Eat Across America

James Beard-approved events and eateries have become more accessible than ever.

BY SHIRA LEVINE

Image by Ken Goodman

When it comes to America’s pioneering  chefs, most are familiar with Julia Child. Yet it was another great gastronome that first taught America how to cook on TV and penned cookbooks for aspiring foodies to obsess over. James Beard—the “Dean of American cookery” according to a 1954 New York Times piece—influenced the way Americans eat today, championing local markets and products long before it became de rigeur, opening a culinary school in his home, and nurturing many of our most well known chefs and cookbook authors.

The James Beard Foundation is headquartered in the West Village home where he lived during the last 15 years of his life. But today Beard’s legacy has spread even further, with the foundation’s stamp of approval appearing on eateries and events all across the U.S. Successfully determining a city’s tastiest epicurean experience can be a tricky dish, especially for new visitors. But “you can’t go wrong with a meal from James Beard award winners and nominees,” promises Susan Ungaro, who has served as the foundation’s president since 2006. “These are the best-of-the-best.

“We are the country’s best-kept secret, but we don’t want to be!” says Ungaro. “The James Beard Foundation Awards are the Oscars of the culinary world, but we’re open to the public! People don’t realize all of our events are accessible, and that they don’t only happen New York.”

In fact, the 2015 James Beard Awards will be held in Chicago, America’s “Tastiest City” long celebrated for its contribution to molecular gastronomy. The move marks the first time in a 24-year run that the annual fete will leave the Big Apple.

Ungaro’s goal is to bring as many James Beard events outside New York City as there are within it. These currently include nationwide Friends of Beard events, where chefs create something special on location at their Beard-approved restaurants, rather than making a pilgrimage to “perform” at the flagship. There’s also Taste America, the annual celebrity chef tour that visits 10 cities over five weekends from September 12 to October 25. “We showcase the talent of one city with a guest chef from another city,” says Ungaro. “These pairings are one-of-a-kind events for diners who want to try something completely unique. The linked chefs have never cooked together before, so they get try something new too.”

All this is not to detract from the delectable dining experiences dished out at the James Beard House, which essentially operates as a restaurant with different chefs and menus 200 days of the year. Enjoying a meal here is a full sensory experience that will make you feel like an utter insider. Guests get to walk through the bustling kitchen where “America’s first celebrity chef” once demonstrated how to roast chicken and hand-make pastas with Tom Brokaw and Bryant Gumbel on the Today Show. You can mill around the quaint backyard garden as you nosh on curious canapés, then head upstairs for the guest chef-of-the-night’s much-anticipated multi-course dining experience.

Image by Ken Goodman

Dinners often sell out and can be priced at up to $250 per person. But if you can’t make it in person, you’re in luck: “We just installed a Livestream kitchen camera so anyone can watch what the chefs are creating in the James Beard kitchen every night.” says Ungaro. “In fact, you can see more of the action than our seated guests!” (Chefs are graciously given the choice between a sound-on or sound-off camera, although so far only one chef has opted to mute.)

Ungaro credits America’s passion for reality food TV (and good fundraising) with much of the success of the foundation’s programming. “We’ve raised awareness about the joy of cooking and the art of cooking.”

 

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