The James Beard Foundation is coming back to Houston. As parts of its replacement for its awards programming in 2021, the organization has selected Midtown restaurant Lucille's to host one of five watch party dinners nationwide.
The meal, which will take place September 27, will be held during the screening of James Beard Awards: Stories of Resilience and Leadership, which the foundation describes as "a salute to the independent restaurant community, showcasing some of the organizations, leaders, and businesses that have made a significant impact in the industry and their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic." Other dinners will be held in Chicago, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
The program replaces the foundation's traditional awards ceremony, which will return in 2022 after an audit to improve the process by which the awards' winners are selected. Reporting by the New York Times revealed that none of 2020's Black nominees won their categories; some members of the foundation also raised concerns about the nominations of chefs accused of unethical behavior, including some nominees who withdrew their names from consideration.
“We look forward to getting together — both virtually and in-person — with the help of our host city of Chicago and culinary hubs across the country,” Dawn Padmore, vice president of the James Beard Awards, said in a statement, “to acknowledge some of the incredible leaders who have been so dedicated and integral in helping our industry and their communities throughout this past devastating year.”
The program will also be streamed live on Twitter beginning at 7 pm. To encourage viewers to host their own watch parties, the foundation will sell a party kit featuring bites from four James Beard House Fellows, a program of training and professional development for emerging chefs. The kit will go on sale in early September.
Lucille's chef-owner Chris Williams and chef Dawn Burrell will prepare the meal. The two chefs have teamed up to open Late August, a restaurant devoted to Afro-Asian cuisine, later this year in Midtown's Ion mixed-use development. Held in collaboration with the Houston First Corporation, attendance will be invite-only, but details about a public after party will be released closer to the event.
Williams is certainly a fitting host for the dinner. Last year, he founded Lucille's 1913, a non-profit that has served thousands of meals to Houstonians in need. He also kept his restaurant running throughout the pandemic and established the Lucille's Hospitality Group to open Late August and other new concepts.
"When the pandemic first hit, it was terrifying. Our goal was to keep our staff safe and whole, while providing impactful solutions to help the community that has supported us for nearly a decade — we did that through the founding of our non-profit, Lucille’s 1913," Williams said in a statement. "For every story like ours, there’s another story of a hardworking, independent restaurant team that wasn’t as fortunate. They did everything right, and yet, they aren’t here today. That’s why an event like this one is so important. It’s refreshing to see this pivot by the James Beard Foundation that not only highlights the talents of chefs, but also their lasting impact on their own communities."
Burrell, who raised her profile by making it to the finals of the most recent season of Top Chef, experienced her own career disruption due to the pandemic. Despite earning a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination for her work at downtown restaurant Kulture, she left the restaurant to protect the health of her family. Prior to partnering with Williams, she founded Pivot, a meal delivery service, and popped up at events.
“It’s such an honor to participate in this year’s initiative. Now more than ever, the support of the James Beard Foundation is needed to celebrate and empower the restaurant industry’s resilience," Burrell said. "We suffered an incredibly trying year, and many independent restaurants are still struggling right now. I’m thankful to work with this Lucille’s Hospitality Group team, whose passions and will to serve our community helped us pivot and persevere, but thousands of small restaurants were not as fortunate. A huge thanks to JBF for acknowledging the state of the industry with this event, while providing educational and financial resources during this extremely trying time.”