Beard Foundation After the Scandal

On Monday night, the James Beard Foundation puts on its lavish, interminable awards ceremony (last year hosted by the veteran anchor Charles Gibson, and even this stalwart was visibly wilting by the end), this year to take place in Avery Fisher Hall.  My disaffection for the Beard Foundation is second only to that of the bobbleheaded man, who decries their lack of attention to the men and women who actually do the work in this industry, and duly notes what all chefs believed but wouldn’t dare say on the record for fear of offending the Giver of Awards. That for years the institution did little more than shake down chefs for free meals.  This all came to a head two years ago when its former president was caught embezzling all that money raised by those chefs.

Nick Fox, a writer and editor at The New York Times, today rightly asks where does this tarnished organization stand? "€œQuestions Linger for Beard Foundation."

The group, to their credit, has been trying to turn things around, making their financial statements easily available to the public and separating the awards from the foundation itself.  Last year the group gave out $156,000 in scholarships. The current president, Susan Ungaro, earns $225,000. Ungaro said their whopping deficit had been reduced to $600,000, and would be further diminished next year.

I’€™m hopeful, but skeptical.  In Fox’s story, the group’€™s chairwoman downplayed the importance of scholarships in favor of celebrating and nurturing America’s Culinary Heritage.  Presumably meaning more Beard House dinners.  Revered cookbook author, Barbara Kafka, slammed the organization two years ago as "an expensive dining club,"€ but told Fox for today’€™s story "I think they can be trusted." Well, of course they can.  They’re giving Kafka a lifetime achievement award on Monday.  See, the awards tactic works!  (I, alas, was not nominated this year. *sniff*  I’ve been nominated a lot, and I can’€™t deny that it’€™s fun, though I’m vastly relieved not to have to sit through them again.)

I’d like to know exactly what it is they intend to do, beyond give themselves an expensive party once a year.  More scholarships, I hope, yes, that would be a meaningful way to "nurture."€  More transparency in who is deciding the award recipients and how the decision-making process works.  And a leadership that is more in touch with the important food issues of the day—which have never been more urgent or on view—as opposed to a leadership more interested in hanging with famous chefs and funding an expensive dining club.

Thank you, Eric Asimov!

The man who covers wines and spirits for The Times, Eric Asimov, couldn’€™t have said it more clearly or definitively today:

"A martini should be made with gin or it’s not a martini."€  And: "A martini is also not a martini without vermouth."

Asimov underscores the point on his excellent blog, The Pour.

And bartender and club owner Audrey Saunders, tasting gins with Asimov, went so far as to say that the current generation of tipplers have been "lobotomized by vodka."  Too true!

Writing Wrongs

Kim Severson’s very sweet, very fine story, about what she did when two students took her to task for a story she wrote, could only have appeared but for the blog.  Another reason to be glad for blogs.  Not to mention thoughtful journalists.

Share

32 Wonderful responses to “In Today’s Times”

  • Marlies

    ….There is little better in this world than a desperately cold, bone-dry martini. Question, though……olive or twist?
    ….
    Always with a twist. Can’t stand to see a martini with an oil-slick spread over it.

  • David

    I take it if the Beard Foundation endorsed a future endeavor of yours Michael you would turn them down? If not stop being a hypocrite.

  • verbal kint

    I have to admit I’ve sworn off martinis (for now)but I can see the world coming to an end when bars serve up things like Jagermeister margartitas and Chipotle Jello belly shots.

    But if I were to have one martini a year it would be with gin and vermouth.

    Regarding the Beard Awards, I don’t think Rachael Ray won one, did she? It would have to be for lifetime achievement in stupidity, should that category ever emerge.

    Verbal

  • ruhlman

    medium rare: I didn’t see any surprises in the books category. maybe the ducasse win over pro chef and michel richard’s book, but i haven’t seen the ducasse book. glad to see richard win best chef, and a couple of long time chef-nominees win in their regions, des jardins and frank McClelland. I wish Symon would have won for midwest, but can’t argue that category. and david leite in the best internet site category is worthy.

    David: you raise an excellent point, i hadn’t thought about because i wasn’t nominated. i’d have to think about whether to decline an award. i have obligations to my publishers, they’d be pissed (and maybe already are). also the awards and the organization with which i have a problem, are now separate entities. but you, know, it would have been hard this year to accept one, given how out of touch the .org still is and my public feelings about it. did you see the letter in the times wednesday, referencing the Nick fox article? that’s exactly the sort of attitude that makes the place stink. yeah, i’d have had to refuse, you’re right. now, elaine cicora won a journalism award for her profile of me in a cleveland tabloid, and this delights me for elaines sake (and I was glad in a subversive way to be a small part of the awards). so i still get pleasure from the awards themselves and respect the people nominated. maybe we need to think about the cult of awards in America? What DO they mean?

  • Medium Rare

    Michael:

    Curious what you thought of the Beard Book Awards???

  • Jennie/Tikka

    Re the article “Writing Wrongs”….Reminded me of my first exposure to fine dining (at about the same age). I wasn’t impressed. I can’t remember what I ate. All I can recall is that there were 4 waiters just to fill the water glasses. One to put the glasses down, the second to add the ice, the third to add the lemon slice, and the fourth to pour the actual water.

