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Q & A With Susan Ungaro

With the 2008 James Beard Awards on the imminent horizon, we thought
it would be an opportune time to check in with the foundation’s newest
president, Susan Ungaro.  Though Kim Cattrall from Sex and the City
will dropping in to host the awards ceremony on June 8th, another woman
runs the illustrious show year-round.  For twelve years, Ms. Ungaro
served as the editor in chief for the award-winning women’s magazine, Family Circle.
An award winner herself, she has earned particular notice for her work
from the William Paterson Legacy Awards and president Reagan’s Office
of Consumer Affairs.  Since having accepted the position of president
at the James Beard Foundation two years ago, Ungaro has significantly
revived its reputation and scholarship program.  Under her supervision,
the James Beard’s Greenwich Village townhouse has become a dynamic and
prominent hub for over 200 visiting chefs, where New Yorkers have the
unique opportunity to sample the cooking of chefs from all over the
world.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
My
mom recently gave me an autobiographical essay I wrote when I was
twelve. I was surprised to see that I wanted to be a nun and a comedian
until I realized that The Flying Nun was a popular and funny TV show
back then. No, I didn’t dream of running a foundation when I was
younger. I did win the Betty Crocker Award in High School and worked my
way through college at McDonald’s where I started an employee
newsletter for the franchise. So I certainly know what it’s like to
sweat over a grill and manage customer service. When I graduated from
college, I ended up working at Family Circle magazine for over two
decades and spent many days deciding on the best article ideas, photos
and cover lines for food and diet stories. Will a chocolate cupcake
outsell an apple pie? (The answer is yes!)  So in many ways, my
previous experiences are helping me run the James Beard Foundation.

What excites you most about the world of food?
Every
day something new is happening. Whether it is the opportunity to taste
a visiting chef’s imaginative way with something as simple as sorbet or
learning about the latest news in the constant churn of the restaurant
world.  I am also totally inspired by the great good will and
extraordinary creative talents of chefs, restaurateurs and winemakers
today. They are not only true artists, but they are also very giving
people.

How did you become involved with the James Beard Foundation?
As
editor of Family Circle, I certainly understood the power of winning a
James Beard Award and appreciated Beard’s legacy as the godfather of
American Cookery. Little did I imagine that after leaving the world of
publishing that I would be approached to head up this amazing
organization. Barbara Fairchild, editor of Bon Appetit, was a colleague
who had judged the magazine world’s ASME Awards with me numerous times.
When she heard that I was interested in running a foundation after
leaving Family Circle, she recommended me. And the rest, as they say,
is history.

As president of the JBF, what have been your most rewarding moments?
Presenting
the 2007 JBF Awards at Lincoln Center! The staff and I are incredibly
proud of the fact that we successfully moved our Gala Awards to Avery
Fisher Hall last year and debuted our Media Awards at the Hudson
Theater. It was a gutsy move but one we felt was right for what are
clearly considered the “Oscars” of the food and media industry. We are
totally psyched for 2008 and so are all the nominees.

What has changed since you became president?
I’d
like to think that we’ve taken what was clearly a diamond of the food
world and just polished it and reset it to make the next 20 years even
brighter. As many visitors to the Beard House know, we redecorated the
place and improved the experience for both visiting chefs and dinner
guests, created some new programs like Beard on Books which brings
authors to the Beard House at least once a month, redesigned our
website and re-energized our scholarship program. We’re very proud of
the fact that since 2001, we’ve awarded over $1.7 million in
scholarships to deserving high school students and mid-life
career-changers.

Is there an international JBF presence?…


I am constantly amazed at the wide reach of our little
Foundation! When chefs from all over the world come to New  York, they
often visit us and some very special ones even come to cook a
fundraising dinner!  It was a thrill for many of us, when in 2006, some
of the greatest chefs from Spain, including Ferran Adria, headlined a
fundraiser for us. And on November 8, 2007, we declared New York
“Truffle City” when chefs from the greatest truffle towns of Italy
created a gala dinner here to benefit the Foundation.

How can one become involved with the James Beard Foundation?
I
think we are still the best kept secret in New York. Over 200 days a
year at the Beard House, a chef from somewhere across America is
creating the absolute best of his or her craft for a meal diners won’t
forget. You don’t have to be a member to come to dinner, but by joining
the Foundation, you do get a discount rate for your reservation. A five
course dinner with wine pairings preceded by hors d’oeuvres generally
costs $125 for members but $155 for non-members.

What is your junk food of choice?
I have a weak spot
for all kinds of versions of peanut butter cup ice cream and
practically anything chocolate! (But I tell myself that if there’s some
dairy in it, it’s not really junk food.)

What’s in store for us at the James Beard House in the spring?
We’ve
got a great line-up of dinners and Beard on Books series. And, of
course, our biggest event is our Awards on June 8th at Lincoln Center.
Bobby Flay and Kim Cattrell are our hosts and most of our food world’s
culinary stars will be there. So should you!

Will you be trying to get the next generation of foodies to participate in events?
Absolutely.
As the mother of three, I can tell you that today’s kids and young
adults are hungry for great food experiences. They’re cooking with
their friends and parents and they’re watching all the new TV shows. I
know my children and their friends consider today’s media chefs some of
the most likeable celebrities around. And that’s a very good thing for
all of us.

Anyone who has a passion for food and the culinary arts can become a
member. Check out our website at www.jamesbeard.org for more details.

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