The Most Exciting Moments from the 2022 James Beard Awards

Emotional speeches, long-awaited reunions, and calls for inclusion were hallmarks of the star-studded weekend in Chicago.

Mashama Bailey wins the award for Outstanding Chef at the 2022 James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards. | Photo by Jeff Schear/Getty Images for James Beard Foundation
Mashama Bailey wins the award for Outstanding Chef at the 2022 James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards. | Photo by Jeff Schear/Getty Images for James Beard Foundation

After a two-year hiatus, the James Beard Awards returned to Chicago this weekend. Leaders of the culinary world—from food journalists and sustainability activists to chefs and restaurateurs—gathered together to accept the shiny silver medals that stand for one of the nation’s most prestigious honors.

In 2020 and 2021, the James Beard Foundation decided to forego its traditional awards format in order to take some time to think about how to enact more equitable procedures, such as removing systemic bias and increasing the diversity of the pool of candidates. This year’s awards ceremony was the first since the audit, and it reflected some progressive changes, like the expansion of an Emerging Voice category across all awards programs.

Tiffany Derry, James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach, Padma Lakshmi, Kwame Onwuachi, and TV personality Monti Carlo. | Photo by Clay Williams for James Beard Foundation

“The room alone showed that the organization is making steps in the right direction—the diverse crowd, the nominees,” says Tiffany Derry of Roots Southern Table, host of the Media Awards, and nominee for Best Chef and Best New Restaurant. “Oftentimes, there are awards where certain people seem to always be the minority. And for this occasion, it felt great to see so many styles of books, cuisines, and personalities at that.”

Despite the cacophony of tornado warning alerts that went off at the Restaurant and Chef Awards, the event truly embodied the weekend’s theme of “Gather for Good.” Cheers were shouted. Tears were shed. It became clear that everyone was delighted to be under the same roof again.

James Beard Media Award Winners

The Media Awards Ceremony, which is historically held in New York City, took place for the first time in Chicago, on the campus of Columbia College. Lisa Ling, award-winning journalist and host of Take Out on HBO Max, announced the winners at the live ceremony on Saturday, June 11.

The Book category saw some exciting wins. It was a big night for Kristina Cho, author of Mooncakes and Milk Bread, who took home the award for Baking and Desserts as well as the award for Emerging Voice. For Beverage with Recipes, Julia Momosé of Kumiko was honored for The Way of the Cocktail, the one-stop guide to Japanese cocktail culture. Gregory Gourdet’s Everyone’s Table won the General category, while Joanne Molinario’s The Korean Vegan won for Vegetable-Focused Cooking.

“The most rewarding aspect was writing stories about people who I did not see reflected in traditional media,” says author Hawa Hassan, who we caught up with at the post-awards reception. Her cookbook, In Bibi’s Kitchen, won the International award. “I did it so selfishly for myself and the people that look like me, so I’m really grateful, but this is just a bonus.” Hassan is currently working on her next book, which is based on civil war and food.

Alexis Nikole Nelson celebrating her win for Best Social Media Account with KJ Kearney of BlackFoodFridays. | Photo by Clay Williams for James Beard Foundation

There was also a category for Social Media Account, within the Broadcast and Media portion. Foraging extraordinaire Alexis Nikole Nelson claimed the medal, hilariously ending her acceptance speech with “Happy snacking. Don’t die.”

“When someone tells me that they themselves, or a daughter, a son—who maybe otherwise would not have felt validated in their love of the outdoors—now feels validated, and I got to play a part in that? I could fly home on that feeling,” Nelson says, adding that she also has a cookbook in the works, which will focus on foraging through the seasons.

As for Visual Media, Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation won the Long Form category. In an emotional speech, Lakshmi said, “I always loved food, but I came to this career later than most. And I always felt like the first two seasons of Top Chef…people were like, ‘Why are you here?’...I had a lot of imposter syndrome, sitting next to Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud... I knew I knew about food, but I didn’t know how to harness everything I knew until I became a writer.”

A few notable journalists who took home awards for their excellence in reporting include Soleil Ho of the San Francisco Chronicle, José R. Ralat of Texas Monthly, Francis Lam of Condé Nast Traveler, and Tammie Teclemariam of New York Magazine.

