The Man Behind The James Beard Foundation
SERIES PART I:
And The Woman Who’s Leading His Legacy
By Robin Jay
When recognizing the pinnacle of success, singers have Grammys. Actors have Oscars. And American chefs have the James Beard Awards. But unlike the Grammy’s gramophone and the Oscar’s knight perched on a reel of film, the James Beard Award medallion bestows the face of a real man – James Beard – who in 1954 was anointed the ‘Dean of American cookery’ by The New York Times.
No one tells the story about James Beard better than Susan Ungaro, who has served as President of the James Beard Foundation for the past 10 years and is the former Editor-in-Chief of Family Circle. South Florida Opulence sat down with Ungaro after a recent Friends of James Beard Foundation dinner at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood (see page 64).
“James Beard, the man, was an incredibly important figure in the chef, restaurant and food world community,” Ungaro said. “He was the first chef to appear on television [in 1946], long before there were cooking shows on PBS or the Food Network. A young Bryant Gumbel and a young Tom Brokaw would interview James Beard in his kitchen and he would teach them how to roast a chicken or how to make homemade pasta. It was really a way of teaching America how to cook.”
James Beard became not only a culinary guru in America, but one revered around the world. He paved the way for the food revolution that put America on the gastronomy map.
“When Julia Child left Paris after having written Mastering the Art of French Cooking, her editor asked her, ‘Who do you want to meet with when you come back to the states?’ The first person at the top of her list was James Beard. She came to New York and they became fast friends,” Ungaro said.
The Early Years
“James was born in Portland, Oregon to a single mother who ran a boarding house. She employed a Chinese cook named Let,” Ungaro said. “James Beard often talked about those early years, being in the kitchen as a little boy, growing up around food, and that’s where his love and passion for food and taste memories came from.”
Beard’s earliest memory of food was reportedly at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition. “I was taken to the exposition two or three times,” Beard said in Beard, A James Beard Memoir. “The thing that remained in my mind above all others — I think it marked my life — was watching Triscuits and shredded wheat biscuits being made. Isn’t that crazy? At 2 years old that memory was made. It intrigued the hell out of me.”
James Beard’s family summered at a Gearhart beach in Oregon. They’d cook meals together using ingredients they caught while fishing, gathering shellfish and picking berries and other foraged things. This tradition would one day influence one of Beard’s most significant food trends.
But before cooking became Beard’s vocation, in 1923 the adventurous young man joined a touring theater group. “He had a singing voice,” explained Ungaro. “He came to New York because he wanted to be on Broadway. Like struggling actors often do, he worked in the restaurant business. One day, he was asked to prepare a party and he came up with an idea for hors d’oeuvres and canapés. In 1937, he launched a little cooking business, and that’s how he started his first cookbook.”
By 1945, Beard was engrossed in the culinary world, appearing on television shows, writing magazine food columns, and consulting for restaurants. He opened the James Beard Cooking School in 1955.
“In the late 1950s, Joe Baum, a major New York restaurateur, came to James Beard saying, ‘I’ve got this beautiful Phillip Johnson building in midtown Manhattan and I want to create a restaurant, what should I do? I want you to help me.’ James Beard said, ‘Well, make it anything but French, because there’s just too many wonderful French restaurants. I think you should make it a thoroughly American restaurant where the menu changes with the seasons, and you cook with regional ingredients.’ If you think about that, over 55 years ago, the man was such a forward thinking foodie,” Ungaro said.
In January 1985, after a career of TV shows, restaurants and 24 cookbooks, James Beard passed away at age 81. “New York cooking school owner Peter Kump didn’t want James Beard’s legacy to go away. With the help of Julia Child and Wolfgang Puck, they worked up a plan to not only start a foundation, but to create a way to fund it by doing special dinners here in James Beard’s house. It was Wolfgang Puck’s idea to create the first fund-raising dinner to help actually buy the Beard House,” explained Ungaro. “Julia Child would say, ‘Inviting a chef to cook at the Beard House would be like inviting a musician to perform at Carnegie Hall.’
“I like to think of the James Beard House as America’s first ‘pop-up’ restaurant. Imagine a restaurant where the menu and the chef changes every night, over 220 days out
of the year!”
Dinner reservations are open to the public via Opentable, with special pricing for foundation members. “Our Foundation is celebrating its 30th anniversary and we’re doing more meaningful work for students and chefs and consumers than we’ve ever done before,” Ungaro said.
2016 James Beard Awards
The James Beard Awards are the highest honor for Chefs in America. The 2016 James Beard Foundation Awards will take place at Lyric Opera of Chicago on May 2. To see the full list of award nominees, to purchase tickets, to find award-winning restaurants, or to become a member of the James Beard Foundation, go to www.jamesbeard.org.
Editor’s note: Look for Series Part II: Chuck Williams, Founder of Williams-Sonoma in the next issue of South Florida Opulence. We’ll introduce you to the first employees (and dear friends) of Williams, founder of the iconic and pioneering American cooking supply store. Chuck was a close friend of James Beard (who would sometimes tend store for Chuck during the Christmas rush when Chuck was in the basement meticulously wrapping gifts for his customers). Chuck Williams turned 100 last October. Sadly, Chuck passed away in December, but his celebrated legacy at Williams-Sonoma is stronger than ever!
James Beard’s All-American Eats features recipes and stories from America’s Classics James Beard award-winning restaurants. Available at www.jamesbeard.org