James Beard finalists cheer inclusivity

Finalists for the James Beard awards include (clockwise from the top) Gregory León; Macarena and Grecia Ludena; and Erik Ramirez. Photos: Craig Ster; courtesy of Cora Cora; Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Housing Works.

Latino finalists for the most significant food awards in the U.S. tell Axios Latino their nominations are a sign of increasing openness to diverse cuisines among culinary gatekeepers.

Why it matters: The James Beard Chef and Restaurant awards are considered the Oscars of the culinary world, but they've long struggled with diversity.

  • This year, at least 17 Latinos are finalists.

What to know: The five finalists for each category were announced on March 29. They include New York-based Peruvian American Erik Ramirez for the "outstanding chef" prize and a Kansas City, Missouri, tortillería for "outstanding bakery."

  • Among the best regional chef nominees are Venezuelan American Gregory León, who runs Amilinda in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Natalia Vallejo for San Juan's Cocina Al Fondo (the first female Puerto Rican nominee in the awards' history); and Mexican-born Dionicio Jiménez for his Philadelphia cantina, La Martina.
  • Cora Cora, a Peruvian restaurant run by sisters Grecia and Macarena Ludena, is competing for "outstanding restaurant." It's the first Connecticut-based finalist in over a decade.
  • The only finalist from Colorado is Michael Diaz de Leon, executive director of Denver's BRUTØ.
  • Tatemó, a Houston joint that centers Mexican corn varieties in different presentations, and Causa, with a Peruvian tasting menu in Washington D.C., are in the running for best new restaurant.

What they're saying: "I think as years have gone by the foundation has realized that amazing food really can come from all over and not just restaurants with, like, a white-tie look and French-trained cooks," León, who opened Amilinda (an amalgamation of his parents' names) in 2015, tells Axios Latino.

  • The Ludena sisters from Cora Cora say the nominations, regardless of who wins, will open the door for more people to see the richness of the Latino community.
  • "When we got here many people didn't even know where Peru is or what quinoa was… now we feel seen because this major prize has noticed that Latin American cuisines have so much to offer here in the U.S. as well," says Grecia Ludena.

The big picture: Before the last couple of years, most James Beard award winners were white non-Hispanic men, and less than a quarter of all nominees had been people of color, according to a review from media company MIC.

  • The foundation suspended its 2020 and 2021 awards to audit potential systemic bias and overhaul its nomination process, eventually setting a goal to have at least half of its members and judges be people of color by later this year.
  • Experts who help make nominations now get DEI training, and judges consider recommendations from the public.

What to watch: Winners will be announced on June 5.

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