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I met James Beard — twice. I was recently on vacation in Sonoma County. Robert and I go up to the Russian River each summer for a week. In the town of Guerneville is a used bookstore inside a coffee house. A few years ago a local gentleman passed away, and the bookstore purchased his massive cookbook collection. For the past few years upon arriving I’ve made a beeline to the store to see what the bookseller currently has on his shelves. I’ve come away with several gems. On our most recent visit he had one of the many, many books by food authority, James Beard. I’m not sure why but when I saw the Beard book a nostalgia for my early food days hit me. Probably because it all seemed a bit simpler back then.
I was in my early twenties, and the head buyer in the cheese department at the Oakville Grocery — a gourmet food emporium — in San Francisco. This was the early ’80s. Clark Wolf, the manager of the store, and the person who taught me a lot about cheese invited me to a small dinner party where the guest of honor was James Beard. It was an exciting invitation and a heady experience for a young, aspiring foodie like me. The dinner was held in a grand home in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Mr. Beard did not cook, he was cooked for. I know that I knew a few of the guests but who was actually there besides Clark, and who the hostess was are lost to time. Mr. Beard was gracious, amusing, and kind. I don’t remember what we ate. I do remember sitting at table with one of my culinary heroes and being awestruck. In those days there were only a handful of people considered to be food authorities, and he was close to the top.
It would then be several years before I met him again. This time I was working for Jeremiah Tower at his Stars restaurant in San Francisco. I went on a trip to New York City with Jeremiah. He had plans to visit Mr. Beard, or ‘Jim’ as those who were close to him called him. Jeremiah kindly took me along on the visit. We went to see Jim at his Greenwich Village brownstone (now the headquarters of the James Beard Foundation). I saw his living quarters, his kitchen, and the glass-enclosed back garden where he hosted meals for friends. I sat with Jim and Jeremiah as they caught up on food industry gossip. The picture at the head of this post is how I remember him that day, and I believe it was taken in his house. He sat in a large armchair, his dogs ran to and fro, his majordomo brought us drinks. The visit might have lasted an hour or so. It was a highlight of my budding career in the food business.
Jim died in 1985 not too long after our visit. Julia Child and Peter Kump, a former student of Jim’s, came up with the idea to purchase his Greenwich Village brownstone to preserve it as a gathering place for the food world much like it was during Jim’s life. The brownstone is now the headquarters of the James Beard Foundation. The foundation oversees the annual James Beard Foundation Awards. Peter, now deceased, was an old friend of mine. When I lived in New York the very first time in 1982 I took several cooking classes from him at his Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School. We became fast friends, and spent a good deal of time together cooking in his Upper East Side apartment and dining out. After Peter’s death his school was renamed the Institute of Culinary Education and is still in existence. I am proud to have known Peter, and I’m proud that his and Jim’s legacies now live on through the James Beard Foundation. It really did all seem much simpler back then. It was a much smaller world — the food world. All that aside, meeting Mr. Beard, or ‘Jim,’ was a true highlight of my early food days.
My Status: Back from a two-week hiatus that included a week in Sonoma County. More cooking, eating and blogging on the horizon
News! I am now published!! My recipe ‘Chef Wally’s Baked Papaya’ was selected to be in the upcoming cookbook: ‘Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook: 100 Great Recipes, Photographs, and Voices,’ publish date is October 19, 2010. You may pre-order it here. I am thrilled.
Upcoming Posts: The story of Ted and Nicole DeGolier and their urban backyard chickens — as soon as the hens lay enough eggs. Cookbook Reviews ~ Cider Beans, Wild Greens, and Dandelion Jelly by Joan E. Aller; Mary Mac’s Tea Room: 65 Years of Recipes from Atlanta’s Favorite Dining Room by John Ferrell; The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders.