Since 1990, the James Beard Foundation — which has become unofficially known as the Oscars of food — has hosted an awards ceremony celebrating the best chefs in the United States. The awards are often meant to spotlight up-and-coming chefs worth following or to celebrate continued excellence in the industry. The James Beard Foundation, named after the acclaimed chef, also does a yearly awards ceremony for significant media figures. However, most people know them for the awards they give to the country’s best chefs.
This year, Chef Sherry Pocknett from Rhode Island was presented with the award for Best Chef in the Northeastern United States. Pocknett is the first Indigenous woman to win a James Beard Award. She’s also one of just three winners from the state of Rhode Island, the others being Johanne Killeen and George Germon in 1993.
During her speech, Pocknett revealed that she’s currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer. “I’m sure I’m not the only one in the room that [has it], but I’m almost through it,” she said. “This honor is just unbelievable. Something that I never even dreamed of. Thank you.” Pocknett, who takes every opportunity possible to bring awareness to her tribe, attended the awards ceremony wearing traditional buckskin regalia. “I represent the whole Northeast tribes, our cooking ways,” she added.
Pocknett is a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe native to Massachusetts. Her restaurant, Sly Fox Den Too, is located in Charlestown, Rhode Island, near the Connecticut border. She opened the restaurant in a fragile, post-COVID market in 2021, paying homage to her father Chief Sly Fox. Prior to that, Pocknett grew up in Cape Cod before working as a server at her uncle’s restaurant. From there, she transitioned into catering and eventually became the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center’s food and beverage manager in Connecticut, where she lives today in Preston.
Like most great chefs, Pocknett’s relationship with food began during her childhood. In an interview with the Boston Globe, Pocknett said of her family, “We were always self-reliant and harvested a lot of our own food.” She carries those principles with her today, using meat that is either hunted or fished while taking vegetables straight from her own garden.
The restaurant’s menu is a reflection of Pocknett’s relationship with the land and the Wampanoag people. “[We] have been here for 12,000 years, and we’re not going anywhere,” she said in her Boston Globe interview. Through her food and advocacy, Pocknett hopes to bring awareness to the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, of which there are now just 2,600 people. “It’s important to educate the public to let them know that we’re still here and we still have our traditional lifeways,” she said.
Despite the acclaim she’s received for Sly Fox Den Too, Pocknett is setting her sights on a project that began in 2019, when she purchased a property in the town where she lives. She plans to open a new restaurant that seats 100 people and includes a museum dedicated to Indigenous people. In her interview, Pocknett says she’s planning to host live demonstrations and eventually start an oyster farm.
Although the James Beard Foundation has made attempts to restore some equilibrium to the diversity of the chefs who receive awards, Black and brown winners are still hugely underrepresented. Following a 2018 initiative to be more inclusive, the awards ceremony faced backlash after there were no Black winners in 2020.
Still, honoring Chef Pocknett with an award is a step in the right direction and Pocknett wasn’t the only woman of color representing her heritage at this year’s ceremony. A Puerto Rican chef named Natalia Vallejo won Best Chef in the American south, making her the first Puerto Rican woman to be nominated for, and win, the award. “I see this award as vindicating the work of women in kitchens,” she said in her acceptance speech. “Beyond being a chef I consider myself part of a tradition of cooks, women who face the fire: mothers, aunts, grandmothers who made dishes from intuition, tradition, memory and affection.”
Not only that, a Mexican pastry chef named Yoli Tortilleria took home the Outstanding Bakery award this year. The Kansas City-based baker works with a husband and wife team, Marissa and Mark Gencarelli, who started the business as an ode to Sonora, Marissa’s birthplace.
The James Beard Awards are still in the process of transitioning to a more inclusive voting process. However, bringing visibility to chefs like Sherry Pocknett is a step in the right direction. “I just want to cook, I just want to create,” Pocknett said in an interview with CT Insider. “I just want people to know that Wampanoag people are here, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Josef Rodriguez is a writer, filmmaker, and film critic living in New York City.