After two years of wrestling with the effects of the coronavirus and after a reckoning with the shoddy culture of the restaurant industry, the James Beard Foundation is returning with its prestigious restaurant and chef awards, regarded as the highest honor of the U.S. food world.

Four Philadelphians in two categories are finalists for the awards, whose ceremony is Monday night in Chicago: Ellen Yin of Fork, High Street, and a.kitchen is in the running for best restaurateur, while South Philadelphia chefs Jesse Ito of Royal Sushi & Izakaya, Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa and Casa Mexico, and Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon of Kalaya are among five finalists for best chef Mid-Atlantic. (The other finalists are Washington, D.C.-based Angel Barreto at Anju and Amy Brandwein at Centrolina.)

» READ MORE: How do D.C.'s chefs stack up to Philly's?

The pandemic forced the postponement (and later cancellation) of the 2020 awards, which had been scheduled for that May, mere weeks after the world locked down because of COVID-19. Among the finalists that year were Kalaya (best new restaurant), Marc Vetri (outstanding chef), and Rich Landau (Vedge), Nicholas Elmi (Laurel, ITV, and now the Landing Kitchen and Lark), and Martinez.

The awards will be broadcast live via the James Beard Foundation’s Twitter feed.

Then in late May and early June 2020 came a social upheaval, laying bare complaints of bad behavior in the industry, including mistreatment of workers, sexism, and racism. The foundation itself came under fire. The New York Times reported in August 2020 that none of that year’s winners of 23 categories was Black.

The foundation skipped the 2020 and 2021 awards during an audit of its practices. In September 2021, it announced the awards’ return as it posted its findings and recommendations, including commitments to remove systemic bias, increase the diversity of the voting body (food professionals and former award recipients), and increase transparency in how the awards function.

The Washington Post reported that the voting body will consider nominees’ commitment to the foundation’s values of racial and gender equity, community, environmental sustainability, and positive culture.

The James Beard Media Awards, awarded Saturday,will recognize three dozen categories of journalism, podcasts, and books.

Here are snapshots of the restaurant and chef finalists from Philadelphia.

Ellen Yin of High Street Hospitality

  • Grew up in Rumson, N.J., to parents from Shanghai (her mother) and Hunan (her father).

  • Business degree from Penn’s Wharton School and a master’s in business administration in health-care administration.

  • Opened her first restaurant, Fork, at 306 Market St. in 1997 with wine specialist Roberto Sella.

  • Partnered with chef Eli Kulp in a.kitchen and a.bar and the High Street restaurants in Philadelphia and New York.

“It always feels great [to be a finalist], but this year it feels much more attention is being paid to [the Beards], partly due to so much of the community work that restaurants have done even during the pandemic,” Yin said. “Of course, people are also aware of how much restaurants have been through, so it also feels very celebratory in the sense that things are improving. But it isn’t over yet!”

Jesse Ito of Royal Sushi & Izakaya

The nomination is “huge,” he said. “Five chefs [chosen] in the six states up for this award? I mean, if you look at it just by the numbers and how many restaurants are in the Mid-Atlantic region? I’m really excited and really honored regardless of if I win or not. I’m just happy to be there.”

Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa and Casa Mexico

  • A native of Capulhuac, Mexico, Martinez was an undocumented immigrant who got work as a pastry cook at Amis, at the time in Washington Square West, where she met and married Ben Miller. She was fired when management learned that she was undocumented.

  • Started making lamb barbacoa and chickpea-lamb consommé, first out of their apartment and in 2014, out of a cart called South Philly Barbacoa parked on the sidewalk near their home at Eighth and Watkins Streets.

  • South Philly Barbacoa and Martinez have received lavish accolades and attention. Bon Appétit named South Philly Barbacoa one of the 10 best new restaurants of 2016.

  • Also owns Casa Mexico, several doors away from South Philly Barbacoa.

  • A champion of immigrant rights.

Chutatip ‘Nok’ Suntaranon of Kalaya

  • Grew up in Yantakhao, Thailand, age 53.

  • Flight attendant-turned-Italian restaurateur in Bangkok (2003). Moved to Philadelphia with husband, Ziv Katalan, in 2010.

  • Graduated from French Culinary Institute in Manhattan in 2011 with a degree in French cuisine, interning with Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

» READ MORE: A trip to Thailand with Nok

  • With a now-former partner, opened Kalaya (named in honor of her mother) at 764 S. Ninth St. in early 2019.

  • Besides the 2020 James Beard nomination, the restaurant was named the country’s top newcomer by Esquire and Food & Wine.

  • Plans to move Kalaya later this year to a larger, more ambitious location in Fishtown with a liquor license.


Disclosure: Some current Inquirer staff members have served on or are part of the James Beard Awards voting body.)