Awards Spotlight: A Q&A with James Beard Foundation President Susan Ungaro

The 2017 James Beard Awards are here! The best and brightest in today’s food and restaurant industry have been honoured, during the Media Awards in New York City, and on Monday, May 1 at the Chef & Restaurant Awards Gala in Chicago. We are incredibly excited to celebrate the inspiring people making waves in the industry with their talent, innovation, and excellence.

Ahead of the awards, we tapped James Beard Foundation President Susan Ungaro for a conversation about developing trends, food and politics, and which chefs still leave her star-struck. Read on.

The James Beard Foundation recently announced the 2017 semifinalists. Any chefs or restaurateurs you were particularly excited to see recognised? Why?

The days we announce our semifinalists and nominees is a time we make some people very happy and that makes us all feel good about all the great talent in our food world. I am particularly delighted to see the number of women chefs and restaurateurs rising every year.

What are some of the trends you’re seeing among this year’s nominees – anything that stands out?

People all over the country have become more and more passionate about how a great meal out can really make their day—and everyone is talking, blogging and writing about it. We are noticing that talented chefs and restaurants are being recognised not only in the usual top 20 cities, but in smaller culinary gems of cities ,too. I especially enjoy seeing places I’ve not been to (but will) make the list, such as Oxford, Mississippi; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Essex, Maryland; Milton, Delaware and San Antonio, Texas.

What are you seeing this year in the industry at large that you’re excited about? New developments or evolutions?

The personality and celebrity of chefs just continues to grow with the focus on them in traditional media and social media, as well. We also are noticing that Americans don’t just think of dinner out as just a special occasion. In response, many award-winning restaurants are offering breakfast for the early birds, as well as lunch on their menus.

What about on the media side – what innovations are you seeing in food storytelling now?

As a lover of social media, I especially enjoy the increase in live video content on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Sometimes you can practically smell the aroma of the tantalising food portrayed on our cell phones!

The overlap between food and politics is especially prominent in today’s climate. What role should the food and restaurant industries play?

For years now, chefs have been using their influence in their communities to support improving school lunches and fighting hunger. There’s still lots more work to be done and I believe the growing respect chefs, who have become some of the most well-liked celebrities in the world, can continue to make a difference in improving how children and all citizens eat.

Is there anyone on the red carpet who still makes you feel star struck? Who?

Jacques Pepin!!!

If you could have dinner with one JBA winner, who would it be – and where would you go?

My fantasy dinner would be to cook a dinner with Chef Art Smith in Oprah Winfrey’s kitchen.

Photo Credit: Susie Cushner

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