In 2014, the gay food writer had even thrown a Human Rights Campaign fundraiser dinner featuring Richmond and other Virginia chefs.

There were many other “strong Southern voices” that, in Raskin’s view, swung in our favor as well. Southern Foodways Alliance founder John T. Edge, for instance, who sat on the subcommittee until 2018, also knew a lot about Richmond and had taken a keen interest in it. His 2012 and 2018 Garden & Gun profiles on The Roosevelt and Metzger were reflective of this.

Richmond’s competitive advantage also came out of what Raskin recalled being an intentional and concerted effort to build awareness. The annual Elby Awards, a local version of the James Beard Awards hosted by Richmond magazine, “played a huge role in that,” said Raskin, who was invited to come and judge the competition in 2018.

Rather than making it a marketing-driven exercise, the Elby’s organizers were genuinely interested in having Raskin and other VIPs, many of whom wielded considerable influence in the food world, survey the scene for themselves. “We were given a lot of freedom just to go out and experience Richmond restaurants in many categories,” she said. “It was just so smart.” (Sadly, the event was suspended in 2020 and never reinstituted.)

The recent composition of the Restaurant and Chef Awards subcommittee doesn’t seem to share, not publicly anyway, the same affinity for Richmond that Raskin’s cohort did. That said, one of its Mid-Atlantic members in 2024, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig Laban, did co-judge the Elby’s with Raskin, several years before ascending to the subcommittee.

Hanna Raskin’s case for Richmond

Personally, the acclaimed food writer and former subcommittee member is incredulous as to why certain Richmond individuals have been overlooked as semifinalists in the last three years.

Whether it’s simply a result of individual representatives on the subcommittee knowing or caring less about our city for whatever reason, or the consequence of changes adopted by the James Beard Foundation supposedly to increase diversity, Raskin won’t speculate. But she will say this: something doesn’t appear to be working.

Among the James Beard “snubs” that Richmond has endured of late, that of Leah Branch, The Roosevelt’s new executive chef, sticks in Raskin’s craw the most. In fact, she goes so far as to call it “the prime example of the overhauled system’s flaws.”

Chef Leah Branch outside of The Roosevelt at 623 N. 25th St. Photo by Scott Elmquist

Branch, whose poignant exploration of Southern foodways as an African American chef has given new life and meaning to Church Hill’s iconic, red clapboard-sided corner restaurant (and who I named a “Richmond dining all-star” two years in a row), would seem to be an obvious frontrunner.

“I cannot fathom why Leah Branch is not on that list,” she reflected. “Not only because she is an exceptional chef, but she satisfies all of these new qualifications that the [James Beard] Foundation has set out in that she’s a woman, a woman of color. I mean, in terms of diversity, she satisfies that.” But more importantly, “her food is incredible, and that’s what it really comes down to.”

Raskin said she’s “a big believer in Leah’s food.” Had she still been on the subcommittee, she probably would have told other members about her memorable meals at The Roosevelt and Branch, almost surely, would have made it onto the semifinalist list by this point.

Another troubling aspect of what we’re seeing, Raskin added, is the random lack of carryover from award cycle to award cycle. “It really strains credulity that you are the best in the country one year and the next year, you totally lose it,” she said. “Something’s wrong there.”

Take the Sub Rosa folks who, in her opinion, are “a great example of this.” The Dogu’s happened to make the cut four years running – more consecutive semifinalist nods than any other Richmonder – before the baking prodigies were unceremoniously dropped from the Outstanding Baker category.

“I understand they want to keep it fresh and new, but that’s not really what excellence is,” said Raskin. “How many times has Meryl Streep won an Oscar? They don’t say, ‘Well, let’s give it to the community theatre this year.’ That’s just not how it works. If you’re the best, you’re the best. Sub Rosa is the best.”

If, however, the James Beard Awards aren’t really about recognizing culinary excellence wherever it exists, Richmond included, then perhaps it’s time we acknowledged that.

Justin Lo is a Richmond food writer and dining critic.  He has written for the Richmond Times-Dispatch since 2019, along with Style Weekly, En Forme Magazine, and the Southern Foodways Alliance. Follow him on Instagram @justinsjlo.

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