Nomadic New Role For Chefs – Maybe Even At The Beard House

Food & Drink

It was big news when the New York Times

published that chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns was stepping away from those Michelin Starred stoves. In his place will be a roster of visiting culinarians.

Major visiting chefs series are not new but they’ve been gaining new life and steam and – in the wake of this pandemic – some critical new roles in the uplifting of talent and salvaging of careers. Once an enhancement, it’s now becoming a survival strategy. It also may present a real opportunity for the James Beard Foundation to be more relevant and just, well,  better.

Over the last few years, and certainly at the height of the economic cycle, the power and draw of top talent has become even more compelling. Lexus

, seeking client connection and identity enhancement, partnered with Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality to open Intersect by Lexus where one out of town chef after another has wowed the (pre-Covid) Meatpacking crowd.

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It should be mentioned that a complete kitchen and dining room team came fully trained and integrated from Meyer’s former and further downtown location, North End Grill. That lease ran out just as a former chef was bounced in a #MeToo moment. Suddenly a whole support crew was available to back up any viable and bankable talent.

According to the Times’ Pete Wells, “The chef-in-residence conceit is not unique to Intersect. On Mulberry Street, Chefs Club also turns its permanent kitchen crew over to somebody else’s menu; a new restaurant in Houston, the Decatur Bar & Popup Factory, gives its entire space to prospective restaurateurs for three months at a time so they can test-drive their ideas before going out on their own.”

But now, as entire chunks of culture and society re-calibrate, the push to find homes and showcases for compelling talents will only grow. It could be some time before some of the world’s top chefs have a permanent kitchen to call their own. And longer still for some up and coming, perhaps less established and connected folks.

It’s been long known that to accept the “honor and privileged” of cooking at the Greenwich Village town house where James Beard once lived, wrote and taught cooking, requires some serious cash. Though I’m told that the expense stipend has been increased over the years, it can still cost upwards of $25,000, what with travel and hotels, sous chefs other cooks and critical ingredients. And every PR person involved will urge the restaurant or chef to buy a table or two for writers and bloggers and influences and distant cousins of a forager they met in college. Backing for these outings has been made more difficult to garner as the Foundation handles it’s own sponsors (read, gets the wine and the money donated) and much more. Many emerging cooks, certainly ones from marginalized groups, have had a tough time even when they did get the golden ticket invite.

So here’s a thought that isn’t new: Why not award the opportunity like an organization calling itself a Foundation might actually do? I don’t favor a Fellowship to study in Italy where the recipient has to find funding to be able to go, have a bed to sleep in and the cash to eat. Why not actually make those dinners showcases instead of fundraisers? Why not have every nominee or finalist have the full opportunity to show and serve what they can do?

I think it’s interesting (okay, suspect) that the core, the origin of these Awards, born as The Who’s Who of Cooking in American – a group that included Beard himself, along with Julia Child, Edna Lewis and a collection of LGBT and POC from the early years of the effort – was cancelled and essentially disbanded a few years ago. Full disclosure, I helped start those awards with Chris Kimball at Cook’s Magazine and was inducted myself in 2009. It was a lively and diverse group that suggested impact well beyond financial or media success and certainly could have used a wider net but was always surprising and enlightening. (there was a forager in the very first group)But as what was called cognoscenti before the term influencer was embraced, these (we) were and are highly opinionated folks not easily monetized by the organization. Emerging new talent could easily be included in such a group in ways that could open the arms, minds and palettes of eaters everywhere.

The coming months and years are going to require a full and deep re-calibration of the restaurant industry. It seems to be a sweet spot of the Beard Awards, named for a man who sometimes helped restaurants with their food but was essentially a powerful advocate for home cookery. Showcases for professional cooks and chefs will be more important than ever. Let’s hope people figure out smart ways to give great cooks a home and a platform and that we all get back to what we love and live for: taking care of people. And let’s hope the Beard folks find good ways to help.

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