F&H chats with Kit Wohl about the new James Beard Foundation anniversary book
Interview by Shaun Smith
The James Beard Foundation’s Best of the Best: A 25th Anniversary Celebration of America’s Outstanding Chefs (Chronicle) comes with a serious culinary pedigree. Its story began in 1986 when the James Beard Foundation was established in New York as cooking educator Peter Kump, chef Julia Child, and other gastronomically minded folk, arranged for the purchase of the Greenwhich Village home of the foundation’s namesake, who died the previous year. James Beard, a prolific cookbook author and educator, was a seminal figure in advancing culinary culture in the U.S. throughout the mid-20th century.
In 1990, the Beard Foundation established what have since become known as “The Oscars of food,” the annual James Beard Foundation Awards, which recognize industry expertise. The top honour is the Outstanding Chef Award, which has gone to toques such as Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters and Eric Ripert. To commemorate the James Beard Foundation in its 25th anniversary year, Kit Wohl penned a book of profiles of the Outstanding Chef winners, and gathered 46 of their finest recipes. Below, she reminisces about meeting the talent behind some of the country’s best food.
How did you become involved with this book?
Two or three years ago, Susan Ungaro, president of The James Beard Foundation, and I were brainstorming about a permanent way to recognize the winners of the Outstanding Chef Award.
Why is this book important now?
This book gives us a way to see both the evolution of American cuisine and the impact each of these chefs has had. There is such a kinship amongst them. They each gave one another a hand up over the years, and then passed it along. While they may be competitive, it was clear to me while writing the book that each has tremendous admiration for what the others are doing.
What did you learn about the character of a great chef while writing this book?
I learned that, although these chefs have very different styles, they have one thing in common: each is absolutely unrelenting and totally finicky. They are driven and don’t compromise or cut corners. They each have a clear vision of what they are doing and they fight to execute it.
Who’s the most thrilling chef to interview?
You’re asking me to pick my favourite child. They are all iconic, but if I had to choose, it would be Thomas Keller. It was really special to get to know him as a person, in addition to his food. He’s a funny guy, with a huge sense of humour; however, he has a drive to perfection. After we’d left his kitchen I had to step back inside for a moment and there he was on his hands and knees wiping up our footprints.
What was the most surprising moment with a chef?
While dining at Michel Richard’s Citronella restaurant in Washington, someone was flicking bread balls at me across the restaurant. I turned around to see who it was and it was Michel himself. I’d interviewed him earlier that day. He’s a happy man, as playful as his food is playful.
What do you hope a chef or restaurateur takes away from this book?
That each one of these chefs has shaped and defined American cuisine and that their impact continues to be felt everywhere. Our objective was for the reader to get to know the chefs and get a feeling of excitement for the food. We wanted people to be able to read this book and feel like they’ve been on a grand tour of American gastronomy.
What is your favourite recipe from the book, and why?
The bread soup with beans, summer squash and Swiss chard by Judy Rogers, co-owner of Zuni Café in San Francisco. It has tremendous flavour, but it’s really unassuming.
A few Best of the Best profiles and recipes to check out:
Mario Batali: Grilled Guinea Hen with Fregula and Black Truffle Vinaigrette
Alice Waters: Turnip and Turnip Greens Soup
Rick Bayless: Green Herb Ceviche with Cucumber
Jean-Georges Vongerichten: Green Asparagus with Morels and Asparagus Purée