Latino restaurant association calls on James Beard Foundation to add more Latinos to board

An association that represents more than 1,300 Latino restaurant owners across the country is calling out the James Beard Foundation for a lack of Latino representation on its board of trustees.

The Latino Restaurant Assn. wants the James Beard Foundation — one of the country’s most esteemed culinary organizations — to add more Latinos to its 27-member board of trustees. The board appears to include just one Latino, Herb Scannell, who is the president and chief executive of member-supported Southern California Public Radio.

“We’re demanding the respect that we deserve for really being the backbone of the restaurant industry in this country,” said Lilly Rocha, executive director of the Latino Restaurant Assn., whose mission is to promote the entire Latino restaurant community to ensure equitable economic growth. Most of its members are in California.

“We’re tired of being [told] ‘know your place, it’s in the back of the house.’ We want to make sure that we’re represented in all aspects of culinary,” she said.

One leading Latina restaurant owner, Christy Vega, is also advocating for change. Vega is the president of the historic Casa Vega, a celebrity-favorite Mexican restaurant in Sherman Oaks.

“We’re not always the guy that owns the restaurant and in the white coat in the front, but we man every restaurant, and we pick all the food,” she said. “Latinos deserve a seat at the table, just like everybody does.”

Rocha submitted a letter to the James Beard Foundation in late August, stating that a “fair and equitable representation of Latinos” on the board would be a step toward “embracing the diverse perspectives” essential for the foundation.

The James Beard Foundation, in an emailed statement, said it is in discussions with the Latino Restaurant Assn. about the matter. It did not agree to an interview with De Los to answer questions on how members are selected to the board of trustees.

“We acknowledge the need for more Latino presence on the Board of Trustees, especially recognizing the community’s invaluable contribution to the culinary industry, food culture, and the broader food system in the U.S.,” the statement read.

Based in New York City, the foundation was started to preserve the legacy of James Beard, a culinary expert regarded as the “Dean of American Cookery.” He hosted the first cooking program in the history of television, and following his death, the foundation opened the James Beard House in 1986 “to provide a center for the culinary arts.”

The foundation in 1990 established its chef and restaurant awards — known as “the Oscars of food” — to recognize chefs, restaurateurs, authors and journalists in the U.S. The coveted awards, which were first given in 1991, have opened up opportunities for many chefs and have also been scrutinized for historically recognizing men and white chefs.

The organization, however, has worked to improve.

In 2018, the foundation announced changes to its awards policies and procedures in an effort to “increase gender, race, and ethnic representation.”

Among the changes, volunteer committees that select judges for awards — including those given to restaurants and chefs — must “increase diversity in its ranks at a minimum to represent U.S. census,” according to the foundation.

The organization also opted to retire its Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, a decades-old program for which only past honorees were able to nominate new members. Honorees have been largely white and male and includes men, such as Mario Batali, who have been accused of misconduct, as noted by Eater.

The public can also now nominate people for the Leadership Awards, which recognizes those working in sustainability, food justice and public health.

Rocha, in the letter, said she appreciates that the organization has “made strides in promoting inclusivity” but still urged the organization to “reflect on the importance of proportional representation, given the demographic significance of the Latino community in the United States.”

The Latino Restaurant Assn. notes that the foundation maintains “untenable barriers that arbitrarily keep Latinos from the board,” according to Rocha’s letter.

Among those who have been raising this issue is Vega, who is a board member of the association.

She participated in the Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program offered by the James Beard Foundation. The 10-week program contracts with Cornell University and provides training and networking opportunities. Vega has continued to volunteer for the program. “I credit that woman’s program so much,” she said.

For her part, Vega said she has expressed her concerns to the James Beard Foundation’s CEO Claire Reichenbach, offering to provide names of Latinos — including herself — who could potentially serve in their board of trustees.

But she said she heard only about their difficulties in finding Latino candidates.

“We offer intelligence and experience in food, and we are more than capable to also sit on the board of trustees,” she said.

Vega said she’s inspired by her late father, Rafael “Ray” Vega, who helped introduce and popularize Mexican food in the San Fernando Valley with Casa Vega, which he opened in 1956. He credited a visit from Jane Fonda and Gig Young into turning the restaurant into a favorite Hollywood haunt. But, Vega said, her father “respected the local Valley neighbor just as much as any celebrity.”

He was involved with local politics, serving as the commissioner of the Los Angeles Department of Public Social Services, followed by a seven-year stint as chairman of the L.A. County Housing Authority.

At the time, Vega said her father was simply happy to be able to serve in these positions. He would say, “I’m going to show them the value that Latinos can bring.”

That’s why it’s disheartening for Vega to see that Latinos are still not represented in leadership positions such as on the foundation’s board of trustees.

In 2022, Casa Vega was awarded an America’s classic restaurants designation by the James Beard Foundation.

Vega is aware that she could be ostracized for speaking up about this issue, but she said, “if I have to choose between the foundation and my community, then I stand with my community every time.”

“It just can’t be a foundation for me or for some of us that get in,” she said.

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