Susan Ungaro Q&A

Susan Ungaro

Recently, Total Food Service sat down with Susan Ungaro from the James Beard Foundation, to talk about James Beard’s legacy and cultivating the next generation of great American chefs.

As you pass the five-year mark, what has been accomplished on your watch?

I am very proud that the James Beard Foundation (JBF) is celebrating our 25th anniversary year and we’re more relevant, exciting and successful in accomplishing our mission than ever. I’m also grateful that during the past years (I’ll actually be with the Foundation six years on April 24th), the culinary community was our biggest source of help in taking JBF from a deficit of $1.3 million in 2006 to a surplus of almost $400,000 in 2012.  I’m probably proudest of our decision five years ago to move our annual James Beard Awards to Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. The support and enthusiastic response we received from chefs, restaurants, media and our corporate sponsors was a turning point for JBF.  We recently launched a Silver Anniversary Scholarship Drive and are also very proud of the fact that since 1991, we awarded over $4 million in financial aid to deserving students. (The call for applications will be on our website starting April 1st.) The passionate, energetic and talented staff at our Foundation have been instrumental in helping create several other relevant and important new initiatives these past six years.  We’ve redesigned our website twice to make our message and programmatic offerings easier and more exciting to navigate. We started a lively bi-monthly newsletter and a blog. And, of course, we’re also on Facebook and Twitter.  Five years ago, we started a free “Beard on Books” series where we invite authors to come speak at the Beard House about what’s happening in their culinary world. This is a gathering that we know James Beard himself would have loved, since he relished hosting friends in his home and talking about what matters most in food. And finally, we launched a new commitment to gathering thought leaders and change makers in the culinary world by holding an annual Food Conference.  Our most recent conference was held for two days last October in New York City. The theme was “Money & Media: How It Influences the Way America Eats.” It was also the start of a new JBF Leadership Awards program honoring people who are making this world a better, healthier more sustainable place.  Our 2011 honorees included well-known change makers like First Lady Michelle Obama and Alice Waters, but also shined a spotlight on important leaders who may not be household names, such as Will Allen of Growing Power and Deb Eschmeyer of Food Corps.

What’s at the top of your agenda moving forward?

Our main goal is to continue our great celebration of the most talented people in our food world by increasing America’s support of our awards programs.   And, we continue to work towards growing our commitment to scholarships for students, since they are the future of our culinary industry.

What role does the Beard House and Foundation play in the metro New York food service community? When you look at the nominees, there is no shortage of New York City restaurateurs, chefs and locales… Why?

There is no doubt that by being headquartered in New York’s Greenwich Village, our Foundation plays a vital role in the New York City community.  Since we welcome chefs from all over the country and the world to create fundraising dinners over 220 days out of the year at the Beard House, we are certainly an important culinary destination. We also do whatever we can to support the local hunger-fighting organizations and culinary schools, as well.  For instance, we offer local students from culinary schools the opportunity to stage with the great chefs cooking at the Beard House.  For the students, it is a highlight of their culinary education. As for the abundance of talented chefs in New York who receive nominations every year, all I can say is that our James Beard Awards are voted on by a national jury of their peers.  This year, we had over 57,000 votes in the initial call for award entries and our finalists were voted by a group of over 400 past award winners and food journalists.

Taste of Hope January 2019 728×90

What is the true legacy of James Beard?

Our Foundation was named after the late, great James Beard, who is considered the “Godfather” of American cuisine.  He was the first celebrity chef appearing on television back in the 1950’s and he authored over 24 cookbooks. He was also a mentor and friend to many of the food world’s most famous figures, including Julia Child, Peter Kump, Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck.  In keeping with his legacy, our Foundation’s mission is to celebrate, nurture and preserve America’s diverse culinary heritage and future. When people watch television shows, they often hear chefs speak proudly about being a James Beard Award winner.

You brought a very strong publishing background to the position, how has that helped you at JBF?

There’s no doubt that my experience as editor of Family Circle helped me navigate the many responsibilities of my job as president of JBF.  I get asked this question a lot!  For instance, an editor in chief is the main spokesperson for a magazine’s mission, as is the president of a foundation.  Members of our Foundation are very much like readers; sponsors of programs and events are just like advertisers and creating interesting events is very similar to developing story ideas!   My editorial background also helped me work strategically with the talented editors and art director at JBF to grow our presence both in print and on-line in a creative and exciting way.  I’m incredibly proud of our media presence.

It seems as if with all of the TV shows that everybody wants to be the next celebrity chef. What advice do you have for young people in the industry?

When a student or young person speaks about their dream of getting on TV and having their own show someday, I say, “Go for it. Pursue your passion.”  Clearly, there’s a lot of competition out there, but today anyone who wants to, can create their own blog or video and who knows, perhaps be the next Bobby Flay or Lidia Bastianich.

How do you  “sell” the full portfolio of services that JBF offers? Does it seem at times as if all of the focus is on the “Oscars” of food service your annual awards program?

We have a talented group of people in charge of sponsorship and special events.  Our website is certainly a place for interested sponsors and funders to see all the various special events we create beyond our annual James Beard Awards.  To name just two of many:  in July we throw a great event in the Hamptons called “Chefs & Champagne.” Through the years, we’ve honored luminaries including Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck, Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse at the event.  This year we’re honoring Ted Allen and the Judges of “Chopped” on July 21st. We also have our next annual Food Conference and Leadership Awards set for next October 17 and 18th.

