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James Beard Foundation President Susan Ungaro on How the Awards Came to Chicago

Plus how a venue change made the awards step up their game.

Susan Ungaro   Photo: Susie Cushner

Susan Ungaro is the president of the James Beard Foundation, the New York–based nonprofit organization that promotes the United States’ culinary heritage. Food-news junkies hear the foundation’s name most often when its awards season rolls around. This year’s awards take place in Chicago–for the first time–on Monday, and the foundation recently announced that the awards will return to Chicago in 2016 and 2017. We chatted with Ungaro about the awards and the foundation.

How have you worked to change the Beard awards during your tenure?

When I came to the foundation the James Beard Awards were at hotel venues. Lovely, but it didn’t have the glamour and gravitas that I felt the awards deserved. Moving to Lincoln Center was a way to position it as the Oscars for the food industry. It made it an incredibly exciting, glamorous, art-filled night that elevated the experience of everyone who attended and elevated it for sponsors.

Has New York become blasé about the awards?

New York is a great host city to all the chefs and restaurateurs, but I think Chicago has taken it up a notch for our 25th anniversary. We are feeling the love.

Why change?

Soon after I came [to the Beard Foundation], I had a mission to take the foundation as much as possible on the road. We started by taking the nominations to Chicago, Portland, Charleston, and Las Vegas. And we’ve heard, “Will you ever take the awards to another city?” Incredible enthusiasm and [financial] support was a great enticement.

What are some other things you’re working on with the Beard Foundation?

[The foundation] continues to strive that every consumer and every American will know who James Beard was and why winning the award is the greatest achievement in a restaurateur’s or chef’s life. We have also created many more leadership foundations: For instance, Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. And we have a diplomatic culinary partnership with the [U.S.] State Department, [previously with] with Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry has embraced it as well. There is an American chef corps as part of the diplomatic partnership. When chefs are traveling, they let the State Department know and they help arrange cultural exchange visits. [Ed. note: Chicago’s own Art Smith, of Table 52, has served as a culinary ambassador to Israel and the West Bank in this program.]

How do you hope engaged food lovers will use the Beard awards?

Call your Chicago chefs, [such as] Grant Achatz or Rick Bayless. I always hear that winning is a game-changer for business.


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