James Beard Foundation Winners

Since its inception, the James Beard Foundation has recognized bright culinary talent with their awards. But what spurred the development of such awards, and how did they grow to be the prestigious culinary trophy we know today? In an ever-changing landscape of gastronomy, the iconic ceremony has evolved to reflect the food and people it celebrates. — Dakota Mackey

The foundation’s namesake, James Beard, was known for opening his home kitchen to nearly anyone with a taste of culinary curiosity. A cookbook author, TV personality, teacher and cook, he was a mentor to many in the industry. After his death in 1985, colleagues and friends turned his house into a center for education and community, naming it the James Beard House.

Notable chefs of that time, including Wolfgang Puck, cooked dinner at the James Beard House to both raise funds for more programs and give people in the community a unique culinary experience.

In 1991, the first James Beard Foundation Awards were given, putting a spotlight on people accustomed to being behind the scenes. Before the emergence of cooking competition shows and proliferation of social media, chefs were not often recognized for their innovation. Some credit the Beard Awards for raising the bar of the industry and igniting a renewed sense of determination for evolution and curiosity.

That first ceremony, which took place in May 1991 on a boat named the M.S. New Yorker, drew 1,000 attendees. Only 30 awards were given, which has since more than doubled. Among the winners were culinary giants Emeril Lagasse, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck, all of whom are now celebrity chefs — a concept that was just emerging.

The New York Times later referred to the Beard Awards as “the Oscars of the food and beverage industry.” Similar to the iconic award shows, the Beard Awards have evolved to better reflect American culture and its vastly diverse perspectives and backgrounds.

In time for the 2018 ceremony, the James Beard Foundation announced that in addition to exceeding standards for quality food and service, the winners must also be true to “the values of respect, transparency, diversity, sustainability and equality.”

The contenders are narrowed down by a panel of more than 600 judges, 300 of whom are previous chef and restaurant award winners. Twenty semifinalists are picked in each category and announced in late winter.

The restaurant categories are judged with the same principles in mind but with a slightly difference lens. The Best New Restaurant category needs to have opened in the calendar year before the award is given and be one that “already displays excellence in food, beverage, and service, and that is likely to make a significant impact in years to come.” The Outstanding Chef award goes to the individual who has influenced industry standards and stood as an inspiration to others.

Though the restaurant and chef categories of Best New Restaurant and Outstanding Chef are the most well-known, awards are given in many facets of the industry, including books, journalism, broadcast media, lifetime achievement, leadership, restaurant design and graphics. Seattle’s own Rachel Belle was nominated in 2018 for her podcast, “Your Last Meal.”

Washington state has historically been slower on the food scene than, say, New York or California, but local chefs have continually been recognized by the Beard Awards with growing momentum.

Some noteworthy wins include Seattle’s John Sundstrom of Lark, who won Best Chef Northwest in 2007, beating out four other greater-Seattle chefs including Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez of Harvest Vine and Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita.

Lark has since moved to its new location on Seneca Street in Capitol Hill, but the focus on locally produced ingredients remains. Sundstrom works with local artisans like Penn Cove Shellfish, Theo’s Chocolate and Mt. Townsend Creamery to procure the best of the Pacific Northwest.

Three years later, Jerry Traunfeld won the same award for The Herbfarm, a longtime Woodinville establishment known for its fixed nine-course menu and highly decorated dining room. The essential Northwest restaurant reinforces their farm-to-table manifesto with a menu that reflects the seasons and pre-dinner farm tour to meet the pigs.

In 2016, Renee Erickson won Best Chef: Northwest for her restaurant The Whale Wins. Known in town for her bright, airy spaces often filled with crusty bread with butter, house made pickles and seafood, she is a force. Now with six popular food brands around the city, Erickson even expanded to the donut business with her brand General Porpoise. This was her first win but not her last nomination.

2018 was a huge year with 20 local semifinalists in the running. Spanning several categories, nominees included Evan Andres of Columbia City Bakery for the Outstanding Baker award, Matsuko Soma of Kamonegi for Best Chef: Northwest and Erickson of Bateau for Outstanding Chef.

The knockout, though, was Edouardo Jordan, who brought home the title of Best New Restaurant for JuneBaby and Best Chef: Northwest for Salare. Jordan is the first African-American to win the award for Best New Restaurant. This came after Pete Wells of the New York Times gave JuneBaby a commendatory 3-star review, honoring the significance of the food Jordan is making that represents not only his Southern upbringing but also “traces that story back to where it meets the country’s.”

As if it weren’t challenging enough to get in for JuneBaby’s Sunday fried-chicken dinner, the mountain of accolades and write-ups have added to the frenzy. Some recommend hitting up JuneBaby’s moonshine hour (3-5 p.m.) as a strategy to be comfortably perched at a coveted table when the plates of fried chicken make their way out to the dining room at 5 p.m. The dinner includes pieces of buttermilk fried chicken, a seasonal side and a flaky biscuit.

Not to be overlooked, Jordan’s other restaurant, Salare, earned him the title of Best Chef: Northwest. Located in the quiet neighborhood of Ravenna, the kitchen puts out gloriously vibrant dishes of seasonal fare. Like JuneBaby, the deep respect for ingredients is clear. The menu tastefully oscillates between influences from America’s South, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean Islands.

Though the menu changes often, homemade pasta is constant. It may include risotto with lobster mushrooms, fennel confit and creme fraiche or spaghetti with merguez sausage, chickpeas, preserved lemon and the Egyptian condiment, dukkah.

After a grand 2018, the flourishing food scene in greater Seattle should only continue to blossom. The competition is fierce, and the standards for service, taste and ambiance are high, with a growing attention to social responsibility. Folks at the helm of this undeniable pleasure of dining out deserve continual praise.

Preparations for the 2019 James Beard Awards in Chicago are already taking shape. The judging panel will include Seattle’s own Providence Cicero of The Seattle Times. Be on the lookout for the semi-finalists announcement in February.


Best New Restaurant
Edouardo Jordan
2122 NE 65th St., Seattle

Best Chef: Northwest
Edouardo Jordan
2404 NE 65th St., Seattle

Outstanding Wine Program
2576 Aurora Ave N., Seattle

Best Chef: Northwest
Renee Erickson
The Whale Wins
3506 Stone Way N., Seattle

Best Chef: Northwest
Blaine Wetzel
The Willows Inn on Lummi Island
2579 W. Shore Dr., Lummi Island

Rising Star Chef of the Year
Blaine Wetzel
The Willows Inn on Lummi Island
2579 W. Shore Dr., Lummi Island

Outstanding Restaurateur
Tom Douglas
Tom Douglas Restaurants Seattle

Best Chef: Northwest
Matt Dillon
Sitka & Spruce
1531 Melrose Ave., Seattle

Best Chef: Northwest
Jason Wilson
Crush – CLOSED
Now Operates Miller’s Guild & The Lakehouse
206.443.3663, 425.454.7076

Best Chef: Northwest
Maria Hines Tilth Restaurant
1411 N. 45th St., Seattle

Best Chef: Northwest
Holly Smith
Cafe Juanita
9702 NE 120th Pl., Kirkland

America’s Classics
Jean Nakayama
Maneki Restaurant
304 6th Ave. S., Seattle

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