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An editor for 25 years at one of America’s best selling women’s magazines, a project with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton developing the American Chef Corps, and now in charge of the James Beard Foundation (JBF) - an organisation set up in honour of the chef and food writer James Beard in 1986 with the aim of nurturing the progression of American chefs and American cuisine.
Susan Ungaro took the position as president of JBF eight years ago, a role she says she had always wanted to adopt after working with a number of non-profit organisations and feeling a role within a Foundation was the right step after an illustrious career in publishing. “It seemed like a great opportunity and challenge. I loved that Beard was known as the "godfather of American cuisine" and believe, and often said, "I don't love gourmet food, or this or that food. I love good food."
The annual James Beard Awards, something Ungaro oversees on a daily basis, has helped highlight American chefs from all over the States: all the winners will be announced tonight, including a special Rising Star Chef of the Year award that highlights the most creative chefs under 30.
Fine Dining Lovers caught up with Ungaro to ask her more about her work at JBF, what excites her most about young chefs in America and to bring you these great videos featuring a look at each of the Rising Star nominees for 2014, presented by S.Pellegrino.
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What does an average day working as JBF president look like?
"Every day is a great adventure. Right now, my talented staff and I are working on the James Beard Awards, as well as our July Chefs & Champagne event honoring Bobby Flay in the Hamptons. But there is one constant! The office where I work is at the Beard House on West 12th Street in Greenwich Village, James Beard's former residence. It is where over 220 nights a year, chefs from all over the country, and sometimes around the world, come to create a one-of-a-kind fundraising dinner. For a chef to be invited and cook in James Beard's kitchen, is like a musician being asked to perform at the Lincoln Center. Anyone can come to a dinner. Just visit our website at jamesbeard.org - you can also see a livestream of what's happening in our kitchen those evenings on our new JBF Kitchen Cam.
Can you tell us about your work on the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership?
"Two years ago, we established an American Chef Corps with the State Department. At the time, Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State. She often said that better diplomacy happens over a meal than around a conference room table. James Beard is also famous for having said: "Food is our common ground." So....it was a perfect meeting of the minds to work with then Chief of Protocol Capricia Marshall on creating a community of chefs to help represent the best of America abroad or when dignitaries and foreign chefs visited the U.S. Right now, over 125 chefs are part of our American Chef Corps and they have participated in over 40 programs either here in the U.S. or abroad."
There’s been lots of debate recently surrounding the unfair balance of male to female chefs in the industry. What are your views on this topic?
The food industry is similar to the business world, where every year, no more than 12 to 15 women make the Fortune 500 List of top CEOs. In the eight years I've been working at the James Beard Foundation, we have made every effort to encourage and celebrate both gender and ethnic diversity in our culinary world--and in all our programming. We have celebrated the role of women chefs at our Awards, annual fundraising gala, and through a recent Women in Culinary Leadership program. But the real impact lies in society and leaders in the food business to champion this cause.
Talking about Rising Stars: what characteristics do the chefs share?
Every year, our annual awards recognize the best, most creative chefs age 30 or younger. The first recipient was Todd English. Others include Bobby Flay, Traci des Jardin, Debra Ponzek, Marcus Samuelsson, David Chang and Danny Bowien. A majority of these JBF Rising Star Chef award winners have gone on to make a major impact in our restaurant industry and how America eats. Clearly, the award recognizes game changing chefs who create new flavors and concepts. They are not only talented and ambitious but also smart business men and women.
What challenges are young chefs facing in today's industry?
I believe there is greater support than ever for talented young chefs. Culinary schools are growing in popularity and offering programs that include business smarts and media training--something every chef needs to get noticed and achieve their dream to own their own restaurant. And there are many organizations, including the James Beard Foundation, offering additional networking and training opportunities. We recently began a twice-yearly series of Chefs Boot Camps for Policy & Change, which bring together chefs from all over the country to learn about using their talent and passion more effectively for worthy causes in their communities and nationally, too. Over 400 chefs have applied. Our biggest challenge is that we can only select 15 per program. We will have graduated about 60 this spring.
What excites you about the new generation of young chefs in US?
How they deal with the challenges! The young chefs and students we meet practically every day in New York at the Beard House and throughout the country at our many Friend of Beard, Taste America and Celebrity Chef Tour programs, exhibit a hunger (sorry, I can't help myself) to share their passion about local food systems, regional and international flavors and making this food world a better place. They are the nicest, more generous people one can meet. After all, what do all chefs want to do best? Feed and nourish us!
How do you think this generation will shape the future of US gastronomy?
I believe that a decade or two from now, we will see even better gender and ethnic diversity in our restaurant world--and in the media, too. I also believe in the power of chefs to teach Americans how to eat better and healthier. Chefs are getting more involved in their local school lunch programs and that is also a really important need.