Photo by Ken Goodman, courtesy of the James Beard Foundation.
After 11 years at the helm, Susan Ungaro is stepping down from the role of president of the James Beard Foundation (JBF), the nonprofit culinary arts organization whose mission it is to celebrate, nurture, and honor the chefs and food system leaders who work to make America’s diverse culinary heritage more delicious, diverse, and sustainable for everyone.
Ungaro led the Foundation through the expansion of a number of educational programs; brought the James Beard Foundation Awards Gala to the prestigious Lincoln Center and then to Chicago; and launched the James Beard Foundation’s annual Taste America cross-country tour, now in its fifth year.
With a focus on building the Foundation’s capacity to serve as a center for thought leadership, she drove the establishment of the JBF Impact Programs, which include the annual JBF Food Summit, JBF Leadership Awards, JBF Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, and JBF Smart Catch pilot program.
Ungaro also championed the creation of JBF’s Women’s Leadership Programs, which have connected rising female culinary talent with mentors from around the country. The initiatives include the Women in Culinary Leadership (WCL) program, which debuted in 2012, and the Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) program, which launched in September of this year.
Food Tank had the opportunity to sit down with Ungaro ahead of her departure from the Foundation and discuss the elements of her legacy that she is most proud of, the challenges from which she learned the most, and what’s next, both for her and for JBF.
Food Tank (FT): What originally drew you to JBF?
Susan Ungaro (SU): I loved what James Beard stood for. I worked in women’s magazines prior to joining the Foundation, and so I knew him as someone who had worked tirelessly teaching America to cook, writing over two dozen influential cookbooks and appearing on shows like the Today Show.
He clearly had a vision and at the same time great humor in his presentation. For example, there were some favorite episodes of him teaching Brian Gumbel how to make homemade pasta that really charmed me. Gumbel asks, “Is it true that when you throw the pasta against the wall and it sticks, that means it’s done?” And James Beard laughs and says, “No, you have to taste it!” There was another episode with the young Tom Brokaw where James Beard was simply teaching him how to roast a chicken properly.
He worked to bring attention to the great elements of creating a perfect meal, like regionality and seasonality. He taught us that if you cook in-season with the best ingredients, that alone gets you 50 percent of the way to a good meal.
FT: JBF has initiated an array of high-impact programs during your tenure at the helm. Which are you most excited to watch grow?
SU: When I came to the Foundation we were very well known for the James Beard Awards, which are called the Oscars or the Pulitzers or the Emmys of the food industry. And, we awarded scholarships. Those were the two major programs that carried the mission of the Foundation. The other thing we were known for were dinners at the little West Village house that James Beard lived in. We have more than 200 dinners a year to shine a spotlight on chefs from all over the country.
All these three programs needed was continued attention to grow them and keep them relevant. The Awards needed some good marketing, our scholarship funds needed more donor development, and the dinners at the Beard House needed the best publicity we could offer for the performing chefs.
But when I came on board, I really wanted to see the Foundation become the center of thought leadership on food. Here we were, a Foundation named after a man who was a mentor to some of the greatest chefs in our country over multiple generations and helped define modern American cuisine.
When Joe Baum came to James Beard and said, “I’ve just bought this beautiful building and I want to create a ground-breaking restaurant,” James Beard said, “Make it anything but French.” Back then, only the best restaurants in New York were French, but James Beard said, “I think you should make it a thoroughly American restaurant where the menu changes with the seasons. Don’t serve French wines, serve California wines and Pinot Noirs from Oregon.” That restaurant was the Four Seasons.
What that says about James Beard is he was truly a forerunner; a great thinker about American cuisine. The thought that this man was talking about seasonality 50 years before it became the trend, a by-word of every chef, I think is really quite amazing.
So the programs that I’m proudest of are the ones that are all centered around thought- leadership. Now we call them the JBF Impact Programs. They include making a commitment to having an annual Food Summit; 2018 will be our tenth year.
Eight years ago at a Food Summit, we decided we shouldn’t be only recognizing leaders who are the best restaurateurs and chefs and media, but also leaders who are making our food world healthier and more sustainable. We began honoring people who are fighting hunger and creating better agricultural systems and fixing school lunches and worrying about food policy.
The day I began at JBF, I looked around at the Awards, I looked at the dinners, I looked around the food world and would say, “Where are the women?” I’m really very proud of the Women’s Leadership Programs that we’ve developed in the last four years. We are also working to make a difference in diversity in terms of finding and supporting leaders who are chefs of color. We have a longer way to go there, but we’re seeing progress in terms of amazing chefs getting more recognition.
We work on these issues by setting an example. We celebrate women by asking them to cook at the Beard House. When we have the Awards, we focus on diversity when we pick the chefs who are cooking at the reception. The Foundation, our leadership, our Trustees, and our staff cannot vote on the Awards, so we use our influence on the things we can control.
One simple, little stat: In 2009, the percentage of James Beard Restaurant and Chef nominees that were women was 14 percent, and in May 2017 our nominees were 30 percent women. It went from 14 to 30 percent in eight years. I think that’s a very solid way to show that there’s been progress. It should be 50 percent, and we’ll get there.
