CHICAGO — Chef Cristina Martinez, an advocate for immigrants’ rights and an undocumented immigrant herself, was named the best chef for the Mid-Atlantic region Monday by the James Beard Foundation, in its first black-tie ceremony since 2019.

“For me, it’s an honor to win this medal, remembering all the immigrant workers in our restaurant industry,” she said in Spanish to the hundreds of attendees and a worldwide audience on Twitter.

“Many of the chefs tonight and other nights who have received this, and many other restaurants, have some undocumented workers. I want to recognize the industry that all these immigrants create as the backbone that supports these chefs. ... Thank you to all these immigrants, thank you also to the farmers.”

» READ MORE: From 2015: How Cristina Martinez is working on immigration reform

Backstage after receiving her medallion, after her fifth nomination, she said, “This means representing Philadelphia and my community. This is my home and its blood runs through my veins.”

Martinez, 52, a native of Capulhuac, Mexico, owns South Philly Barbacoa and Casa Mexico, both on South Ninth Street. She settled in Philadelphia in 2009 and worked as a pastry cook at Amis, then in Center City, where she met and married Ben Miller, now her business partner. She was fired when management learned that she was undocumented. Martinez started making lamb barbacoa and chickpea-lamb consommé, first out of their apartment and then in 2014, out of a cart parked on the sidewalk near their home at South Eighth and Watkins Streets. The couple opened freestanding restaurants starting in 2015.

Martinez also helped prepare puffed corn tortillas with vegetable mole rojo for the awards ceremony’s after-party at Chicago’s Union Station.

Three of the five finalists in the Mid-Atlantic category were from South Philadelphia: Besides Martinez, they were Jesse Ito of Royal Izakaya, a sushi chef whose $175-per-person omakase dinners are sold out constantly, and Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon, whose BYOB, Kalaya Thai Kitchen, has picked up accolades since its opening three years ago; it was a 2020 Beard finalist for the best new restaurant.

Ellen Yin of Fork, a.kitchen, and High Street Hospitality, a finalist for restaurateur of the year, lost to Chris Bianco of Tratto, Pane Bianco, and Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix.

» READ MORE: A trip to Thailand with chef Nok

The area’s other big winner in 2022 was Corinne’s Place, the soul-food landmark that Corinne Bradley-Powers founded in Camden’s Parkside neighborhood more than 30 years ago. In February, the foundation announced that Corinne’s was the recipient of an America’s Classics Award, given to “locally owned restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.”

Resplendent in a beaded, chiffon-sleeved white gown she had designed and finished herself, Bradley-Powers didn’t walk the red carpet Monday as much as she glided, beaming, on the arm of Trevor Vaughan, who bought the restaurant three years ago. Even after the sale, Bradley-Powers comes in frequently to oversee the food.

“This is the closest step to heaven,” said Bradley-Powers.

Vaughan, in a black formal suit with a paisley vest, considered Corinne’s “an honor and a privilege” to take over. “With all of what Miss Corinne did, we wanted to keep that going. We didn’t want it to go anywhere.”

» READ MORE: A guide to all the James Beard-winning chefs and restaurants from the Philly area

Previous America’s Classic honorees include John’s Roast Pork of South Philadelphia (2006) and Chef Vola’s of Atlantic City (2011).

This was the first Beard Awards gala in three years, as the 2020 and 2021 ceremonies were canceled by both the pandemic and an attendant social upheaval that laid bare complaints of bad behavior in the restaurant industry, including sexism, racism, and mistreatment of workers. The Beards, regarded as the highest honor of the U.S. food world, did a yearlong audit, revamping its own mission and its processes.

(Martinez was a finalist for best chef, Mid-Atlantic, in 2020 along with Rich Landau of Vedge and Nicholas Elmi of Laurel, ITV, and now the Landing Kitchen and Lark. Marc Vetri was up for the national best chef award that year, as well.)

The Beards looks at itself

This is a new era for the organization. Last fall, the foundation announced that the awards’ mission is to recognize “exceptional talent and achievement in the culinary arts, hospitality, media, and broader food system; as well as a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, environmental sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive.”

Winners are “both innovative and consistent, through storytelling on a plate; in food media; and in the broader food system. They champion a culture of good food anchored in talent, make efforts to promote racial and gender equity, sustainability, and a work culture where all can thrive.”

The credo is known as “good food for good.”

The foundation also expanded the pool of voters. Previously, winners were chosen by members of the national food press and past winners. Now, awards judge and committee members include experts outside of food media, and previous winners must be voted in to the voting pool. Committee members and judges will receive annual DEI training.

Other Beard notes and observations

Among the winners: Asheville, N.C., brought home two medals: Chai Pani for best restaurant and Cúrate for best hospitality — while New Orleans, a vaunted restaurant city, was shut out of the awards for the first time in a decade. The 2022 best chef was Mashama Bailey, at The Grey in Savannah, Ga. Owamni of Minneapolis was named best new restaurant. Edgar Rico of Nixta Taqueria in Austin won for emerging chef. Kiki Aranita, former chef-co-owner of Poi Dog Philly, was a nominee for a media award.

Philly’s Beard history

Philadelphia’s brightest moment in the Beard spotlight was 2017, when the best chef in America was Michael Solomonov (Zahav, Abe Fisher, et al.), best restaurateur was Stephen Starr, and best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region was Greg Vernick. Also that year, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Del., was named best wine, spirits, or beer professional.

In 2018, Camille Cogswell, then executive pasty chef for Zahav and K’Far, won the rising star award, and in 2019, Zahav was named restaurant of the year.

Disclaimer: Both Jamila Robinson, The Inquirer’s food editor, and Craig LaBan, The Inquirer’s food critic, cast votes for winners of James Beard Awards.