James Beard in His Chef Apparel
James A. Beard – America’s premier gourmet chef and the central figure in the establishment of the American gourmet food movement – was born in Portland Oregon on May 5, 1903. His mother, Elizabeth, ran a boarding house and was passionate about her food. James spent his childhood summers at the beach fishing and gathering shellfish and berries which grew wild on the Oregon shore, and then cooking meals with whatever was gathered. James briefly attended Portland’s Reed College, but left in 1923 and joined a theatrical troupe.
He studied theater and voice in France where he became acquainted with French cuisine in little bistros, and also became an ardent Francophile. After his return to the U.S. in 1927 his attempts to break into movies and the theater bore little success, so in 1935 he put on chef apparel and started a catering business to supplement his meager income. He immediately revolutionized what had therefore passed as cocktail food by offering his clients substantive fare, and he opened his Hors d’Oeuvre food shop in 1937. He now knew that his future lay in the world of fine cuisine.
His first cookbook, Hors d’Oeuvres & Canapes, was published in 1940; and it was followed by Cooking it Outdoors in 1942. This was the first serious book on outdoor cooking. James spent World War II in black aprons in Puerto Rico, Brazil, Panama, and France setting up sailors’ canteens for the Navy Department. On his return to the U.S. in 1945 he moved to New York where he immersed himself completely in the cooking community. In the decade after his return he published seven cookbooks; and in 1946 he starred in the very first television cooking program on NBC. He became a well-known writer and columnist for Gourmet, Woman’s Day, and House and Garden magazines; and he also served as consultant for many food producers and restaurateurs. He also opened his own Nantucket restaurant. In short order he became the most important figure in the world of American fine cuisine, bringing fine French cuisine to the middle and upper classes in America in the post-war economic boom.
In 1955 he began the James Beard Cooking School where for the next thirty years he taught a whole generation of American chefs in wholesale aprons. He also became a guest lecturer and teacher at other cooking schools and women’s clubs throughout America.
He traveled tirelessly, bringing the message of good food which is prepared honestly of wholesome, fresh, American ingredients to the whole country. He also continued writing cookbooks on all phases of cookery- ten of them over the next thirty years – which became best-selling classics in their time, and most of which are still in print today. In 1981 he cofounded Citymeals on Wheels, a program to bring nutritious and delicious food to home bound elderly people in New York City. He was 82 years old when he died on January 21, 1985, having bequeathed a legacy of culinary integrity and excellence to several generations of professional chefs and home cooks.