FT: As you transition out, how are you working to ensure that the values and issues you have built programs around continue to be centered in JBF’s future work, including diversity in food service, international food diplomacy, and environmental sustainability?
SU: I will tell you that nothing happens unless you have a staff that embraces the vision and a Board of Trustees that embraces the vision. Even though I’m leaving, there are 27 people who have made all these programs happen and Trustees who helped support it. I have not one iota of worry that the important mission of all of these impact programs will be anything but nurtured to become even better.
My vision is that the scholarships will continue to grow, we’ll have more Boot Camps for chefs, and we’ll support this tipping point we’re at where people are really focused on the importance of diversity. Despite politics, the polls show that people think it’s important to have a diverse community. Immigrants are the backbone of this country and will continue to be.
I also want to mention that we’re trying to figure out how we continue to have a presence in policy. Under the umbrella of the Impact Programs, we started a Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. We’re extraordinarily proud of the fact that, two or three times a year, we have been able to bring about a dozen chefs on a fully-funded retreat to learn how to be better advocates and spokespersons for the issues or food policies that they feel most passionate about. We have over 130 chefs now who have gone through that program, and there’s also a waitlist.
We also are working on the international front. The Foundation is definitely known by chefs across the world, but when Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were Secretaries of State, we had a program called the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership. Over 60 chefs represented the country at various embassies around the world. They used culinary diplomacy to teach the women in Pakistan how to make bread and to bring a traditional Thanksgiving dinner to Turkmenistan. The Foundation will keep working to define what our role in that arena looks like.
FT: Can you describe the challenges that have taught you the most over the last 11 years?
SU: “In times of uncertainty, anything is possible.” This quote guided me and my actions when I began working at the Foundation.
When you change jobs, or even when you get a promotion, there’s a shock from the new responsibilities. When I came to the Foundation, many of my skills were very translatable to the role I have as President – the biggest challenge was that I took over the Foundation during difficult times when we were seriously in the red and our revenues were down. Most people would say, including me, that it’s really hard to turn things around and make money if you don’t have any money to invest in the work.
The biggest challenge that I had in those early years was to figure out ways to bring in revenue, to convince people that investing in the James Beard Foundation was going to have a payoff, and really to look forward instead of looking back. What I needed to be able to do was refocus on the future. Any time journalists would cover our Foundation, they’d lead with the “scandal-ridden foundation,” and I just wanted them to let us look forward!
That was a challenge, saying that we weren’t going to pay attention to the way other people wanted to define the Foundation, and instead keep talking about the future. We wanted to talk about what we were going to do, how we were going to succeed, where we were taking this Foundation, and why we were so important to students, chefs, and consumers.
The challenge was not to get hung up on the naysayers and the past.
FT: What potential to drive positive change do you see coming from the celebrity that JBF has helped to cultivate for chefs and other food system actors under your leadership?
SU: There is no doubt that the American public is fascinated with celebrity. When I came to the Foundation, I felt the tipping point even then, over a decade ago. Chefs were becoming America’s most likable celebrities. The role that chefs have is different than the stars of television shows. The chefs I’ve come to know through the years are the ultimate nurturers. They’re like mothers. All they want to do is feed you. That characteristic carries over into genuine sincerity and authority. When a chef goes in front of a group of school children and talks about why you need to eat more fruits and vegetables, kids listen.
What we’ve also discovered about chefs as celebrities, through our Boot Camps and other groups we’ve worked with, including Food Policy Action, when a chef goes to D.C., they get the meetings. When they talk about antibiotics and agriculture, or discuss nutrition programs, or the food bill, they get to see the actual Congressperson or Senator, not just the staff.
Part of this is that chefs have an authenticity about them. Many are really down to earth, plain-speaking folks. They’re not talking about issues in a way that is above the heads of people in their communities. They’re living, breathing citizens of a better food community.
I’ve had our team do a lot in terms of building up the potential of the food movement and industry to reach people. When I came to the Foundation, we had a little website, and I’m really proud of the fact that we have redesigned it now three times and have worked to integrate and keep up to speed with the amazing power of social media. We’ve harnessed Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, our website, blogs, YouTube, and we now have over one million followers. I’m very proud that I could bring a little bit of my publishing experience to JBF. We’ve also published a few cookbooks.
And we’ve actually had a great partnership with Food Tank related to making sure every person can get involved in their own community. At the end of one of our Food Summits, we found ourselves asking, “What do we need to do next?” And people kept mentioning that there’s just no trusted resource for good food organizations. How can you find out, if you live in Tennessee or Montana or Georgia, what are the good food organizations and nonprofits near you that you can get involved with? So we partnered with Food Tank to put together our Good Food Org Guide, and I think it’s a great thing.
FT: What’s next for you?
SU: That’s the question of the year! I’ll tell you, what’s next for me is I’m going to see what comes to me. I’m not looking to run another giant organization, but what I am looking to do is to use the skills I have to help other nonprofits; to help causes that I’m passionate about. We’ll see what comes to me and where I can be useful. I also plan to take some vacation time and relax in a way that I haven’t done in my career.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.