James Beard Leadership Award Winners

The Leadership Awards, hosted by activist and author Bryant Terry, took the form of a luncheon at the Dalcy in Chicago’s Fulton Market District on Sunday, June 12. This ceremony seeks to celebrate the visionaries responsible for creating a healthier, safer, more equitable, and sustainable food system.

There were five winners: Erika Allen, co-founder and CEO of operations at Urban Growers Collective; Irene Li, co-founder of Mei Mei Dumplings and Prepshift; Mónica Ramírez, founder and president of Justice for Migrant Women; Mavis-Jay Sanders, director of Culinary Development and Education at Drive Change; and, in the Emerging Leadership category, the worker-cooperative Understory in Oakland, CA.

Jenabi Pareja, cook and worker leader at Understory, tells us the worker-owned restaurant-bar is “re-imagining what non-traditional restaurants can really be, and what it truly means to take care of your people.” Diana Wu, Oakland Bloom representative, adds “I hope that this win will help us gain the visibility and recognition to move things to the next stage.”

Martin Yan gives a speech after accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award. | Photo by Jeff Schear/Getty Images for James Beard Foundation

James Beard Restaurant and Chef Award Winners

And then it came time for the tuxedo-style main event. On Monday, June 13, chefs and restaurateurs walked the red carpet at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, joining together for the Restaurant and Chef Awards hosted by chef, author, and executive producer at Food & Wine Kwame Onwuachi.

After some references to the Chris Rock slap and jokes about Zoom calls, Onwuachi began by announcing the winner of the Emerging Chef award: Edgar Rico of Nixta in Austin. Detroit’s Warda Bouguettaya took home the medal for Outstanding Pastry Chef, while Julep (a Thrillist Shift Change honoree) received Houston’s first-ever James Beard award in a national category—Outstanding Bar Program.

The Regional awards were next. After winning an award for his cookbook, Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown, on Saturday, Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco took home the award for Best Chef: California. After his win, Jew tells us, “There’s now another platform that comes with responsibility. And for me, it’s leaning in to advocating for Chinatown, carrying Grace [Young] and Martin’s [Yan] work.”

Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya of Dhamaka walk up to accept Best Chef: New York State. | Photo by Jeff Schear/Getty Images for James Beard Foundation

On the other coast, Chintan Pandya of Dhamaka in New York City accepted his award, Best Chef: New York State, with great energy, taking selfies on stage. According to Pandya, this win “should give people the confidence to be unapologetic about their cuisine.”

Other regional awards include: Erick Williams of Chicago’s Virtue Restaurant & Bar; Dane Baldwin of Milwaukee’s The Diplomat; Robynne Maii of Honolulu’s Fête; Adam Evans of Birmingham’s Automatic Seafood and Oysters, Iliana de la Vega of Austin’s El Naranjo; and Cristina Martinez of Philadelphia’s South Philly Barbacoa.

Cristina Martinez of Philadelphia’s South Philly Barbacoa wins Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic at the James Beard Awards. | Photo by Jeff Schear/Getty Images for James Beard Foundation

When asked about the most rewarding aspect of her career as a chef thus far, Martinez answers through translation, “creating opportunities in the kitchen for people from Latin America that didn’t have the same opportunities I did.”

After honoring Grace Young as Humanitarian of the Year and Martin Yan for a Lifetime Achievement Award, the night culminated with the heavy hitters. Minneapolis’s Owamni took home Best New Restaurant.

Sean Sherman and the Owamni team accepting the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. | Photo by Jeff Schear/Getty Images for James Beard Foundation

“We prioritize purchasing from Indigenous producers first,” says Owamni chef/owner Sean Sherman, who also founded The Sioux Chef. “We removed all colonial ingredients, so there’s no dairy, no flour, no sugar. We’re showcasing regional, modern Indigenous foods.”

Mashama Bailey, executive chef at The Grey in Savannah, was awarded Outstanding Chef. Bailey attributes this win to her staff, who continue to believe in her vision “even when it’s kooky.” “No one knew it was going to work out. I had to fight just to make sure that I was on the plate,” she says. “That’s the rewarding part—actually trusting and believing in myself, developing my staff to help me achieve that, and seeing it come back to me in spades.”

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.