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Influential fine dining panel cancels visit to Raleigh, citing HB2

The controversy surrounding House Bill 2 law has dealt a potential blow to the rising profile of the North Carolina restaurant scene.

The James Beard Foundation’s restaurant and chef awards committee cited the law when it announced Tuesday that it would not be visiting Raleigh in January. The 17-person committee travels three times year to different cities across the nation for its meetings. It is a chance for the committee to do its work and “a way of getting us to some restaurants and cities we might not normally get to,” explained committee chair Phil Vettel, the Chicago Tribune’s restaurant critic.

In a statement, the committee said: “The law’s provisions are contrary to the values of the James Beard Foundation; accordingly, the restaurant and chef awards subcommittee has, by unanimous vote, decided to cancel its planned meeting in that state. This meeting had been planned prior to the passage of HB2; we had hoped that the condemnation by the NCAA, the NBA and the many members of North Carolina’s restaurant community, would have persuaded North Carolina’s leaders to repeal this outrageous law. As it has not, the subcommittee feels compelled to conduct its business elsewhere.”

HB2 is the controversial law restricting transgender bathroom access in government buildings, schools and universities and limiting the civil rights of the LGBT community. Numerous companies and organizations have canceled expansion plans and events in North Carolina after lawmakers passed the law this spring, including the NCAA and ACC sports events and the NBA All-star game.

The awards given out by the James Beard Foundation are considered among the highest honors for an American chef, restaurant or food and beverage professional. Only four chefs have won James Beard awards while working in the state: Ben and Karen Barker, who owned the now-closed Magnolia Grill in Durham; Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill and The Durham hotel restaurant; and Ashley Christensen, who owns several restaurants in downtown Raleigh, including Poole’s.

Dennis Quaintance and Nancy King Quaintance own the O’Henry and Proximity hotels in Greensboro and four restaurants, including Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen in Cary. They were once semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation’s restaurateur of the year. Asked about the potential impact of the committee’s decision, Dennis Quaintance said: “It’s huge. The James Beard Foundation is like the Academy Awards. If North Carolina wins best picture, it’s a fabulous thing for our image.”

For the foundation’s restaurant committee, this is unusual. The committee does not typically disclose the location of its meetings. Many committee members are restaurant critics who try to protect their anonymity, and members are encouraged to be discreet when visiting these cities. Beyond a meeting in Chicago timed to the foundation’s annual awards gala, Vettel explained that the committee has in recent years traveled to Detroit, Kansas City, Charleston, S.C. and Wash., D.C.

(Full disclosure: I serve as the chair of the James Beard Foundation’s book awards committee and serve alongside Vettel on the foundations’ awards committee.)

The committee members are a who’s who in the world of food writing and restaurant criticism. Some of them include Bill Addison, a national restaurant writer at Eater.com; John T. Edge, executive director of the Southern Foodways Alliance; Kate Krader, food editor at Bloomberg News and formerly of Food & Wine magazine; Chris Ying, editor in chief of Lucky Peach magazine; and Irene Virbila, former restaurant critic at the Los Angeles Times.

The committee does not choose the James Beard winners or finalists but they help create the ballot. They determine which 20 or so chefs, restaurants, bakers and beverage professionals are semifinalists for the various awards. That ballot is distributed to more than 300 previous James Beard restaurant and chef award winners, 250 regional voters evenly divided among 10 regions and the 17 committee members. All votes count equally and are tabulated by the independent accounting firm. The five semifinalists with the highest number of votes become the nominees.

If you are a restaurant owner or a chef, you want these people dining in your city or region – not only if you have James Beard award aspirations but because they may be impressed enough by the area that they may write stories about their dining experiences for their own publications or others.

Earlier this year, five of 20 James Beard semifinalists hailed from this area if you include Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston. Last year, four local chefs and two bakers were named as semifinalists.

Restaurateurs and chefs don’t want to see that momentum slip. Quaintance added: “How are the key people going to know about the wonderful culinary things going on down this way if they are not coming?”

Asked if the committee might schedule another meeting in Raleigh if the law is changed, Vettel said, “Oh yeah. There was much interest in the Raleigh-Durham area, that was a really easy sell.”