14 Outstanding Chefs Who Made a Positive Impact in 2020

Courtesy Nydia Blas

Typically during Legend Awards, we honor the best meal we ate all year, considering new restaurants around the world. However, over the last 12 pandemic-ridden months, we weren’t dining out much (though our takeout order counts were through the roof). Instead, we turned our attention toward chefs who—even in the midst of an extremely challenging year for the restaurant industry—were trying to make a positive impact on the world. These chefs have faced the pandemic head-on and chosen to feed those in need through programs such as World Central Kitchen and Rethink Food. This generosity and sense of community empowerment is why we’ve selected the following Legend Award honorees.

JJ Johnson

Chef JJ Johnson in a kitchen
Courtesy JJ Johnson

During the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, chef JJ Johnson’s FIELDTRIP has partnered with Rethink Food in order to serve more than 100,000 meals to communities and frontline workers in need. Started in 2019, FIELDTRIP focuses on community-based dining that celebrates the shared culture of rice in cooking across many cuisines. According to Johnson, donating all of those meals actually helped save his restaurant. Customers were able to “Buy a Bowl” for those in need, and delivery orders started accounting for a majority of his business. With locations across New York City, FIELDTRIP just opened a new outpost in Rockefeller Center at the start of February and continues to donate meals to those in need.

Jonny Rhodes

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Houston, chef Jonny Rhodes had to shut down his acclaimed neo-soul food restaurant Indigo. In order to better serve his community and help alleviate food scarcity in the neighborhood, he transformed the restaurant space into Broham Fine Soul Food and Groceries. This sustainable, Black-centric food market is no longer temporary, as Rhodes announced he will be giving up Indigo for a permanent pivot to his community grocery. Plus, his team is also working on six acres of land just outside of Houston, on a new endeavour called Food Fight Farms, to start farming on a larger scale. Rather than stocking Broham with limited produce from their small garden, Rhodes plans to supply the store from his farm once it’s up and running.

Daniel Boulud

A headshot of Chef Daniel Boulud
Courtesy Daniel Boulud

Citymeals on Wheels has delivered millions of meals to New York City seniors in need since its inception in 1981. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization got a boost from chef Daniel Boulud, who has been working with Citymeals for almost 20 years. Boulud converted one of his restaurants into a prep kitchen for Citymeals on Wheels, churning out 5,000 dinners weekly to food-insecure New Yorkers.

RELATED: These NYC Chef-Curated Grocery Boxes Offer a Fine Dining Experience at Home—And Proceeds Support Those in the Restaurant Industry

Ashleigh Shanti

After leaving Benne on Eagle in Asheville, chef Ashleigh Shanti is working to open her own local restaurant company, to help address some of the issues she has faced head-on in the food industry. Shanti was well-known while at Benne for highlighting the African history ingrained in Southern Appalachian food, but she wanted to change the reality that Black queer women have little representation in restaurant ownership. She wants to provide more opportunities where workers feel empowered, including creating workforce housing. While she gets her new business started, Shanti is also serving on the board of the Utopian Seed Project, a group focused on crop diversity and food security. Plus, she is working with partners like Chobani on projects like Our Kitchen, a space where Black leaders share personal stories, recipes, and how they are changing the food industry.

Mario Christerna

Chef Mario Christerna outside Brooklyn Ave Pizza Co.
Jakob N. Layman/Courtesy Brooklyn Ave Pizza Co.

Los Angeles native Mario Christerna is creating a food and culture destination in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. He took over The Paramount building, opening Brooklyn Ave Pizza Co. and forging big plans for the rest of the historic space. His multi-story building houses the Boyle Heights Art Conservatory, and Christerna is working to expand the compound to feature multiple restaurants and bars, including a sit down Mexican spot called Poblador. Christerna works closely with the Boyle Heights Art Conservatory, which helps kids from the neighborhood explore emerging music, art, and technology to ultimately help shape a more inclusive future of media.

José Andrés

Chef José Andrés with a glass of wine
Courtesy Our Local Commons

Chef José Andrés is one of the most well-known chefs with causes close to his heart, as the founder of the charity World Central Kitchen, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and the recipient of Humanitarian of the Year from the James Beard Foundation. World Central Kitchen had made a name for itself by responding to natural disasters such as hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and offering meals to those impacted and in need. During the COVID-19 crisis, World Central Kitchen has donated more than 36 million meals in more than 400 cities. Plus, the organization is also partnering with restaurants to provide jobs for staff and meals for those in need with the initiative #ChefsForAmerica.

