James Beard Foundation President Susan Ungaro chatted with us about her tenure at the James Beard Foundation, and what to expect from the ABC special celebrating the foundation's 30 years of work this weekend.
I was surprised when you announced, back in late June, that you were going to step down as James Beard Foundation president. Why did you think it was time? SUSAN UNGARO: Well, I’ve been with the foundation a little over 11 years. I feel like I’ve gotten to do so many wonderful things, work with so many great people. We’ve taken the foundation from a small, little organization to one with a big footprint that’s doing better financially; four million in revenue to over 12 million, 10 years later. But I also just, I wanted to think about the next chapter and I’m not thinking about it as retiring but instead rewiring. That’s my new word. I’m not retiring, I’m rewiring, but what does that really mean? It means I don’t want to work as hard. I’d like to help other foundations do some good work, but at the same time have time to travel and relax a little bit.
In some ways it was a risk to helm a foundation that, at the time, was riddled with financial issues. What made you say, “I want to take this on and reinvent it” in the way that you have over the 11 years you've been president? SU: Well, I think there were a couple of reasons. Whenever you’re deciding about what the next step to take is, you look at the place, the people who work there, and what its reputation is. And, yes, the foundation was struggling financially and had gone through some tough times but I also really loved who James Beard was. I also knew about the James Beard Awards. I understood how important it was for chefs to win an award and I liked the fact that the foundation was giving out scholarships. So, so many of the missions that it already had the first 20 years were things that I felt were important.
We were, as I mentioned, not only earning less than four million dollars, we were losing over a million dollars. So that sounds like, “Oh, my god, why would anybody want to do that?” but I also felt like it was my first time running a foundation, I’d served on the board of trustees, and I really felt like, “I can’t make it worse. I could only make it better,” and I really believed that.
Any advice for your successor? SU: First thing, trust the wonderful staff that’s in place right now, have them help you lead a new way and a new vision, and don’t be afraid to take risks, and always be optimistic because this foundation is one of the biggest blessings I’ve ever had in my life. I think that it also makes so many people happy, rewarding good people in the food world for doing a great job. I think that they just need to trust the foundation and build on it because it could only get better, and better, and better.
And lastly, tell me about the ABC special celebrating the James Beard Foundation that's airing this Sunday at 4 p.m. EST. SU: I’m really proud of the fact that we have an ABC television special that’s going to air on Sunday, November 26 at 4 p.m., and it is the story of the James Beard Foundation’s many programs, some of which we’ve talked about together today, but told through the eyes of chef Marcus Samuelsson, who came and cooked a special dinner at the James Beard House. But it’s also the story of our scholarship program, our James Beard Awards, our Chefs Bootcamp for Policy and Change, and the story of a chef coming to cook dinner at the Beard House for the first time. I think what’s really important is for your listeners to know that anyone can come to the James Beard House and experience a special dinner, and we have them over 200 days out of the year, where chefs from all over the country and even sometimes internationally come and create an incredible dinner that reflects what they’re doing in their special city that they hale from.