Where did the idea for the book The Best of the Best come from and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

Kit Wohl, a talented author of several books, approached me a few years ago with the idea of creating a book featuring our Foundation’s many award winners.  Together we decided that for our Foundation’s 25th anniversary, it would be special and historic to create a book featuring the best of the best chefs who won our Outstanding Chef Award through the years.  It was a real labor of love, effort and fun.  I got to be a bit of an editor again! We are so proud of the fact that our country’s greatest chefs–from Wolfgang Puck to Tom Colicchio–agreed to give Kit and our photographer, Susie Cushner, special access to create this keepsake book.

What special events and celebrations are planned for the JBF’s 25th anniversary this year?

In addition to the aforementioned “The James Beard Foundation’s Best of the Best:  A 25th Anniversary Celebration of America’s Outstanding Chefs,” historic book, our James Beard Foundation Awards in May, and our Silver Anniversary Scholarship Drive, we will celebrate the anniversary with a special cruise. The JBF is partnering with Silversea Cruises to create an exclusive 12-day trip throughout Japan, China and South Korea featuring JBF Award-winning celebrity chef and television personality Martin Yan.

Talk about the James Beard Foundation’s Annual Food Conference that you created and is scheduled for NYC this year. What can the chef/food service professional learn from attending?

We are definitely looking forward to making this year’s fall JBF Food Conference both relevant and inspiring to attendees. Although it is invitation only, we are open to hearing from thought leaders in the food industry and restaurant and chef community who would like to participate.  Attendees have the opportunity to not only network with each other and share ideas, but a signature aspect of our conference is that we feature cafe-style seating so that all participants get involved in group discussions and share ideas/news during the conference with everyone through a moderator.  We also stream the food conference live so that those who can’t attend can be part of it!

What role do you look for from the JBF fighting hunger and obesity?

There are so many wonderful organizations working to fight hunger and obesity both locally and nationally.  Our Foundation has taken a role in these important issues in a few ways. Most notably, we now have an “Enlightened Eaters” monthly program at the Beard House, which features experts on the subject of nutrition and better eating. We also participated in Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America national conference this past November by showcasing award-winning James Beard Chefs cooking a healthy dinner for over 800 attendees. Their challenge was to create a three-course meal on a typical American family’s budget.  And most especially, our new JBF Leadership Awards also recognize visionaries who are making a difference to fight hunger, improve school lunches and other important nutrition and government food policy initiatives.  To see a video of who we honored this past year, just visit our website.

Farm to table is a big buzz today. Seems like James Beard may have been way ahead of his time. What trends do you see in our industry?

This is a favorite aspect of James Beard for me.  There is no doubt that Beard was a man way ahead of his time when it came to promoting the goodness of cooking and eating in-season.  Many people are not aware of the fact that he advised Joe Baum over 50 years ago when Baum was planning to open a new restaurant in New York.  When Joe Baum asked James Beard to help consult on what his new dining establishment should be, it was Beard’s idea to make it thoroughly American (only French restaurants were considered the best in New York back then) and Beard advised featuring a menu that changed with the seasons! That was the idea behind The Four Seasons Restaurant, still considered one of the most famous and powerful restaurants in New York to this day!

You’ve been on the forefront of women in food service. Is the glass ceiling gone in the industry? Are women getting equal opportunity?

There’s still room for improvement and recognition of the talents and power of women in the food industry, just as there is in corporate America.  But I will say, that even in my short six-year tenure at the James Beard Foundation, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of women who are being recognized as James Beard Awards nominees.

Many of our readers have heard of “the house,” but don’t know the story behind it. How did the Beard House come to be?

Our Foundation headquarters are located in a Greenwich Village townhouse where James Beard lived and taught for many years.  He was a single man and only child who had no heirs, but he clearly had lots of friends and admirers.  Upon his passing, he left his estate to his alma mater, Reed College in Oregon, and to his book editor.  When they made the decision to sell his house and all his belongings, two good friends of Beard, Peter Kump and Julia Child, decided they didn’t want Beard’s legacy to die along with him.  It was their idea to raise money to buy Beard’s House and create a center for American cuisine. Wolfgang Puck came up with the idea to create a dinner there as a fundraiser. And that was the beginning of what has now been a 25-year tradition showcasing great chefs from all over the country at performance dinners over 200 days a year in Beard’s former home.  Anyone can come to a dinner. You don’t have to be a member, but membership comes with privileges, which includes a discount to dinner.  I encourage all of your readers to make plans to visit us next time they are in New York. Just check out who’s cooking on our website.

Crystal ball… What will the role of the Beard House be on its 50th?

I hope that when we celebrate our Golden Anniversary, our Foundation will be even more successful and helpful to our culinary community than ever!  It would be a wonderful testament to the work of all the people–our board of trustees, our members, our chefs and our staff–if our little Foundation has made a big difference not only in how America eats and dines, but internationally, as well.

To learn more about the James Beard Foundation and Susan Ungaro, visit their website.