Susan Ungaro Reveals the Behind-the-Scenes of the James Beard Foundation Awards and Responds to Anthony Bourdain's Criticisms
April showers bring May flowers, but also the James Beard Foundation Awards! The second week in May the awards will celebrate the country's best chefs (and journalists and writers), and are a big ole party of who's who in the industry. Wanting to take a peek behind the curtain of what goes into hosting such a crazy event, we contacted James Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro to learn more about the process of putting on the event.
Chefs gonna be winning!
The James Beard Foundation seems to really have stepped up its presence recently, with pop-ups in Chelsea Market and the like. What was the reasoning for this?
Thanks for noticing! I don't think you can watch any of the Iron Chef or Top Chef television shows without hearing a chef or two or three introduced as a James Beard Award winner. We are truly proud that Americans recognize our foundation as a place that awards excellence and also brings educational and exciting programs to the public. Our James Beard Foundation Pop-Up Restaurant and Food Experience at Chelsea Market was a tremendous opportunity for us to get our name and some very wonderful chefs, food organizations and businesses in front of the thousands of New Yorkers and tourists who visit Chelsea Market every day. You can stroll in from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, enjoy free entertainment and information at our sponsor's food-experience kiosks or purchase a ticket to one of our Pop-Up dinners. We are excited that so many people -- from college coeds to baby boomers -- are hungry for new food experiences.
The James Beard Foundation Awards have been likened to the Oscars of the food world. What is the planning process to put on such an event?
We are very proud of the fact that the press has referred to our awards as the "Oscars" of the food world -- and they are! For chefs, winemakers, restaurant designers, and restaurateurs, winning a James Beard Award is like an actor winning an Academy Award or a rock star winning a Grammy. Not only are our awards a glamorous and delicious event, but anyone can buy a ticket. We host the awards in New York's cultural center for the arts: Lincoln Center. Planning the awards at Avery Fisher Hall takes hundreds of people -- dedicated staff, a talented event-planning company, and hundreds of volunteer awards-committee judges. We literally began planning this year's awards the week following last year's celebration!
What was the impetus for this year's theme, "The Melting Pot"?
James Beard was considered the father of American cuisine and so much of what is uniquely American about our food and restaurant world is the strong and creative influence of our diverse population. He was a strong advocate of not only cooking with regional, in-season ingredients, but as someone who traveled the world, he also loved to champion the cuisine of chefs who came to this country and created restaurant successes out of their heritage or love for another country's food. So ... this year we decided to celebrate the incredible influences immigrants brought to this country's cuisine. Over 25 chefs, who are cooking following our gala awards show, will be serving the best of the best tastings from around the globe.