The James Beard Foundation seems to be everywhere in the food world with its awards, culinary events and media presence especially on the food channels. Just mention any of today’s hot chefs and their names are usually prefaced by the term James Beard Award Winner. These highly coveted awards bestowed on restaurants, chefs, and food and culinary books are the most important awards in the food and restaurant industry.
The real James Beard ascended to foodie heaven 30 years ago. He was a very large figure – both literally and figuratively- he weighed more than 300 pounds. The saintly image of James Beard as portrayed by the foundation; kind of like Uncle Ben, you know the rice guy, is in sharp contrast to Beard’s real persona.
He was an unabashed hedonist who enjoyed an abundance of food, alcohol, sex, travel and money over his lifetime. No one can deny that he was a tour de force on the 20th century culinary scene as a food writer, caterer, educator and host of a brief, first of its kind, TV cooking show airing on NBC in the late 1940s. And no one can deny that he was a champion of American cuisine and was influential in establishing the farm to table cooking and dining concept that is so important in today’s culinary scene.
Beard had nothing to do with the founding and the establishment of the foundation that bears his name. This was the brainchild of Julia Child and some other lesser-known New York foodies. The foundation’s main mission was to award scholarships in the culinary arts and preserve Beard’s manhattan townhouse as a culinary center after he died in 1985.
Beard bequeathed this valuable real estate to Reed College in Oregon. Interestingly, Beard was expelled from this institution for homosexuality in 1922 and received an honorary degree in 1976. Child and her friends succeeded in raising the funds to acquire the property in 1991 from Reed College. All’s well that end’s well. Perhaps!
About 10 years ago the James Beard foundation was rocked by scandal. The dining club at the Beard House was featuring young chefs on the make who often bought their way in through sponsorships and donations. Annual awards were bestowed upon some of these chefs and the restaurants and business they were associated with. Tsk Tsk !! This moral laxity provided the financial fuel for a multi year, multi million dollar thievery by the foundation’s long time leader Len Pickell who lined his pockets with cash, expensive food, wine, and travel and luxury goods donated to the foundation. The foundation’s finances were in disarray and the appearance that the James Beard Awards could be bought through sponsorships, out right bribes and plain old favoritism threatened to shut the place down.
The foundation was teetering as a result of the scandal. A thorough housecleaning of the management and Board of Directors was done. Mr. Pickell stood trial and went to jail for his looting. BTW, Pickell died shortly after his release from prison in 2007.
Side Note: His estate and family sued NYS for remuneration for medical mistreatment while in prison claiming his death was attributable to complications for infected blisters on his feet from his prison issued boots. The case was thrown out. Slowly but surely the foundation purged itself from the financial, ethical moral, and culinary excesses.
Fast forward to 2016 and we find the James Beard foundation at the peak of its success due in large part to the valiant effort of Susan Ungaro who was recruited to clean up the mess. During her tenure the foundation’s revenues have more than doubled to over $10 million. The deficit due to thievery and mismanagement has been eliminated and the ongoing activities of the James Beard foundation generate about $2 million a year of cash flow. This is probably more money than James Beard earned in his entire lifetime. Just another note here. While Beard published over 20 cookbooks during his lifetime, we were unable to find any of his books listed on the 25 biggest selling cookbooks of all time. We wouldn’t be surprised if the James Beard Foundation Cookbooks have out sold the real James.! As the celebrity chef/food culture (the foodboom) continues to grow so will this foundation. It’s no longer belly up.
Want to go to an event and belly up to the bar better better pony up the dough, as the average ticket is at least a few hundred and for the annual gala three quarters of a grand. Surely a recipe for an going financial success.