Like many other restaurateurs, Lori Chemla has fought to save her business nearly every day since March. Good news was rare, but she got some a few weeks ago from an unexpected corner: She had won an award for outstanding design from the James Beard Foundation.
A design award? Ms. Chemla, the principal owner of Carissa’s the Bakery, on Pantigo Road in East Hampton, N.Y., was responsible for the look of the interior, but she isn’t an architect. To learn how to make a floor plan, she had walked into dining rooms, kitchens and bars across Manhattan with a tape measure.
The news came as a surprise for another reason. In August, the foundation had issued a news release stating that, beyond some awards it had announced in May, it would not be disclosing winners in any other categories, presumably including the one Ms. Chemla was in the running for.
“The uncertainty of this time for our industry is already a hard reality and considering anyone to have won or lost within the current tumultuous hospitality ecosystem does not in fact feel like the right thing to do,” Clare Reichenbach, the foundation’s chief executive, said in the release.
That seemed to be the end of that. Except it wasn’t.
The email Ms. Chemla received in September came from the architect James Biber, the chairman of the design awards committee. He congratulated her on her win in what was a new category this year, Outstanding Design of Alternative Eating and Drinking Places. Mr. Biber sent similar emails to the winners in the two other categories he oversaw.
He added a caveat: Although their victories were real, Mr. Biber said, “the Beard Foundation will not be publicly announcing the awards.” Nonetheless, the winners were told they could, if they wished, mention the distinction “as part of your own office P.R. efforts.”
How do you publicize an award from a group that doesn’t want to admit that you’ve won? Ms. Chemla wasn’t quite sure, so she asked Mr. Biber for clarification.
A week later, a foundation employee emailed her and the other winners. The message turned the previous one on its head: The foundation would be releasing the results of the design awards after all, but the winners were asked to stay quiet about it until a virtual ceremony on Sept. 25.
On Monday morning, in response to questions from The New York Times about the design awards, an official at the foundation said in an email that the honorees would be announced later in the day.
Some nominees and winners have had a hard time keeping up with these switchbacks and swerves.
“To say it’s been a bumpy ride hardly sums it up,” said Joe Sundberg, an owner of Rupee Bar, in Seattle, which won the award for Outstanding Design for restaurants with 75 seats or fewer.
For one of Mr. Sundberg’s partners, Rachel Johnson, knowing that other restaurants will never find out if they won a Beard this year makes it a little hard to process Rupee Bar’s good fortune.
“I don’t understand why they had the design and media awards and not the others,” Ms. Johnson said. “I feel like they shouldn’t have done any of them. It’s just so confusing for everybody.”
Confusion may be the one outcome of the 2020 James Beard Awards that everybody can agree on. The foundation announced the results of its Book, Broadcast Media and Journalism Awards in May, when it still seemed possible that the remaining awards could be handed out in a gala ceremony in September. (This reporter has received six of them. He also served on the committee that oversees the restaurant awards in 2005 and 2006.)
Over the summer, though, people involved in the restaurant awards say that urgent meetings were taking place behind the scenes. Some nominees had asked to be taken out of consideration. Others had fallen under suspicion of behavior that might reflect poorly on the awards. And, according to several people close to the awards, at least one foundation employee had raised a concern that no Black people had won any of the restaurant awards.
Before a decision on how to proceed could be reached, the foundation announced that no further awards would be given out this year.
Some nominees supported the decision. Others found it perplexing, like Katie Button, who was nominated this year in the category Best Chef: Southeast. Subsequent clarifications, revelations and responses to emails that Ms. Button sent to the foundation only deepened her concerns, as did hearing an account of the twisting, turning path of the design awards.
“It’s another way of not telling the whole truth,” she said. “The stories of what’s happening and the whys just haven’t been adding up.”
Ms. Button, who added that she had found some Beard Foundation programs very helpful in her professional development, applauded the organization for its decision to conduct an audit of the awards process to root out systemic bias.
“Everybody can sympathize that this is a difficult situation and that they are trying to do their best,” she said. “But when somebody is trying to do their best, they need to own all the mistakes and problems along the way, and lay them out for the public, and not be afraid of what happens after that.”
Elaborating on the decision to announce the design award winners, Mitchell Davis, the foundation’s chief strategy officer, wrote in an email today:
“As you know, the winners of these awards are design firms, not restaurants or chefs. There is a separate committee governing these awards and in turn, a separate set of criteria. The design awards short list did not experience the same issue with integrity due to nominee withdrawals after the voting concluded, so these honorees are being announced.”
For this article, Rupee Bar’s designer, Heliotrope Architects, declined to confirm its win, citing the foundation’s request for silence. So did ORA and Klein Agency, the two firms responsible for Auburn, a Los Angeles restaurant that was given the award in the 76-seats-and-over category. Both wins were confirmed by other people who had been told about the results.
Mr. Sundberg, Ms. Johnson and another partner built much of Rupee Bar themselves with help from Mr. Sundberg’s father, a builder. They fashioned dark wood, brass, polychromatic tile and plaster painted peacock blue into an exuberant lounge that radiates a lack of interest in midcentury minimalism.
Few customers are lured by that interior these days, or even have a chance to see it; Rupee Bar has survived mainly on to-go sales for months. Still, having the design honored by restaurant world’s most influential awards couldn’t hurt.
“Any kind of recognition like this does move the needle,” Ms. Johnson said. “It definitely wouldn’t have been a hindrance, and probably would have been a help.”
Auburn’s award may be the last one it will win. In May, Eric Bost, the chef and owner, concluded that the restaurant could not survive the pandemic, and closed it.
Amy Brandwein, a nominee for the Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic award this year for her work at Centrolina, in Washington, believes the foundation has worked hard to help the restaurant business grapple with abuse, discrimination and other deep-seated problems. Still, when she talks about the decision not to announce winners this year, the word that keeps coming up is “sad.” She said that her sadness is not for herself, but for other nominees who might have won “a recognition that they will not receive.”
“Things happen in life,” Ms. Brandwein said. “Life’s short. And it would be nice if those individuals knew that they had received this.”
After she got the initial email from Mr. Biber, Ms. Chemla added “2020 James Beard Award winner” to the Instagram page she maintains for Carissa’s. She hasn’t taken it down.
She is proud of the space she designed. By day, trays of pastry and bread slide in and out of the oven and customers drop by to eat a quick lunch at the stark slab of a communal table inspired by Donald Judd. By night, oil-burning ship lanterns are lighted, an eating counter is restyled as a bar and a relaxed, off-duty rhythm settles over the room.
After the ceremony on Friday, her win will presumably be out in the open. But Ms. Chemla has mixed feelings about celebrating.
“It’s very bittersweet for me to flatter myself” by publicizing the award, she said, “when others are equally deserving and will not be rewarded.”