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The 2022 James Beard Awards are the first time the longstanding U.S. food foundation has honored American restaurants and chefs since the pandemic laid waste to the restaurant industry and controversies over nominee equity and misconduct allegations roiled the organization. Its list of semi-finalists, released last month, included six Oakland venues and chefs, and in an announcement today, the Beards revealed which East Bay spots have made it to the final round, and singled out Oakland’s worker-run restaurant Understory for a special honor.

The staffs of Oakland Bloom and Understory. Left to right: Sean Chow, Lily Haskell, Nino Serrano, Florencio Esquivel, Jenabi Pareja and Diana Wu. Credit: Papo Ricosuave.

According to a press release from the James Beard Foundation (JBF), Understory has received the JBF’s “Emerging Leadership” award for its values, which include “uplifting communities of color, building economic sustainability, and supporting environmentally and racially just food systems, amongst others.” The restaurant is a collaboration between the 8th Street Collective and Oakland Bloom, and also serves delicious food, as Nosh reported last year.

Reem Assil, center, and the staff of Reem’s California in Oakland. Credit: Luke Beard

“Outstanding Chef” semi-finalist Reem Assil has moved on to the final round, where she’ll be evaluated for her “high culinary standards” and “as a positive example for other food professionals.” Her Oakland restaurant, Reem’s, opened in 2017 with a mural depicting Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian activist convicted in 1970 of a fatal bombing in Jerusalem, prompting a great deal of discussion. The restaurant closed in April 2020, and is now cooking out of the Restore Oakland commissary kitchen, with hopes to reopen as a worker-owned space elsewhere in the East Bay.

Chef Crystal Wahpepah at home in her kitchen. Courtesy: Crystal Wahpepah

Crystal Wahpepah of Oakland’s Wahpepah’s Kitchen (3301 E. 12th St., Oakland) has also made it to the finals, this time in the category of “Emerging Chef.” The Kickapoo restaurateur’s Fruitvale restaurant opened last November, in the space last occupied by Reem’s.

Clearly. Matt Horn is already dressed and ready to hit the Beards. Credit: Horn Barbecue

Horn Barbecue, which pitmaster Matt Horn opened in late 2020 at 2534 Mandela Parkway, in Oakland, has made it through to the finals of “Best New Restaurant,” one of only two California restaurants to make the cut. (The other CA spot, Angry Egret Dinette, is in Los Angeles.)

James Syhabout in the kitchen at Commis in 2012. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Finally, there’s “Best Chef, a category so massive that the JBF breaks it up into regions. Only one East Bay chef made it to the finals for the California list: James Syhabout, the chef/owner at Commis (3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland).

The full list of nominees in the 2022 James Beard Awards can be found on its website. The winners will be announced at a live event on June 13 in Chicago.