    Its entirely possible that I can’t remember what I ate because I was completely non-plussed about the fact I was eating in an establishment that only permitted women in the dining room, and nowhere else in what was at that time, an entirely private male businessman’s club.

    We did test them on that one, btw. My bestest buddy & I excused ourselves to the Ladies Room, and promptly began exploring specifically where we were told we were not allowed to go (we were told not to leave the safety of the plastic carpet protectors). Within moments of finding a particularly impressive conference room we were promptly located and sent back to our table.

  • SoCalFoodGuy

    On the same day the James Beard Foundation in New York was announcing that the San Francisco Chronicle had won several awards for distinguished food writing, Forbes.com carried a speech the day before by Hearst executive Lincoln Millstein (Hearst owns the Chron) who was in New York to tout his opinion that newspapers don’t need “professional journalists” writing about Food. Or Travel. Or other “back of the book” sections.

    At the Newspaper Association of America’s annual convention in New York, Millstein was quoted by Forbes.com as telling the newspaper suits:

    “You don’t need professional journalists to put out a travel section,’’ he said. “You don’t need professional journalists to put out a food section, in my opinion. I had a hundred journalists reporting to me. I don’t believe that model works, I don’t believe it needs to work. I believe the user is actually better served by having user-generated, high-quality content in all those ‘back of the book’ sections.”

    When asked how Hearst newspapers have reacted to his proposal, Millstein conceded that “they haven’t heard that from me yet.’’

    Forbes piece:

    http://www.forbes.com/leadership/2007/05/07/newspapers-readers-content-lead-manage-cx_lh_0507newspapers.html

    James Beard Awards:

    http://www.jamesbeard.org/about/press/newsdetails.php?news_id=104

  • rockandroller

    I have been going on about the “martini” thing for awhile, to deaf ears. I agree. A martini is one thing and one thing only.

    But in a lot of respects, it doesn’t *really* matter to me that much, because I don’t like gin. And while I like vodka, I prefer the liquor I drink to be straight.

  • Shannon

    Michael,

    Off-subject…..

    Vanity Fair has an article called “If You Knew Sushi” (A single tuna auctioned for more than $170,000, sake flavored with snake venom, a Moonie consortium—the sushi business is wilder than gourmet wasabi. From the back alleys of Tokyo to New York’s most expensive Japanese restaurant, Nick Tosches uncovers the real, raw world behind an epicure’s delight.)

    The author includes the description of a meal he and his friend had at Masa as well as where Takayama considers to serve the best sushi in Japan.

    Very interesting article.

    It’s in the June 2007 issue (Bruce Willis is on the cover).

  • Tags

    Calling a drink other than gin & vermouth a Martini is analagous to calling FN “THE” Food Network. “THE” food network is PBS. They’re the original, they’ve been here for a long time and only relatively recently has the money shown any interest in milking the food-interest show vein.

    Even commercially, FN follows in Martha Stewart’s footsteps. She seems to have learned a thing or two from FN about product placement, though.

    For me, “olive or twist” is a question with the same answer as “which Hepburn do you prefer?” The one I happen to be with at the time, Daahlink.

  • Michael Rosen

    Michael,
    I did a oyster dinner back in 1999 and while I was there I wondered what a scam this joint is and well the rest is history.We spent over $15,000 in food and travel to do it and what did we get? a blurb in the news letter.When Mariani’ best of issue came out in esquire in 2001, the next day I got a call from “the house” asking if I would come and do a dinner again, my response was if they paid for First Class travel and a penthouse at the Pierre,The phone was silent and I hung up. It is done! With us professionals it will never have the mystique it once had.

  • Maura

    “I don’t get the “dry vodka martini”… it seems to be purely an excuse to put vodka in a pretty glass.

    In fact, I don’t really get the “dry martini”, even when it’s made with gin. But maybe I just like the magic of vermouth.”

    I asked my aunt one time why she even bothered with the vermouth, because she likes her martinis even drier than I like mine. She said it was so she didn’t have to admit she was drinking straight gin. She is one awesome woman.

    Bob dG,
    I love vodka martinis (or whatever you want to call them). I am a fan. I order them as martinis because if I ask for vodka with the tiniest splash of vermouth, and six olives please, the bartender will think I’m crazy. Flavored martinis also scare me.

  • Bob dG

    Michael
    I think the Beard House will pull through on the strength of the brand created by James Beard alone. It’ll take a while and probably a few more changes of leadership and attendant scandals, but it’ll stand in the end.

    You know that a “James Beard F. Award F.E.” stamp on a book amplifies sales, and that plenty of chefs still compete like horny monkeys to be invited to cook at Beard House events -despite the cost, scandals and mismanagement. Of course, it’s ironic that what authors and chefs are competing for is something that was built by James Beard and not by the people who saved his house and created the Foundation. But still they come.

    I think too that the current leadership would be well-advised to either drop the scholarship program altogether or else fund it aggressively. Doing anything else only invites ridicule.

