James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach on the Awards, #MeToo, and Why JBF Loves Chicago

James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach is Bullish on Chicago

The James Beard Foundation (JBF) might be based in New York City, but they certainly seem to love Chicago. Since 2015, our “toddling town” has been the site of the James Beard Foundation Awards, and we’ve certainly had our share of winners, be they chefs, authors, broadcast journalists, sommeliers, or restaurateurs. The JBF returns to Chicago as a stop on their Taste America tour, with the Taste Chicago Kickoff for a celebration of women “Raising the Bar” on Thursday, Oct. 25 at The Lakewood (tickets are $100 each, some still available); the Taste Chicago Benefit Dinner at Prime & Provisions on Friday, Oct. 26 is already sold out.

We recently caught up with JBF’s new CEO, Clare Reichenbach, to take the organization’s temperature on a number of pertinent topics, including their love affair with Chicago, the effect of #MeToo on the JBF Awards and the industry in general, and the importance of their educational programming for up-and-coming chefs. Reichenbach is a former consultant to broadcast stalwarts NBCUniversal and New York Public Radio, with strategy and development stints at BBC Worldwide and AMC Networks. She’s well versed in all things media, and the perfect choice to take this venerable foundation into the next decade.

Make It Better: Clare, as always, Chicago is thrilled to welcome the James Beard Foundation to our gorgeous city. Chicago has loved hosting the James Beard Foundation Awards for the past few years, and of course our readers want to know about plans for the future of the awards. How long will they stay in Chicago, and where might they go after that?

Clare Reichenbach: We love being in Chicago and the city has been very supportive to the foundation since 2015. There’s been a tremendous outpouring of enthusiasm from the local community, including chefs, restaurants, and food lovers. As one of the country’s most dynamic food cities, Chicago is a natural place to hold the awards. We’re honored to have such dedicated partners and to continue bringing the city and hospitality industry an experience that honors the incredible work that chefs and other culinary professionals do for the community. The awards will be staying in Chicago until at least 2021.

You’ve become the voice of JBF at a very interesting time in our country’s history, not to mention a difficult year for the restaurant industry with various accusations against once much-lauded male chefs, a number of them previous Beard winners and nominees. What is JBF doing, if anything, in terms of rescinding awards, invitations to cook at the JB House or participate in Taste America, judging/board involvement, etc.?

The 2018 James Beard Award winners represented one of the most diverse groups of honorees to date, with women and people of color taking home awards in more than half of the Restaurant & Chef categories, a very meaningful shift for many in the culinary world.

As of the 2018 Awards, the James Beard Awards committees with the support of the Board of Trustees of the foundation itself, made the decision to suspend indefinitely voting privileges of select past award winners who have been accused of sexual harassment or misconduct in the workplace.

After serious and thorough consideration, these bodies concluded that the best way to move forward was not to focus on the past but rather remove these individuals from any role in the awards in the future. The voting body, made up largely of past winners, plays a meaningful role in shaping the future of our industry by selecting annual winners. Should any previous winner be convicted of a crime, the foundation will rescind an award in this event.

Last week we announced a series of further changes to the policies and procedures that govern the annual James Beard Awards. These changes will go into effect in advance of the Oct. 15, 2018, call for entry period for the 2019 Awards.

It was exciting to be in the audience at the May JBA ceremony and see so many women and people of color honored, whether as finalists or winners. It feels reflective not only of America in general, but of the dining industry in general. Is last year’s “encouragement” to the JBA judges to think with a wider lens something that will be continued in perpetuity, or was that merely a reaction to the #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite movements?

The 2018 James Beard Awards were a standout year for us and we’re making changes to ensure continued movement toward inclusivity. As a national foundation, we pride ourselves on representing chefs from every corner of the country. The foundation continues to encourage our committees and judges to consider restaurant culture and leadership values when making determinations, a directive that was issued by the committee chairs as the judging process was getting underway for the 2018 Awards and onward. Collectively, the foundation has allotted extra time for fact checking into our awards schedule to ensure nominees and winners can be vetted to the best of our capabilities.

How do you choose the celebrity chef participants for the Taste America program? And how do you determine the cities to be visited?

All of the Visiting and Local All-Stars for Taste America are representative of the foundation’s mission to create a more delicious and sustainable food world. Whether they’ve participated in JBF Boot Camps for Policy & Change, are actively working to create a more inclusive restaurant culture, advocating for better labor practices, or pursuing more sustainable sourcing, these chefs show the positive impact that good food can have in our communities.

There are a lot of considerations when choosing the cities for each year’s Taste America, and it often changes from year to year, but the overall goal when choosing the cities is to represent America’s richly diverse culinary landscape.

What are you most looking forward to for the Chicago leg of Taste America? Will you be attending all of the events nationwide?

Chicago feels like a second home for the foundation. Whenever we’re in Chicago, we look forward to eating at as many restaurants as we possibly can.

While I personally will not be able to attend all 10 of the Taste America events (especially since some are during the same weekend), a James Beard Foundation representative will be present at each city’s events.

I love the idea of the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. Can you tell us a little about the program and the new cookbook, “Waste Not,” that was inspired by it?

Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change invites civically and politically minded chefs to participate in a three-day, collaborative workshop to engage on issues in today’s food world with their peers. The thematic retreats are held throughout the country, and provide participants with advocacy and media training, support and guidance to help them be influential advocates, and, importantly, to build a growing network of chefs who are actively making the food world a better place.

Chefs Boot Camp falls under the foundation’s broader Impact Programs, which aim to establish a more sustainable food. Our latest cookbook, “Waste Not: How to Get the Most from Your Food,” features more than 100 recipes and tips from 65 Chefs Boot Camp alumni and aims to teach food lovers how they can reduce food waste, without sacrificing flavor or creativity. We are very excited to share this book!


More from Make It Better: 

Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz ScaggsRick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.