Six months ago, the James Beard Foundation announced dozens of semi-finalists across the country in its annual restaurant awards. A month later, after restaurants in Colorado and many other states were required to end in-house dining because of COVID-19 restrictions, the foundation whittled the lists down in each award category, leaving six Colorado nominees — five chefs and restaurants, as well as a nod to Leopold Bros. for Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Producer — still in the running for the final awards, scheduled to be announced at a ceremony in early May.
But first that awards gala was postponed until September 25, then re-envisioned as an online event — and on August 20, it was announced that it has been retooled, with no new winners to be announced. At the time, the James Beard Foundation explained that the decision to call off awards for 2020 (and for next year, as well) came “as restaurants continue to suffer the grave negative effects of COVID-19, and as substantial and sustained upheaval in the community has created an environment in which the Foundation believes the assignment of Awards will do little to further the industry in its current uphill battle.”
While the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic was certainly a factor in the decision, an August 25 article by Pete Wells in the New York Times suggested that other considerations were likely involved, including nominees who’d asked to have their names withdrawn and allegations of bad behavior made against others, as well as a lack of diversity among the supposed winners (a roster that had been chosen, Wells said, then rejected).
Whatever the reasons for the cancellation of the award announcements, Colorado’s nominees were left in award limbo.
“Everything is canceled this year!” says chef/restaurateur Dana Rodriguez, a finalist for Best Chef: Mountain for her work at Super Mega Bien. “I have a lot of mixed feelings, but for me the awards have never been the important part of what we do. Right now the most important thing is to stay safe and protect our people and keep the business alive.”
Rodriguez says that while she doesn’t like the politics behind the cancellation of the awards, she thinks this is a good chance for the James Beard Foundation to come out as an advocate for everyone in the restaurant industry. “I always believe that things happen for a reason,” the chef explains.
Carrie Baird, whose name became familiar not just to Coloradans, but to people across the country after her strong performance in season 15 of Top Chef, says that she thought someone was joking when she learned she was a finalist for Best Chef: Mountain. She had recently left Bar Dough, the restaurant where her work had attracted the attention of the awards committee, to launch her own project, Rose’s Classic Americana. “You always second-guess yourself,” she says, “so when I saw the list, I didn’t believe it.”
But after talking with her friends and former colleagues at Bar Dough, her confidence was bolstered because of what her crew had accomplished. “Above all, my team earned that recognition,” Baird says. “I worked for chef Jen [Jasinski, chef/owner of Rioja] when she won in 2013, and us line cooks took the award very seriously.”
Rose’s had opened at Rosetta Hall in Boulder just seven days before it was forced to close on March 17, and then reopened for two months or so over the summer before shutting down again on August 30, along with several other Rosetta Hall operators as the food hall began making major changes in its culinary operations. So Baird never really had a chance to let her nomination sink in. “I wanted to celebrate, but it felt like it wasn’t the right time,” she says. In fact, the changes to the awards ceremony may have been a blessing in disguise: Baird is taking time away from the kitchen to get the wrist surgery she’d been putting off, and then will begin looking in earnest for a permanent location for Rose’s once capacity restrictions on restaurants are eased statewide.
Caroline Glover, chef/owner of Annette at Stanley Marketplace, agrees with Baird that this year is the wrong time to celebrate. Glover was also up for Best Chef: Mountain; she was nominated for the regional award in 2018 and 2019, too, and Annette was on the finalist list for Best New Restaurant for the entire country in 2018.
“What a difference things make when you’re in a pandemic,” she says. “To go from those first couple of weeks, when I really thought I wasn’t going to make it, to now, when things change completely on an almost bi-weekly basis.”
Despite the constant changes, Glover says that Annette’s mission that gained her recognition in the first place hasn’t changed. “It has been pretty simple: to provide good food in a good environment,” she explains. “We’ve been able to keep doing that because our regulars, our guests here, have been incredible. We’ve been very, very lucky. But sales are down and the cost of goods and services are up — and that’s not so good.”
Sixteen-year-old Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder is no stranger to national accolades: The restaurant won the James Beard Outstanding Service award in 2019 and the Outstanding Wine Program award in 2018, and co-owner Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson earned the Best Chef: Southwest medal in 2008. This year, Frasca was up for Outstanding Restaurant, but co-owner Bobby Stuckey says the lack of awards isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “When the nominations came out, it was a huge deal for our team,” he explains. “But I actually thanked the foundation when they canceled, because it took away from the intensity at a time when we were closed.”
Still, he adds, not announcing winners this year or next eliminates the spotlight that restaurants could use right now. “Some people might not get another nomination,” he notes. “There are so many different stories to be told that might not get a chance.”
Frasca has reopened, with Stuckey’s usual intense focus on hospitality — even if it’s taken on a slightly different appearance. “We’ve discovered that we can be great at hospitality with a mask on, we can be great at hospitality with social distancing,” he points out. “The thing about hospitality is having ESP...about what the customers want. It’s not harder now, but there are different complexities.”
Kelly Whitaker, chef/owner of The Wolf’s Tailor, was up for the Best Chef: Mountain award as well. After the nominations came out and the pandemic hit Colorado, he adapted to takeout-only service by changing up menus, ingredients, platings and concepts at all of his eateries (which include Basta and Dry Storage in Boulder and Bruto in downtown Denver), and then slowly relaunched in-house service by offering special dinners, pop-ups from guest chefs and bartenders, and pre-paid reservations to minimize contact between customers and staff. He’s also set up his own grain mill in a Boulder warehouse district to provide flour milled from heritage grains grown by Colorado farmers with whom he’d been working.
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And Bruto “has pushed pause on normal service to focus on advocacy work and our commitment to greater community issues that are facing the hospitality industry and its network,” Whitaker notes. This will take the form of a series of resident chef dinners, the first of which is a Jamaican Ital meal prepared by chef Taj Cooke (the executive chef at Biju’s Little Curry Shop when it closed in March) with ingredients from local farms. The dinners are in keeping with James Beard Foundation CEO Claire Reichenbach’s recent statement that “we must acknowledge and elevate the people whose work is so often hidden or misattributed.”
One Denver restaurant did get to celebrate a James Beard win in 2020 and will be feted at the virtual event later this month: El Taco de Mexico was honored in February with an America’s Classics Award — a category that’s not given every year. Since then, the tiny eatery on Santa Fe Drive, which has only a row of counter stools (currently off limits) and a few booths, has increased its takeout service and also installed covered outdoor seating in the parking lot beyond its small patio. After shortages in May and June caused a temporary spike in meat prices, El Taco de Mexico added a small surcharge to its tacos and burritos for a short time. But now it’s back to business as usual at the 45-year-old taqueria — or as usual as it gets these days.
National recognition and awards may cause a brief surge in business for Denver restaurants in normal years, but in 2020, the added scrutiny, questionable Yelp reviews from one-shot customers and heightened expectations raised by gleaming medals aren’t what restaurateurs need. Patience, support and understanding from guests are far more rewarding than a brief moment in the spotlight. As Glover succinctly puts it: “We should all be focused on saving this industry.”