Talk about a grease fire: Two weeks ago, New York's James Beard Foundation, the nation's leading champion of gastronomical causes, had what amounted to a four-alarm kitchen blaze. Foundation President Leonard F. Pickell Jr. stepped down after news reports announced that hundreds of thousands of dollars, supposedly earmarked for culinary scholarships, were unaccounted for. The foundation hadn't filed tax returns for two years, and its financial reports were being reviewed by the U.S. Attorney General Office's charities bureau. On Monday, The New York Times reported that the foundation claims ex-president Pickell misused funds.
All the way across the country in Beard's hometown, the news left a bad taste in the mouths of some local foodies, including Bite Club. Why? Because Mr. Beard's foundation owes Stumptown--make that the Portland Public Market, to be exact--a big chunk of change.
The local group promoting the market is slated to receive $53,633 from the James Beard Foundation sometime later this month. But there's no signed legal document that says the Portland Public Market will get the money. Instead, market boosters are relying on the word of the former top Beardie, Len Pickell.
To explain this gastronomical Beardgate, flash back to Sunday, April 21, 2002, and the gala "Dinner of the Decade," a glittering $800-a-plate benefit held in the grand lobby of Portland's Embassy Suites Hotel. The James Beard Foundation--excited by the idea of a market named in honor of its groundbreaking founder--partnered with an informal group of local food lovers to raise funds for the effort. Usually the Beard Foundation takes half the proceeds raised from its charity events, but then-president Pickell pledged to give 100 percent to the Portland project.
Committee members like Lane Marketing president Wendy Lane, catering czar-turned-city staffer Ron Paul and Wildwood's Cory Schreiber all pooled their considerable industry resources to provide the food, venue and marketing. The Beard Foundation lured heavy hitters, including Four Seasons chef Christian Albin, to cook for the dinner alongside Portland chefs. More than 170 guests, including Mayor Vera Katz and the Beard Foundation's Diane Kern, attended the gala event.
The splashy dinner was a signal that a Seattle-style public market in Portland could become a tasty reality--supported by the spirit of James Beard himself. When the evening ended, Beard Foundation officials gathered up the cash box and flew back to New York. The Portland Public Market would get its money...later.
Here's where it gets tricky: Today, the Historic Portland Public Market Foundation functions as a nonprofit. Paul serves as president while, as a staffer at the Bureau of Planning, he's also the city employee charged with overseeing the project's progress. Paul estimates it will cost $10 million to $15 million to build the market, not including the cost of land. Further estimates are underway.
But back in 2002, the market movement was just a loosely knit group of Portland food groupies, and Beard officials wanted to make sure the project was a reality before releasing the funds, Paul says.
The holdup? Today, the market group is still awaiting official thumbs-up for its nonprofit application--approval of its 501(c)(3) status from the Internal Revenue Service is in the mail, so to speak. "We have no reason to believe that there is a problem," Paul says. "We are on the cusp of being able to write a letter asking for our funds." Lane put it in stronger terms: "We will get the money," she says.
James Beard Foundation representatives--including Diane Kern, the foundation's interim director--have repeatedly told both Paul and Lane that as soon as the market is officially recognized as a nonprofit, the foundation will hand over the funds. "Obviously, everything has been slowed down," says Beard Foundation Director of Development Diane Harris Brown. "But we will honor all our commitments."
Still, based on the Beard Foundation's recent financial meltdown, is the Bite Club the only one willing to say those promises sound half-baked?
"The Beard Foundation's seal of approval validated the Portland Public Market project in a lot of ways," says Heidi Yorkshire, a Portland food writer and sometime WW food critic who authored the original proposal for the public market back in 1993. "But when that story appeared The New York Times, a lot of people in Portland looked at each other over coffee and wondered 'Huh, I wonder if we ever got that check.'
The answer is still no--not yet.
article that started the blaze: www.nytimes.com/2004/09/09/nyregion/09beard.html .
"I hope they shut the place down and turn it into a methadone clinic," ranted celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain about NY's historic Beard House in a Sept. 6 posting on egullet.com.