Go into some of the finest restaurants in Portland—Le Pigeon, Beast, Higgins—and you may see the friendly, bald image of James Beard emblazoned on a medal, framed and tucked away with conspicuous humility. James Beard Awards are the most prominent in American food, but the namesake has the national memory.
James Beard: America's First Foodie, by Portland director-producer Beth Federici and producer Kathleen Squires, aims to extend the Beard brand outside the world of Instagrammed tweezer food. The new doc, airing May 21 at 7 pm on PBS as part of the American Masters series, explains how a cook from Portland revolutionized American home cooking and fine dining alike.
We spoke to Federici about Beard's enduring impact ahead of the Portland premiere at NW Film Center. Here are the juiciest details about Beard's life, outside of the fact that he got kicked out of Reed College for being gay and that a handful of Portlanders have floated the idea of naming a Pike Place Market-style institution after him.
James Beard's mother, Elizabeth Beard, was one of the coolest people in Portland.
At the turn of the 20th century, timber boomtown Portland was the place to be. "When he was a kid, Portland had some of the best restaurants in the country: amazing chefs, lots of money," says Federici. Mrs. Beard ran a hotel, the Gladstone, and was a semi-socialite obsessed with fresh produce who had a major influence on her son's career.
Beard was raised largely by a Chinese chef.
His dad was "a philanderer and gambler," according to Federici, and not really in the picture. Instead, Beard was mostly raised by his mother and, though this didn't make it into the doc, a chef named Ju Let.
"He was quasi-raised by this Chinese chef that had first worked for his mom in the boarding house she ran," says Federici. "The chef, Ju Let, worked in Elizabeth Beard's kitchen while living in Chinatown. Let was in Beard's life until he died."
So when Beard went to New York, he was going with this West Coast, big Asian influence on his palate. "He loved Asian cooking," Federici says, "and published Let's recipes at a time when most Caucasians weren't going to Chinatown."
Beard's recipes made home cooking better and easier.
"In the '50s in New York, you had people going to fancy French and Italian restaurants, and the rest of the people in the country were making cream soup casseroles," says Federici. "The home cook was feeling like that was all that they were capable of."
Beard didn't reinvent the culinary wheel with his cookbooks. Instead, he brought simple homestyle recipes that didn't rely on preserved foods to the masses.
"That was his huge influence on the American housewife," Federici says, "or the single person who wanted to eat good food that wasn't ridiculously expensive."
Beard had an early cooking show, but it was probably bad.
Though no episodes survive, Beard hosted I Love to Eat, one of the first cooking shows, on NBC. It lasted for less than a year in 1946 and '47.
Years later, Beard would end up overshadowed by the much more famous Julia Child. "People could accept that she was kind of quirky and funny, and let's face it: he's not very telegenic," says Federici. "As soon as the camera would come on, he froze up."
Beard was one of a handful of people who revolutionized American fine dining.
New York restaurateur Joe Baum was the money man behind several of the most prominent restaurants in midcentury America. Most famous was the Four Seasons, the first fine-dining restaurant in America to have a seasonal menu and serve American wines. Beard was a consultant on the Four Seasons, plus many of Baum's other spectacular eateries.
"He consulted on the Newarker, a very fancy restaurant at the Newark Airport; the [Roman empire-themed] Forum of the Twelve Caesars; La Fonda del Sol, the first Latin-inspired restaurant that was presented to the New York society set as high end; and Windows on the World at the World Trade Center," says Federici.
Beard loved the Skyline Restaurant's hamburger.
"He always loved the Skyline burger," Federici says, "which he thought was one of the best burgers in the country."
Skyline's burger is no longer among the best in the country. It was eliminated in the first round of our recent Burger Madness competition, losing to Little Big Burger, the chain now owned by the same people who own Hooters.
SEE IT: James Beard: America's First Foodie screens at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium on Friday, May 5. 8 pm. Director Beth Federici will attend.