American Masters Chefs Flight Presents 'James Beard: America's First Foodie'

Though most of us are unfamiliar with the man behind the brand, we understand the name James Beard as synonymous with excellence in all things culinary. An annual event named after him has been honoring America's best chefs, restaurants and food-related media since 1990. The new film James Beard: America's First Foodie chronicles the life of the man Julia Child referred to as "the quintessential American cook," kicking off a "Chefs Flight" of four documentaries profiling Beard, Child, Alice Waters and Jacques Pépin for American Masters' 31st season Friday, May 19 at 9:00pm on KQED 9.

James Beard was born in Portland, Oregon at the dawn of the 20th century to a mother, Elizabeth, who owned a small hotel and was something of a local sensation, both for her cooking and for her liberated lifestyle. The early education she provided in buying and preparing fresh, local foods in season would become the guiding principle for the food movement her son later catalyzed. By his own account, the young Beard was as unrestrained by convention as his libertine mother, understanding at an early age that he was homosexual. He was expelled from Reed College, where he studied acting, for engaging in (then-illegal) same-sex activity. At 19, Beard headed to Europe to study opera, but ended up exercising his large appetite in the bistros of Paris, whose practices he taught to others when he returned to Oregon.

Beard moved to New York in 1937, surviving lean times by cooking for friends in exchange for his supper. From these gatherings came his first success. He and William Rhode (later the editor of Gourmet magazine) started a catering business called Hors D'Oeuvre, Inc, which provided the recipes for his first cookbook, Hors d'oeuvre and Canapes, published in 1940. He followed that success with Cook It Outdoors, "believed to be the first serious book on outdoor cooking," according to his New York Times obituary.

Chef James Beard at Reed College (Courtesy of Reed College)

In 1946, Beard hosted I Love to Eat for two seasons on NBC, introducing cooking to TV. He founded The James Beard Cooking School in 1955, teaching people around the country how to cook for the next thirty years. The school eventually settled in Seaside, Oregon, where he taught each summer using the same fresh ingredients his mother prepared in his youth, and in the kitchen of his Greenwich Village brownstone in Manhattan, which also became a popular hangout for the rich and famous. Beard's good friend Julia Child lobbied for the preservation of his Manhattan home shortly after he died in 1985 and, through the efforts of Peter Krump, a former student, and a cadre of well-connected friends, the James Beard Foundation was born.

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America's First Foodie traces Beard's influence through the many chefs that surrounded him and came after, including Julia Child, Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower and Jacques Pépin, but what remains a mystery is the spirit that animated so many to come together to preserve his legacy. Several close friends affirm Beard's charms, but the man himself is unfortunately not on hand to glamour the viewer. How does one capture the "life of the party" when the party has been over for decades?

Chefs Julia Child, James Beard and Edna Lewis (Dan Wynn/Courtesy of the Wynn family and the James Beard Foundation)

There are testimonials to Beard's innovation, intelligence and wit. We hear that he was a master raconteur, loved a juicy piece of gossip, and was something of a scoundrel, skipping out on countless restaurant checks and flashing some of his guests and neighbors.

Beard scandalized his peers by endorsing everything from Planters Peanuts to Adolph's Meat Tenderizer to raise money for his cooking school, a move he later regretted, referring to himself as a "gastronomic whore." We see a few saucy quotes from his books and learn of his participation in the design of The Four Seasons, an influential New York eatery that combined Beard's twin loves of theater and food. Interesting tidbit: the restaurant was among the first to change its menu seasonally, hence the name. Nevertheless, there are some awkward moments regarding Beard's personal life that darken the otherwise rosy portrait of the man who helped launch the farm to table movement, not the least of which is the low opinion many of his close friends held of his (apparently) life-long companion.

The film is a bit like a soufflé that fails to rise. All the right ingredients are present and seemingly in the correct proportions: celebrity chef testimonials, a few Beard recipes prepared by Jacques Pépin and Naomi Pomery, archival images of Beard's youth and early education, early TV appearances by the man himself, and glitzy footage of James Beard Awards bestowed. But something is missing; perhaps it is just the impossibility of knowing the true power of a celebrity's charm without the man present to demonstrate.

Chef James Beard (Dan Wynn/Courtesy of the Wynn family and the James Beard Foundation)

There is no denying Beard's outsized personality and seemingly unquenchable lust for life. We learn how his innovations continue to proliferate within the food community today, though the film is unable to effectively convey the ineffable quality that made James Beard so beloved among his peers, inspiring a group of dedicated influencers to create a monument to his memory that became "the Academy Awards of the food world."

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The man whose face adorns the ultimate culinary seal of approval loved people, according to Julia Child, "loved his work, loved gossip, loved to eat, [and] loved a good time." Seems like those are the very qualities necessary -- other than the food itself -- for a good meal, and the ones that cannot be prescribed in a cookbook. And maybe that's the secret to James Beard, he contained that extra something special that made a good dinner party great.

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