If you think the Food Network, Top Chef, or Rachel Ray ushered in the era of the celebrity chef, foodie culture, and cooking shows—think again. Even before there was a Wolfgang Puck, before Julia Child was the “Julia Child,” there was James Beard.
Although little-known among the masses, the name James Beard evokes a reverence among culinary insiders few chefs can match. And with good reason.
James Beard was touting the benefits of fresh, local grown, and seasonal ingredients long before it became a social movement. He nearly singlehandedly created the American culinary tradition, putting forth the idea that cooking was more than an exercise in sustenance or survival but rather an art form to be savored, learned, and practiced, with an emphasis on sourcing and featuring American-grown ingredients.
He penned over 20 cookbooks in his time and hosted the very first cooking show on broadcast TV, called “I Love to Eat,” in 1946, when television itself was in its infancy. Beard went on to found his own cooking school in 1955, where he taught generations of young chefs the art of cooking and helped make food interesting to everyone.
Today, the James Beard Foundation Award is like the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys of the culinary world. Held the first week of May every year, past winners have included many San Francisco hometown favorites, like 2014 winner for Outstanding Restaurant, The Slanted Door; or West Chef winner, Daniel Patterson of Coi; or 2012 winner in the Restaurant category, Boulevard—to name a few.
Being invited to prepare a meal at the James Beard House can be a seminal event in a chef’s career. Chefs go through a rigorous nomination and selection process prior to being invited to “perform” at the venue for Foundation members and guests.
“In a young cook’s career, there are several notable things that you set your sites on because the people you look up to … have told you that these are the things that matter most,” says Chef Kristin Butterworth of Lautrec Restaurant, on the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort blog, of her experience cooking at the house in 2011.
“We all left the house that evening feeling proud and accomplished, but more importantly, blessed for being honored in a way that we will all remember for a very long time. Definitely a trip and experience of a lifetime.”
According to jamesbeard.org, “On November 5, 1986, the James Beard Foundation officially opened the James Beard House ‘to provide a center for the culinary arts and to continue to foster the interest James Beard inspired in all aspects of food, its preparation, presentation, and of course, enjoyment,’ according to a press release issued that day. Calvin Trillin presided over an opening ceremony that welcomed Jacques Pépin, Judith Jones, Larry Forgione and other culinary world luminaries who had been touched and inspired by Beard.”
“The James Beard Foundation’s mission is to celebrate, nurture, and honor America’s diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire. … These programs include educational initiatives, food industry awards, an annual national food conference, Leadership Awards program, culinary scholarships, and publications.”
James was often described as the life of the party, and as food culture spreads in America through social media, food blogs, and the like—it seems that party has only just begun.