RELATED: José Andrés' Nonprofit Will Pay Restaurants to Open and Feed the Hungry

Carla Hall

Known from appearing on Top Chef: All Stars and formerly co-hosting The Chew, Carla Hall currently serves on the board for GENYOUth, the organization founded by the National Dairy Council and the National Football League, to launch a number of healthy initiatives for children. GENYOUth is behind the largest in-school wellness program, Fuel Up to Play 60, and raised more than $20 million to support schools offering COVID-19 emergency school meal delivery. Hall is also writing a children’s book, to be released this November, that celebrates her heritage and family through cooking. She also recently signed on to be an ambassador for the new musical Grace, which tells the story of an African-American family-owned restaurant, and speaks to her legacy as a Black businesswoman in the culinary field.

Daniel Humm

Chef Daniel Humm in the kitchen at Claridge’s
Courtesy Claridge’s

Daniel Humm is the co-founder of Rethink Food, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to create a more equitable food system in America. Humm is leading that charge himself, as the chef behind one of New York’s top dining spots, Eleven Madison Park. At the start of the pandemic, Humm and his team had to rethink how to use the space at the restaurant, and began a commissary kitchen where they were donating up to 3,000 meals daily. Now, as the restaurant itself gears up for a comeback, the team is looking for other ways to continue to serve the community. A bright-blue food truck, dubbed Eleven Madison Truck, launched this April to bring 400 free first-come first-serve meals a day to targeted areas in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

Mashama Bailey

Chef Mashama Bailey in a kitchen
Courtesy Nydia Blas

Chef Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah also serves as the chairman of the board of the Edna Lewis Foundation. Their mission is to honor the legendary African American woman who influenced Southern cooking, by offering scholarships to Black students within culinary arts, farming, and food writing. Bailey is an advocate for more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces, and recently wrote a memoir titled, The Black, The White, and The Grey which explores the dynamics between Bailey, who is Black, and her business partner, a white man, as they worked together to launch their restaurant.

Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson

Chef Sean Sherman, founder of The Sioux Chef, has focused his career on identifying and reclaiming Native American cuisine. The Sioux Chef is committed to serving Indigenous foods and educating people along the way. Owamni, Sherman’s newest restaurant in Minneapolis, will have a year-round partnership with the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. Through this work, Owamni can help promote education and access for Indigenous foods, with a menu devoid of European influence.

The North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, NATIFS, is Sherman’s nonprofit venture, with a mission to address health and economic issues in Native American communities through restoring historic food practices. With Dana Thompson, current co-owner of Sioux Chef, at the helm, NATIFS quickly mobilized during the COVID-19 pandemic to prepare hundreds of free meals every day, in collaboration with Minnesota Central Kitchen. There’s also the NATIFS-supported Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis’s Midtown Global Market, which serves as both a Native American food education center and restaurant. A space for research, food service training, and cultivation, the Indigenous Food Lab is showing future chefs how to successfully operate businesses with Native foods and traditions at their core.

Enrique Limardo

A portrait of Chef Enrique Limardo
Courtesy Jennifer Chase

The Venezuelan chef behind Washington D.C.’s Seven Reasons restaurant is expanding his palate this year, reaching out to make a difference in the lives of immigrants in his community. His newly opened venture Immigrant Food offers a wide-ranging menu with inspiration from around the globe—plus, an “engagement” menu where diners can see ways to volunteer, donate, or otherwise advocate for the lives of immigrants. Once Immigrant Food is able to welcome larger groups post-pandemic, it will also serve as a space for nonprofits to host legal education and language classes. The restaurant, which Limardo has described as “cause-casual” (a play on fast-casual), sources ingredients from local and immigrant-run farms, and partners with Tables Without Borders to help refugees.

Virgilio Martínez and Pía León

Chefs Virgilio Martínez and Pía León
From left: Courtesy Gustavo Vivanco; Courtesy Pia Leon

More than 10 years after the opening of Central in Lima, husband and wife Virgilio Martínez and Pía León are still at the forefront of local, community-based cuisine. Through their work with Plant Forward Global 50, the pair elevates ingredients like arracacha, mashua, yuca, olluco, pituca and sweet potato, turning these year-round market staples into stars. Their work with Indigenous communities plays a large part in featuring other unique Native ingredients, too. Entering Central, diners first pass through a garden featuring more than 100 vegetable species, before sitting down for a tasting menu that traverses the topography of Peru. With two other restaurants opened in 2018, Mil and Kjolle, the team is now looking globally and hopes to open Maz in Tokyo in 2021.