The James Beard Foundation: Good Food For Good
If you were to receive an invitation to The James Beard Awards — known as the “Oscars of the food world”— you’d clear your schedule to be there. The red carpet … the food … the fame … did we mention the food? There’s nothing else like it. Chefs are honored like auteurs and those who receive the coveted awards often become legends.
The annual gala is just one of hundreds of events the James Beard Foundation (JBF) hosts each year. Foodies flock to the James Beard House in New York City for delectable dining with visiting chefs. Gourmands around the country work their connections for tickets to exclusive events in other cities.
Food is the focus. Chefs are the stars.
When the organization announced its search for a CEO in 2017, most assumed JBF would name an industry insider to one of the most prestigious jobs in the food world. However, after a seven-month search, JBF surprised the culinary crowd by appointing Clare Reichenbach, a former executive at the BBC — and a relatively new YPO member — as CEO in early 2018.
What could a self-described “media strategist” bring to the table?
A year into Reichenbach’s tenure at the organization, the answer is as clear as refined consommé: the foundation is charting a future focused on education and advocacy. Reichenbach’s experience in transformation, strategic partnerships and branding make her ideal to lead JBF’s multi-faceted mission.
“As a Brit from the for-profit world, I know I’m not the usual suspect,” Reichenbach reveals. “But my discipline in the media industry has been around strategy and business development. I take a systems approach and that has prepared me well for what we’re doing now at James Beard.”
Advocacy isn’t new to JBF, but Reichenbach’s leadership has provided a sharper focus and greater visibility to the foundation’s initiatives. “We often hear that people don’t know we do policy work,” she says. “We’re best known for awards and gastronomic events. One of my goals is to bring those things together—James Beard operates at the intersection of pleasure and purpose.” To advance this message, JBF has recently unveiled new brand positioning under Reichenbach’s stewardship: Good food for good.
What goes on the front burner?
JBF is rich with experts and ideas, so choosing what to focus on is challenging. “We defined 10 components of our food system,” Reichenbach says. “Each one could require a lifetime of work, so we chose issues for advocacy based on two things. First, to what degree does the chef community care about an issue? Second, to what degree do we have a unique ability to drive change?
Against these criteria, we determined our priorities: sustainability, women’s leadership and chef advocacy.”
Reichenbach notes that this approach can be helpful for business leaders as well. Consumers are increasingly developing brand affiliations based upon the “social good” that companies generate. Her advice? “Consult your critical stakeholders first. This isn’t something to embark upon lightly. Once you’ve publicly aligned yourself to a purpose, you have to hold yourself to that standard. It can’t be just a marketing trope or it will be counter-productive.”
Of course, it helps to have partners in that process as well. “To drive change, we need to find businesses or organizations with congruent ambitions,” she adds.
Waste Not — a crusade for all cooks
Just nine months into Reichenbach’s tenure, JBF launched Waste Not, a multi-year campaign to encourage home cooks and culinary professionals to reduce food waste by adopting full-use cooking methods. “We’re targeting professionals, food lovers and food partners,” she says.
For consumers, the spotlight is on #WasteNotWednesday. JBF shares tips, recipes and tools each week on social media. “If Americans made simple changes one day a week, that could save more than 7.8 million tons of food each year,” says Reichenbach.
To inspire both amateurs and professionals, JBF created an original cookbook called Waste Not: How To Get The Most From Your Food. A tour through 10 cities in late 2018 called “Taste America” included cooking demos of recipes from the book. “We want to help people learn how to do it and showcase the fact that James Beard is behind it,” Reichenbach notes. “We also partnered with local food recovery orgs in each city so excess food went to those who are food insecure. That’s another way of delivering our message.”
For culinary schools, JBF developed a course called “Creating a Full-Use Kitchen.” This helps instructors train students in ways to reduce food waste, along with providing guidance about nutrition and overall sustainability practices.
Aiming for inclusivity
The restaurant industry has had well-documented issues with gender equity and harassment. The issues are varied and wide-reaching. For example, the media often dotes on “bad boy” chefs, ignoring top talent that is less dramatic. More than half of culinary graduates are women, but fewer than 20 percent of working chefs are women. Only 33 percent of restaurant businesses are majority owned by women.
“I’m putting my shoulder behind an initiative to get more women running culinary businesses of scale. That’s what it will take to see a change in the culture,” says Reichenbach. “We just launched a new program called Owning It, which covers topics such as how to set your ambition, how to write a business case, where to get capital—all with a culinary lens. We’re also linking women entrepreneurs with regional investors.”
Chefs as change agents
Buttressing all of JBF’s advocacy efforts is the assertion that chefs occupy positions of influence within their communities. “I’m profoundly struck by the amount of change agency that chefs have,” Reichenbach enthuses. “They’re trusted more than teachers and politicians. They are, by definition, nurturers. Restaurants are where communities convene, where influencers come.”
For several years, JBF has been running the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change to provide education about food-related issues. Chefs receive practical training and an advocacy tool kit covering topics such as the farm bill and food stamps. About 800 apply to attend, but only 15 chefs are chosen for each boot camp and only a few boot camps are offered each year. “I want to expand this program and build an army of change agents,” Reichenbach declares.
“The legacy of James Beard [the chef] was to promote a better food system and democratize good food,” she adds. “Our challenge is to scale for increased demand of pleasure combined with purpose. It’s important to the next generation and it’s the right thing to do.”