This year’s James Beard semifinalists look a little different—and Atlanta gets multiple nods

By ”different,” we mean a lot more diverse
Sushi House Hayakawa
Atsushi “Art” Hayakawa

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

The James Beard Foundation announced its 2018 Restaurant and Chef Award semifinalists yesterday, and seven Atlanta-based chefs and three elsewhere in Georgia received nominations.

Chefs Brian So of Spring Restaurant in Marietta and Parnass Savang of Talat Market are nominated for Rising Star Chef of the Year. Atsushi Hayakawa of Sushi Hayakawa, Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani (Decatur and Asheville, N.C.), Ryan Smith of Staplehouse, and Rui Liu of Masterpiece in Duluth are nominated for Best Chef: Southeast. Sarah O’Brien of Little Tart Bakeshop is nominated for Outstanding Baker. Outside of metro Atlanta, Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah and Matthew Raiford of The Farmer & The Larder in Brunswick are also nominated for Best Chef: Southeast. Hugh Acheson of Five & Ten in Athens is nominated for Outstanding Chef for his work at Five & Ten in Athens (Acheson is also behind Atlanta’s Empire State South, Spiller Park, and Achie’s).

Do you detect a trend? Seven of these ten chefs are people of color.

Meherwan Irani

Courtesy of Robert Gunn

Overall and in Georgia, this year’s list of semifinalists looks different than the lists of years past, and that’s intentional. As the James Beard Foundation navigates how to address allegations of sexual misconduct by such food-world power players such as Ken Friedman and Mario Batali, it’s also working to do a better job recognizing diversity. Bill Addison, the chairman of the James Beard restaurant committee, Eater‘s national food critic and an Atlanta magazine alum, told Kim Severson of the New York Times: “When creating the semifinalist list, the committee certainly took to heart this moment of reckoning in the restaurant industry. The names in these categories are presented without context, but we hope that they reflect the foundation’s desire to present awards that will more accurately represent the nation’s true wealth of culinary talent.”

The Atlanta semifinalists certainly reflect what makes this city’s food scene remarkable. Many in the food world, myself included, have long considered our international restaurants to be Atlanta’s biggest culinary draw. But while some say 2017 was a “slow” restaurant year in Atlanta and that upscale, modern, mainstream restaurants have creatively stalled, Buford Highway experienced a restaurant renaissance and the city of Chamblee is poised to be the next vibrant food community.

That’s not to say we don’t have great modern mainstream restaurants. And that’s not what the James Beard Foundation is saying, either. Kimball House is nominated for Outstanding Bar Program; Miller Union, whose chef Steven Satterfield won last year for Best Chef: Southeast, is nominated for Outstanding Wine Program; and Steve Palmer of Indigo Road (Oak Steakhouse, O-Ku, Colletta, and Donetto) is nominated for Outstanding Restaurateur.

But there’s more to Atlanta than that kind of dining—and places like Liu’s Sichuan powerhouse in Duluth, Hayakawa’s pristine sushi bar on Buford Highway, and Savang’s spunky Thai pop-up at Gato (formerly Gato Bizco) make eating in Atlanta a privilege.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the name Sushi House Hayakawa was retired in 2016 and replaced with Sushi Hayakawa.