In February, the James Beard Foundation announced its long list of semifinalist nominees for its prestigious 2020 awards. Greater Phoenix scooped a whopping 17 nominations in 10 categories. It was a big deal, for 2020 and for the future. A thrill ran through the food scene. But everything changed in March.
COVID-19 spread. Restaurants closed. Even many that earned semifinalist nominations. Other restaurants persist, serving takeout and delivery with skeleton staffs.
This afternoon, the James Beard Foundation whittled its list of semifinalists down to finalists. The announcement came after a delay of more than a month that saw the Foundation divert attention to organizing emergency relief for restaurants. This year, greater Phoenix earned three finalist nominations in two categories for the chef awards. Though times have been tough, it’s worth pausing to celebrate the work of these finalist nominees. They are:
Silvana Salcido Esparza for Best Chef: Southwest.
Chrysa Robertson for Best Chef: Southwest.
Pizzeria Bianco for Outstanding Restaurant.
And though north of greater Phoenix, Jeff Smedstad of Elote Cafe in Sedona is another finalist for Best Chef: Southwest.
On some level, it feels slightly awkward to be speaking about culinary awards during a crisis. A lot of hardworking people are out of work, and the restaurant scene that emerges from this pandemic will be very different from the one before — the one being judged.
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That said, good news is scarce these days. And it’s important to recognize the leaders of our food and beverage scene for all that they’ve done and will do.
Now that the 2020 chef award nominees are set, just one step remains: the awards ceremony.
The James Beard Awards ceremony for chefs will take place in Chicago on September 25. Like the nominee announcement, it has been delayed. Last year, of course, Charleen Badman of FnB won an award for Best Chef: Southwest, the first award Phoenix won in more than a decade.
Can we keep some momentum going? Stay tuned.