One of the greatest honors a chef can have is cooking at the James Beard House. Each year an extremely talented group from DC heads up to New York City with the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington to prepare a meal for 60 or so people who get to dine in the late James Beard’s bedroom.
Is it a little weird to be eating in what used to be someone’s bedroom? Not unless you’re seated under the mirrored ceiling. That used be over his bed. The Beard House is full of lore, to say the least. After the jump, you’ll find a slideshow of all the photos from this year’s “The Best of DC” dinner that took place this past Monday evening, along with a little history lesson on the man behind the foundation.
Kudos to this year’s lineup at the “Best of DC” dinner, featuring Justin Bittner of Bar Pilar, Logan Cox and pastry chef Alison Reed of Ripple, Claudio Pirollo of Et Voila and Vikram Sunderam of Rasika. Also on hand were Todd Thrasher of Virtue Feed & Grain and Dan Searing from Room 11 for cocktails, along with Greg Engert, the beer connoisseur of Neighborhood Restaurant Group.
“Who is James Beard?” That’s the question I got from more than a few friends. “Was he at the dinner?” was another question I got (for the record, James Beard passed away in 1985). And then it occurred to me that I didn’t even really know much about the man who’s namesake graces one of the most coveted food awards. “Uh, he was, uh, this big bald chef…who was…very important,” hardly sounds like a decent explanation of someone’s biography. So let’s have a brief history lesson on the man known as James Beard.
Long before the premiere of Portlandia, James Andrew Beard was born in Portland, Oregon in 1903. And long before there were entire channels dedicated to chefs and cooking, James Beard had the first food program on television in 1946. Oddly enough, Beard tried his hand at theater and acting before making his television debut, but ultimately went into catering to support himself. Following that, Beard opened a small food shop called Hors D’Oeuvre, Inc. in 1937 and wrote a cookbook focused on those small bites in 1940 called, Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapes. Several cookbooks, articles and a his own cooking school later, it’s easy to see why the man was dubbed by The New York Times the “Dean of American Cookery.”
But what I learned from my visit to his house this past week was that beyond helping to put American cooking on the map and at the forefront of the American public’s mind, Beard was a character. He had a larger than life personality to match his large frame. For instance, the man’s bathroom walls were made up of entirely mirrors. Imagine getting ready each morning and being surrounded head-to-toe by your likeness. And as legend has it (or as I was told by a fellow writer and photographer), his shower (pictured in the slideshow above) was conveniently positioned out in the open under a glass roof. This drew some complaints from neighbors who had to see a naked Beard when they looked out their window. Keep that in mind next time you think your neighbors are being irksome.
So while you can read page after page about how much of a character James Beard was, there’s something about seeing his house for yourself that paints the full picture. Hopefully, you can catch a glimpse of that in the photos above.