The James Beard Foundation Awards, which recognize excellence in the culinary food world, helped to put the art of cooking and celebrity chefs on the map. The James Beard Foundation was erected in honor of its namesake, culinary legend Chef James Beard, and established in 1990. The first awards were given out in 1991. They subsequently put a spotlight on the people behind the food and beverage industry and created the impetus to the era of the celebrity chef we now take for granted.
Beard was named the “Dean of American cookery” by the New York Times in 1954 and laid the groundwork for the food revolution that has put America at the forefront of global gastronomy. He was a pioneer foodie, host of the first-ever TV food program on NBC in 1946, the first to realize the potential of American culinary traditions, as well as an early champion of local products and markets. Beard nurtured a generation of American chefs, home cooks, and cookbook authors who have changed the way Americans eat.
James Andrew Beard was born on May 5, 1903 in Portland, Oregon, to parents of eclectic tastes. His mother was an English woman who loved food and managed a boarding house. His father was a factory worker. The family spent summers at the beach cooking meals and lived off the land.
After a failed attempt at higher education in 1923, Beard traveled the globe with a theatrical troupe. He subsequently lived abroad for several years studying voice and theater, but opted to return to the United States for good in 1927. Due to continued failed attempts to break into show business upon returning to the U.S., Beard needed to supplement his income and began a catering business in 1935. In 1937, he opened his first shop, Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc., and realized that his future lay in the world of food and cooking.
In 1940, Beard authored a landmark cookbook centered on cocktail food. Two years later, he penned a second cookbook, Cook It Outdoors, which was the first serious work on outdoor cooking. Beard went to war and served during WWII with a brief stint in cryptography, followed by service with the United Seamen’s Service.
After his war service, Beard became completely enscounched in the culinary arts community. Over the next 10 years, he wrote several more seminal cookbooks, appeared in his own segment on television’s first cooking show on NBC in 1946, as well as made appearances on many other TV and radio spots. Moreover, he also contributed articles and columns to Woman’s Day, Gourmet, and House & Garden, served as a food consultant to many restaurateurs, and ran his own restaurant on Nantucket. James Beard not only stood for excellence in culinary arts, he was the first celebrity chef and became the focal point of the entire American food world.
In 1955, Beard established the James Beard Cooking School. He continued to teach cooking to men and women for the next 30 years, both at his own schools and across the nations at various functions. He was an avid traveler and preached the message of good food prepared fresh and wholesome with American ingredients. Beard also continued to write cookbooks, most of which became classics and many of which are still in print.
When James Beard died at 81 on January 21, 1985, he left a legacy of culinary excellence and integrity to foodies all over the world. His name remains synonymous with excellence in culinary arts and American food.
Following Beard’s death in 1985, a group of his friends and colleagues responded to a plea from Chef Julia Child to continue on with Beard’s mission. During his life, Beard always welcomed interested parties from the culinary world into his space and encouraged their creative endeavors. His kitchen was the creative playground and launching pad of America’s 20th century culinary scene.
In November 1986, the James Beard Foundation opened the James Beard House, in honor of its namesake, as a culinary arts center and test kitchen. The foundation continues that rich tradition by maintaining the Beard House as a culinary training ground and think tank. The James Beard Foundation currently hosts more than 250 events at the Beard House annually. Throughout its history, the James Beard Foundation has supported the culinary arts in a variety of ways. Namely, via its scholarship program, which has sponsored many talented culinary students in need of money to complete their education. Finalists for the 2014 James Beard Foundation Awards were honored at one of two ceremonies in New York City earlier this year.
By Leigh Haugh