This past Monday, Chef Edouardo Jordan made history at the 2018 James Beard Awards after not only earning the accolade of Best Chef Northwest for his restaurant, Salare, but by becoming the first African American to win Best New Restaurant for his most recent establishment, JuneBaby. Only five black chefs in history have received a James Beard win or nomination.
In the second straight banner year for diversity at the awards – an event, points out the Mic, that’s still vastly unrepresentative given the proportion of people of color actually in kitchens – Jordan’s honors were a groundbreaking step at face value, no question. Indeed, the historical context was one that Jordan himself paid tribute to in an acceptance speech that thanked titans of black chefdom, including past and fellow winners like chef Nina Compton, chef Rodney Scott, chef Leah Chase, and chef Marcus Samuelsson.
But there’s a less frequently mentioned feat that makes Jordan’s wins more of a leap in history than a step. And that’s where we won them from. Both Salare and JuneBaby are located in the Ravenna neighborhood of Seattle, and JuneBaby’s win brought the Best New Restaurant title to the Pacific Northwest for the first time in the category’s 23 year history.
That’s right, the first James Beard Nod to PNW Hotness did not go to the menu boasting lentil burgers and soyrizo tapenade, but to chitlins, oxtail, and ham hock collard greens. JuneBaby had risen above all the other nation’s new restaurants to hold a megaphone up to Southern food and African roots from an area that had as little Southern heritage as it did African. By Census counts, the states making up the James Beard Northwest region that JuneBaby occupies – Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming – make it the least black region in the event, with just 3% claiming Black or African American alone as their race.
Jordan seems conscious of this position, of the honest celebration of blackness that feels just as complex and critical in the lily white Northwest as it does across the country in the current cultural moment. The result is a voice that feels as deliberate as it does assertive – even a walking-before-running approach. In a number of interviews he describes how it was no accident that his higher-end, Italian-inspired Salare had been his first solo venture: to lead with a Southern restaurant was to risk others typecasting him, acknowledging him as a “great black chef” rather than a great chef in his own right. In the Netflix series Ugly Delicious, Jordan recounts his hesitancy to even offer fried chicken on his menu.
But in JuneBaby, Jordan seems more confident he has your attention and trust, and less concerned about your feelings. Having himself been propelled by how disproportionately white the face of “trendy” Southern food was, Jordan is meticulous with the accuracy of the region’s heritage. Right down to an Encyclopedia of terms he features on the JuneBaby website.
On that same site is a description of Southern food with roughly two thirds dedicated to the influence of West Africa – a weighting that feels, in a word, appropriate. Jordan does not shy away from the nature of that influence, which was imported neither by choice – sorry, Yeezy – nor migrant workers – sorry, Texas textbooks – but by slavery. “Antebellem buns” top the menu. “JuneBaby’s [about] exploring the good and the bad of Southern food, the beautiful and the ugly,” Jordan told the Seattle Times earlier this month. “Everything that made Southern food famous and everything that made Southern food not so famous.” Even his reluctance to feature fried chicken (now offered only on Sundays) came as much from respect for the history as it did avoidance of diners’ stereotyping: for the West African slaves who established this tradition using palm oil, chicken was a luxury and hardly the everyday staple we consider it today.
In Ugly Delicious, Jordan sums up his patient but principled approach masterfully. “I’m not trying to be like a teacher or a political activist for Southern food right now,” Jordan told food historian and documentarian Lolis Eric Elie. “I want to be able to cook good food, I want to be able to tell the story on it, so that people can understand the significance of it.” Jordan is a storyteller. Southern food is one hell of a story. But the setting needs to be established. The characters need backstories, motives, and complexities to be truly appreciated. If you only watch five minutes of Black Panther, you might think it’s about two white guys from the Hobbit chasing a dude named Vibranium.
Black Panther may indeed be the best analogy to end on for Jordan and JuneBaby, (even if at a much smaller, very specific level). With its shattering of box office records, the Marvel mega-pic garnered so much raw emotion and pride for the story it told and what it meant for representation, both in narrative and in reality. But what made the film all the more powerful were its colossal numbers overseas that undercut an insidious (and false) assertion that “black films don’t travel.” The film was historic on its face, but simultaneously challenged the calculus of the business in a way we can only hope is irrevocable.
So can we hope that this historic achievement by Chef Edouardo Jordan opens the door for more inclusion, representation, and recognition of people of color in food. But in the same breath, for the Pacific Northwest – long a bastion of white isolationism in reputation and in very real history – we can hope JuneBaby is equally a challenge to notions of where in the U.S. voices of color can thrive, feel welcomed, supported and understood.
Congrats again to Chef Edouardo Jordan on the big night, and to the other winners representing the diaspora: Chef Dolester Miles (Outstanding Pastry Chef – Highlands Bar & Grill), Chef Nina Compton (Best Chef South – Compère Lapin), and Chef Rodney Scott (Best Chef Southeast – Rodney Scott’s BBQ)
All photos courtesy of Facebook