Long after James Beard helped trigger a cult of cooking in the United States, the foundation named for him continues to recognize the nation’s top chefs in the field.
Now, the 25th anniversary of the foundation will be celebrated with a new book — “The James Beard Foundation’s Best of the Best” — complete with stories on and recipes from 21 chefs who have won the group’s Outstanding Chef honor.
“I took my appetite on an adventure,” said Kit Wohl, the author, who spent two years traveling the country to talk with those renowned chefs and get an insider’s peak at their kitchens and philosophies. “It was wonderful to see how American cuisine has evolved over the last 25 years.”
The evolution of the food craze, and the transformation of chefs into new rock stars, was certainly sparked by the group in this book.
The James Beard awards honor those who follow in the footsteps of Beard, considered the dean of American cooking when he died in 1985.
When Wolfgang Puck first opened Spago in 1982, Wohl writes, the Beverly Hills restaurant that achieved such fame was “never intended to be a particularly fancy or glamorous place.” But Orson Wells, a man who once said ‘Gluttony is not a secret vice,’ started dining there and word of his love of the restaurant quickly spread.
What kept the crowds coming back was the food.
Puck — the first Beard Foundation honoree and the only person to win the award twice — also instituted many of the practices now considered routine in restaurants, Wohl said, including an open kitchen, focusing on fresh, local produce, and emphasizing a new casually elegant style of dining.
Along the way, chefs not only learned from each other, Wohl said, they continued to innovate, introducing new styles of cooking and new forms of presentation.
“Each chef brought something unusual, different into play,” Wohl said. “If you start with Puck and moved on to recent years, you can see how styles in cooking and presentation have changed.”
And though she dealt with a group of super stars of the food world, used to ruling their kitchens and restaurants completely, Wohl said they were surprisingly free of the massive egos one might expect.
“I think they worked so hard to get where they are they can relax now,” Wohl said. “They’ve proven their point.”
Wohl said Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and the 1997 winner of the award was more typical of the attitude she found in her time with the chefs.
After visiting the restaurant’s garden, Wohl said they returned to the test kitchen beside it and Keller kicked off his clogs, “turned on Sting and then was on his hands and knees wiping up footprints from the garden.”
She also had bread balls flung at her by Michel Richard as he drew at his kitchen table in Citronelle in Washington, D.C., and found Judy Rogers of Zuni Café in San Francisco had pencils holding her top knot of hair in place so she could always have one handy for her constant note taking.
And she was told by Tom Colicchio, of Craft in New York, that he was not a celebrity chef.
“’Brad Pitt isn’t called a celebrity actor,’ he points out. ‘I’m not a celebrity. I’m a chef,’” Wohl said.