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.

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.

 

Some people (notably Anthony Bourdain) have criticized this notion of a melting pot in that it doesn't actually recognize the diversity of talent that goes into most kitchens. How would you respond to that?

It's unclear why Anthony Bourdain, a member of our foundation's Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America, feels that way. Clearly, our theme -- the great melting pot -- is not a unique concept to describe America's diverse and talented population. This year's theme, which we decided on over a year ago, just emphasizes the importance the James Beard Foundation has given in the past and will continue to give in the future to all the chefs in this country -- whether James Beard Award winners or cooks and restaurateurs we have yet to discover. Their cuisine has been influenced by their immigrant roots, family traditions, international travel, and personal passion for world flavors. And we are very serious about celebrating their success.

Almost all of the hosts for the chef and media awards are television stars in some respect. Is that because they're naturally good in front of audiences, or is it more of a reflection of contemporary culture and the intersection between food and television?

It's true that many of our hosts for the awards have appeared on television, but they are also James Beard Award-winning chefs. This year's co-hosts Tom Colicchio, Traci Des Jardins, and Ming Tsai are great chefs and are great on TV. And last year's co-hosts were just as multitalented: Lidia Bastianich and Wolfgang Puck, both chefs and TV personalities, and Food Network star Alton Brown, who surely knows his way around the kitchen!

What is your favorite part of the awards?

My absolute favorite part is getting to see all the excited nominees and their friends walk the red carpet at Lincoln Center and then party at what is truly one of the greatest and most delicious after-parties in New York in glorious Avery Fisher Hall. And I also love the democracy of it all! Anyone who wants to buy a ticket can!

To purchase a ticket ($450 for non-members and $400 for members) for the May 9 event at Avery Fisher Hall, visit jamesbeard.org.

Have a tip or restaurant-related news? Send it to fork@villagevoice.com.

And follow us on Twitter: @ForkintheRoadVV.


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