Who was James Beard?

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In 1937, a young man struggling to earn a living working in theater decided to try out cooking – something he'd learned growing up – to supplement his income. It came naturally to him because his mother loved to cook. The gentleman opened a small catering company and named it "Hors D'Oeurve." Americans didn't know it at the time, but this action would spark a series of events that would lead him to craft one of the most well-respected culinary careers in the world.

That man was James Beard, who's mostly known today as the man behind The James Beard Award. The award is a status symbol in the culinary world. Chefs who've received the honor are typically described as talented, gifted, hard working and creative. Chefs strive all their lives to achieve this accolade, whether they admit it or not.

A big personality

"Beard was a legendary cook because of his exemplary technique that many people try to mimic."

Beard was a legendary cook because of his exemplary technique that many people try to mimic. Food and Wine magazine wrote a piece on Beard titled "Tribute: James Beard Uncensored."

The piece painted Beard as a raucous man who deeply enjoyed cooking in the nude. The 6-foot-3-inch man who weighed 300 pounds frequently wore kimonos and took baths. He was quite open about his disregard for appearance.

When compared to other great artists throughout time, Beard's eccentric and quirky persona seems to be more the norm than the exception. Historically, many famous innovators have had interesting rituals to find inspiration. Georgia News Day pointed out that Charles Dickens would spend an abnormally long time eating dinner and William Styron would spend the hours of 8 p.m. to midnight drinking and smoking.

Cookbooks with sass
However unique his methods were to find new ideas, clearly they were working for Beard. Even without formal culinary training, Beard wrote several critically acclaimed cookbooks.

James Beard wrote a number of critically-acclaimed cookbooks.James Beard wrote a number of critically-acclaimed cookbooks.

A New York Times piece "The Book of James" brought to light something that may be little known to someone who hasn't thumbed through one of Beard's cookbooks. It's that he included honest reviews along with the recipes for each dish. According to the Times, Beard penned a side note about his recipe for Sloppy Joes, acknowledging it as a dish born out of necessity rather than enjoyment and creativity. It stated:"This is a product of the modern age, and though it is not a palate-tingling delight, it has a large public."

Following this cookbook, Beard released another American hit, "Beard on Food," in 1974. Compared with his earlier work, which included unabashed opinions on mundane American meals, this 896-page book consists of Beard's favorite food essays and recipes. People of all experience levels use his books – even the earlier published works – as a culinary point of reference. Beard died in 1985, yet his legacy lives on.

How to learn from Beard
In 2014, Napa Valley College's St. Helena campus unveiled 11 bronze sculptures, each one representative of a famed food or drink expert. James Beard was among other greats like Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Wolfgang Puck and Robert Mondavi. It's through public landmarks like this one that Beard's spirit lives on. He's also remembered through his recipe books, which are nestled on bookshelves around the world, and through the James Beard Foundation, a New York based nonprofit organization.

The foundation offers those who'd like to learn from Beard a chance to get a glimpse of his culinary technique and musings through educational programs, such as food conferences, readings and talks, as well as a boot camp, which promises to train budding chefs on challenges and opportunities relevant to the food industry.

Each year, The James Beard Foundation selects culinary masters that have demonstrated exceptional skills as recipients of the coveted James Beard Award. The 2015 Awards Gala and Reception will be held on May 4 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Tickets are available to the public through the James Beard Foundation website. Those interested in experiencing Beard's style can buy tickets to dinner events where meals are similarly prepared and dished to mirror the former chef's creations.


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