Susan Ungaro, James Beard Foundation president (SECOND FROM LEFT) and Emily Luchetti, JB F board chair and pastry chef (SECOND FROM RIGHT), with scholarship recipients (FROM LEFT) Oceana Executive Chef Ben Pollinger, food writer and photographer Ana Nicole Rodriquez, Doubletree Metropolitan Food and Beverage Manager DyniaMarriano, and dietitian Gina Keatley.
Throughout his long career, chef and cookbook author James Beard championed many toques, including one very notable gourmand, Julia Child, who became a lifelong friend. Beard’s mentoring spirit lives on at his eponymous foundation, whose goal is to promote all aspects of culinary culture, provide thought leadership for the industry, and scholarship programs for students who want to enter the field. The foundation, housed in a townhouse on West 12th Street, offers a busy calendar of tasting dinners, lectures, and workshops throughout the year, plus an annual awards celebration, dubbed the Oscars of the food world, and fundraising gala. This year, the Women in Whites fundraising fête on November 15 honors women’s contribution to the food industry with a multi-course dinner prepared by some of the country’s most notable female chefs and mixologists. Here, foundation president Susan Ungaro and James Beard Award–winning pastry chef Emily Luchetti discuss the evolution of the organization’s mission and its past accomplishments.
Emily Luchetti and Susan Ungaro check out the kitchen before a luncheon at the foundation’s townhouse.
Susan Ungaro: Many people don’t know that James Beard was the first television celebrity chef. He came to the food world over 50 years ago and was a major influencer in how America eats today. Emily Luchetti: He had his own style of cooking, which was very American, but he was also curious about other foods. He wanted to explore and adapt as much as he could.
SU: Beard celebrated an American melting pot way of cooking. He was also the one who started talking about regional in-season ingredients. Beard was a thought leader before he knew it. A part of the James Beard Foundation’s mission, beyond recognizing the best of the best in our industry and giving out scholarships, is to convene thought leaders on important subjects for our time. EL: In the very beginning the organization was about dining, which was all very good. But we branched out with scholarships and having the foundation serve as a think tank.
SU: The food world has become much more socially aware. At our annual conference we address subjects as varied as sustainability and, this year, the paradox of appetite—why is it someone who’s hungry may not look like he’s starving. In spite of the rich bounty of fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, [and high levels of] education in this country, Americans are still not eating as well as they should. We have an obesity problem. Diabetes is at epidemic rates. There’s a lot more that can be done to educate Americans. EL: Chefs really want more information, to learn how to become advocates for a food policy.
A plaque commemorating a recent garden renovation at the townhouse.
SU: When we have our annual food conference, we honor people who are leaders in the worlds of agriculture, fighting hunger, sustainability, good nutrition, and education. The first honorees were Alice Waters and Michelle Obama. This year it’s going to be Gus Schumacher, who is the founding director of Wholesome Wave. They double the value of food stamps so that anybody can go to a farmer’s market and buy the [higher cost] tomatoes or cantaloupes. EL: I think whatever level it’s on, [discussing] and having an interest in food is so much part of our culture and society today.
SU: And we want to make sure there’s a great openness for anybody who wants to learn about a career in the food world. We’ve also been championing gender diversity for years. Over 50 percent of restaurants in the country have women owners [according to National Restaurant Association research]. We’re shining a spotlight on the role of women and food and encouraging young women to go into the field. Look at the Fortune 500—it’s very unusual to have more than 15 women make the list of the top CEOs in the country. Compared to that, our industry is doing really well. Beard championed women. That’s an exciting part of his legacy. This year’s fundraiser gala at the Four Seasons Restaurant will celebrate women. EL: We have an amazing lineup of star-studded female chefs who are going to cook an incredible meal. James Beard was involved with the Four Seasons Restaurant so to have the fundraiser gala there makes it extra special for us.
SU: Since 1991 we’ll have awarded more than $4.6 million to students who are going to culinary school. Getting the scholarship is not just about the money, it’s also an encouragement factor. One young recipient was Gina Keatley of Nourishing USA. She received a James Beard scholarship and cocreated a nonprofit that’s helping bring nutrition to communities all over the country. Gina is a great example of how our program is making a difference.