    BTW, I like gin martinis and vodka martinis (or whatever you want to call them). And I suspect you’d like vodka martinis too -if they went by some other name. Flavored martinis scare me. Do you know they serve them at places like Outback Steakhouse?

  • Jason Truesdell

    I don’t get the “dry vodka martini”… it seems to be purely an excuse to put vodka in a pretty glass.

    In fact, I don’t really get the “dry martini”, even when it’s made with gin. But maybe I just like the magic of vermouth.

  • paulius

    …”lobotomized by vodka”… I see it every day. Some people CAN recover though, given the right meds….
    However, the victims of this marketing driven trend are now faced with new boozecrap, such as “strawberry flavored tequila”, “coconut&lime rum” and other abominations.

  • kristin

    I prefer my martini’s somewhat dry with olives,unless it is a chocolate martini or a flavored one. BTW, Michael did you see the article in food arts about the return of the French?

  • Claudia

    I’m with you on the “cute” feeling, Maya. These girls are very sharp, curious, observant and open-minded, and I think they really set the reporter back on her heels once or twice. Brooke’s observation about the comment, “a restaurant she might one day work in” (as opposed to own!) was particularly tart – and to the point. WHY couldn’t Brooke, one day, be a chef-owner of a fine place like Bernardin, as opposed to being one of its line cooks? Half-Puerto Rican? Half-black? No. ALL smart. And way ahead of the game. Nice article – but the girls are even better subjects. And people. And will probably be even better food professionals (cooks or otherwise.)

  • sorcha

    Well, hopefully, her time spent with the girls will wake her up a little. I do like that she was willing to pay attention to the girls’ objections to what she’d said in the previous article.

  • Maya

    Claudia, as a continuing student, (only now going to grad school) I found myself viewing women in their 20′s through the “cute” lenses myself.

    But after several semesters realized that quite a few of them were far more eloquent and professional and just, completely together than most other women, certainly more so than myself at their age.

    It takes several months sometimes to dispell that stereotype – it was very eye-opening for me.

  • lou

    Can’t vodka martini be read to mean “vodka in the style of a martini”, just as shrimp scampi means “shrimp in the style of scampi”? I don’t anyone would order a martini expecting to get vodka.

    Don’t even get me started on chicken-fried steak.

  • Maya

    I’m not too sure about the “We Are The World” comment, some of the article sounds like Severson is treating them like nine year olds rather than the young (and VERY eloquent, from the quotes I read) women that they were.

    By the way, Ruhlman, speaking of blogs, it’s “Boat Week” on my new blog, just so you know. ;)

  • sorcha

    I think, Maya, that Severson’s learning in that article not to treat them that way. At least, we hope so. ;)

  • Tags

    According to Henry McNulty (Drinking in Vogue, 1978);

    In Europe, by the way, you drop the ‘martini’ and ask for a ‘dry’, unless you want to get a straight vermouth, which, good as it may be, may not be what you thought you ordered.

    As for James Bond, his charm lies in his competence with getting the job done flawlessly while using the faulty equipment supplied to him. Sort of like LeBron James winning with the Cleveland Cavaliers. ;-)

    LeBron, James LeBron.

  • Maya

    Hi Sorcha!

    You know, don’t get me wrong, I thought I agree with Ruhlman, I think it was an exceptionally thoughtful gesture.

    But her comments demonstrate an “aw, they’re so cute” tone that raked across my nerves. I’m not one to judge, though. I don’t even know the woman. :)

  • Briana

    There is little better in this world than a desparately cold, bone-dry martini. Question, though……olive or twist?

  • ruhlman

    I prefer a twist. Lemon is one of the great flavors. but it was pj o’rourke i believe who said, “I prefer olives. You can’t eat a twist.”

    And olives do make it more of a meal.

  • Maura

    mmmm….olives.
    I always appreciate someone pointing out that a martini is not a martini without gin, and more important, without vermouth. There is no such thing as a chocolate martini. It’s just a cocktail made with vodka.

    What I like most about Severson’s article (even though I liked the whole thing) is that a couple of 15-year-olds took her to task for her original story. Yay, them.

  • Jennie/Tikka

    I prefer a gin & tonic to a martini – but both are at the top of my list for tippling!

  • t-scape

    Loved Kim Severson’s story. Although I can’t speak as to whether or not race played a part in the initial article, it’s easy to see why they would have gotten that impression. It must have felt good to be listened to – not to mention be treated to a wonderful meal and a chance to experience something so new.

  • latenac

    Personally not a huge gin fan but even I know the only martini is one made with gin and vermouth.

    Coming to that realization was the beginning of the end for any savoir faire I thought James Bond had – vodka martinis, Walther PPK (which is a notoriously unreliable gun), Aston Martin (beautiful but also unreliable), Bacarat (odds only slightly better than Keno).

    I will agree though that Turkish cigarettes are the best.

  • Sorcha

    What a great story. So often people treat teenagers like they’re gormless lumps of apathetic acne, instead of real people with feelings, opinions, and boundless curiosity. Thanks for pointing it out to us.

    As for the Beard Awards – yeah, I’m skeptical too. Leopards, spots, yada yada.