To the James Beard House I Go (Again)
Before you assume I was the one showing off my epicurean prowess at James Beard’s acclaimed culinary stage, let me clarify. This was my third time attending as the token PR person – after all, someone has to be the one keeping five chefs organized and focused, right? Actually, if I may be real here for a sec, you should know that there are a lot more PR details than meet the eye when it comes to pulling off such an event – everything from the positioning (and pitching) of the chefs to the theme of the dinner and then, the promotion of the dinner itself to the attention to detail across printed menus, centerpieces and gifts, just to name a few. While a lot of hours go into the logistical back-and-forth one might expect from an event with six courses, wine pairings, 80 seats and media guests, the genuine enthusiasm and fulfillment far exceed any of the challenges. You could say that after three very distinct (and successful) experiences at the James Beard House, I’m perfectly comfortable claiming PR’s place in the kitchen, so to speak.
So, why is this a big deal for us in the travel marketing space? Well, the late Mr. Beard is credited with championing American cuisine, and it’s his former townhouse, located in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood and operated by the James Beard Foundation, which today serves as the “Carnegie Hall for chefs.” As a chef, to be invited to “perform” at the Beard House is a tremendous indication that you have made it in the culinary space. With destinations across the world aiming to carve out a piece of the culinary travel pie, being home to an established group of James Beard House “performers,” is a testament to the viability of a city or region as the next hotbed of gastronomic talent. To be able to pitch a group of chefs under a unified theme to the James Beard Foundation and be invited to serve up the destination, if you will, through a unified menu is the cherry on top.
Having helped destinations plan their James Beard House dinner has been an honor and an eye-opening experience. Each one has been so unique and enriching, telling a story that helps provide guests with a taste of place. Through the process – often months-long – learning from the chefs has been my favorite aspect of the journey. Their passion for food, their enthusiasm for the regions they represent and their die-hard dedication to preserving their own culinary heritage is inspiring. Not to mention, being there alongside the chefs on their big day – for some, their very first time at the renowned House – is a special moment and is celebrated as such. Those hours leading up to dinnertime become learning and bonding moments – morsels of good memories, if you will. Get a really great group of chefs together, and you might even find yourself playing taste-tester (and or joining them for pickle-backs at the end of the night – all in the name of Southern traditions).
This year, as I transitioned from my experience along Florida’s Gulf Coast to America’s heartland here in Virginia, I marveled at the discovery of the Birthplace of American Cuisine. Before Virginia’s James Beard House debut at the sold-out “Heritage Eats” dinner on Sept. 28, having worked closely with the chefs, winemakers, cider makers, watermen and farmers, I had already gotten a taste of inspiration, a dollop of nostalgia seasoned by salt air, mountain air and the flavors of Appalachia. The dinner was, by every stretch of imagination, a celebration of what was and a glimpse of what’s to come from one of the country’s greatest food regions of today. By the end of the night, all 80 guests – including writers from Food & Wine, USA Today and bloggers who made the trip all the way from California – had also fallen in love, not just with the food but with the stories as well: chefs’ stories, regions’ stories, ingredient stories. Every narrative we share should be so palpable.
If food is an aperitif for the journey that follows, isn’t that what our work is all about? Until the next big meal, I’ll toast to that!