2019 Best Chef: Southeast winner Mashama Bailey serves food at MasterCard Priceless® Preview - Meatopia during 2016 Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival Presented By FOOD & WINE on February 27, 2016 in Miami Beach, Florida.
Photo: Neilson Barnard (Getty Images for SOBEWFF®)

It’s been a thrilling few months for the culinary world since February, as the James Beard Foundation has rolled out its series of annual accolades, culminating in its highly anticipated awards gala on Monday night in the food mecca of Chicago.

For Chefs Kwame Onwuachi and Mashama Bailey, May 6, 2019 will henceforth be remembered as the day each won their first James Beard Award; Onwuachi garnering Rising Star Chef for his Afro-Caribbean flavors at Washington, D.C.’s Kith and Kin, and Bailey honored as Best Chef: Southeast for the Lowcountry-inspired cuisine she and her team serve at Savannah, Ga.’s The Grey.

“I like that you call it my first,” Bailey laughed when The Root asked how it felt to receive her first nomination during Saturday’s Iconoclast Dinner Experience All-Star Culinary Bash (where we were the media sponsors and she the event chair). “I’ve been really stepping into owning and claiming things that I want in life, and a James Beard award is one of them.”

Well, call it a profound manifestation or simply a well-deserved honor, but Bailey is now able to bring home a James Beard award to her beloved team at The Grey.

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“We should all be very proud of ourselves. We are moving this country forward in the right direction,” Bailey told the JBF gala audience during her acceptance speech on Monday night. “[N]one of us would be in this room without a team, and my team is amazing; they worked hard. I know you’re watching,” she added. “I love you all so much.”

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For Rising Star Chef Kwame Onwuachi, the honor is a head-spinning turn from selling candy on the New York City subway less than a decade ago. Like Bailey, Onwuachi also used his acceptance speech to encourage the James Beard audience to continue to open the doors of access and “include everyone in the conversation.”

“54 years ago is when the last restaurant was integrated and Jim Crow was lifted. And here I am, my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” he said, humorously thanking his caterer mother for teaching him both values and to season his food before ending his acceptance speech on a pointed and poignant note.

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“Thank you to my ancestors, who have worked in the kitchen for hundreds of years with no recognition, no choice; just in order to survive,” he said. “This is for you.”

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It’s no small coincidence that we first encountered Onwuachi and Bailey—as well as 2019 Best Cookbook of the Year winner Chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson and 2018 Best Chef: Northwest winner Edouardo Jordan as featured chefs of the 2018 and 2019 Iconoclast Dinner Experience series, an invitation Bailey told us she accepted well before her nomination. Suspecting that creator and curator Dr. Lezli Levene Harvell might have some sort of culinary prescience or even a magic touch, we buzzed in to get her reaction to this latest round of wins. Crediting it all to the talent of the chefs, Levene Harvell simply said:

“My heart is so full tonight for Chefs Bailey and Onwuachi on their Beard Foundation Award wins. They are amazingly talented and I’m thrilled to see them receive the recognition they deserve.”

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I guess like the James Beard Foundation, Dr. Harvell just has great taste.

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Interested in sampling flavors from other rising chefs at an IDE event? Tickets for the upcoming Iconoclast Dinner Experience at the James Beard House in NYC on June 8 are available on their website. An event in Martha’s Vineyard is planned for August 5.