Food journalist talks culinary culture

Mitchell Davis, pictured above, speaks about the importance of American food culture in William L. Harkness Hall.
Mitchell Davis, pictured above, speaks about the importance of American food culture in William L. Harkness Hall. Photo by Antonia Woodford.

Mitchell Davis, food journalist, chef and executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, spoke yesterday in William L. Harkness Hall on the significance of American food culture.

His talk, hosted by the Yale Sustainable Food Project, focused on the development of his foundation — a non-profit group that seeks to promote the culinary arts. About 50 students and faculty members attended the talk which also covered how the organization has elevated the status of the chef in society and some contemporary issues in the food industry.

Davis began his presentation with a description of chef and food writer James Beard, whom he called “a large, gossipy and very flamboyant gay man who would chat about food with anyone who would listen.” Beard wrote prolifically about food, taught small cooking classes in his home and thought about food early in the 20th century when culinary pursuits weren’t considered legitimate, Davis said.

The foundation was started after Beard’s death in 1985, when his friends, including famous chef and television personality Julia Child, raised money to buy his house in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Wolfgang Puck was the first chef to publicly cook at this new home for American cuisine, which Child has called “a Carnegie hall for chefs,” Davis said.

Now in its 26th year, the New York-based foundation continues to maintain Beard’s legacy.

“What Beard did was convince a whole generation to think about food in a new way,” Davis said. “Our mission now is to shine a spotlight on chefs and celebrate America’s culinary heritage and future.”

Davis told the crowd that he was not encouraged to become a chef when he was younger, explaining that “25 years ago it wasn’t the case that you could turn on the television or open a magazine and see a chef.”

The foundation also oversees the James Beard Foundation Award for Excellence, which is the first public consumer-oriented award for food, recognizing that the food industry is not just important to chefs, Davis said.

The foundation not only wants to promote the importance of the cooking profession, he said, but wants to encourage chefs to participate in conversations about modern political and health issues. According to Davis, chefs can contribute a unique voice to discussions on obesity and food quality.

“America is in the best position to actually do something and to affect tangible change in the global food industry,” Davis said.

The foundation recently hosted a boot camp for policy and change, through which 16 chefs were trained to be advocates in their own communities.

It also recently launched an official partnership with the U.S. State Department to send American chefs abroad to influence change.

“Are we going to solve the problems in the Middle East? Probably not, but at least they’ll have good dinner,” Davis said.

The talk also emphasized another part of the foundation’s overall mission: highlighting food as an essential aspect of culture in the same way that music or art are considered significant. Davis explained that “it’s hard for people to understand why dinner could be a cultural event, but easy to understand why the opera counts as a cultural event.”

In fact, food is especially significant to American culture, Davis argued. In the United States, the line between food trucks and fancy restaurants is blurry because the eating experience has been democratized for everyone, Davis said.

Accordingly, the foundation hosts hamburger parties alongside gourmet dinners. It encourages chefs to train in America rather than abroad.

There’s a reason the New York Times called Beard “the dean of American cookery” instead of the “father of American cuisine,” Davis said. “Cuisine” is too often associated with the French connotation, where there is a distinction between the food prepared in gourmet restaurants and what average people eat.

“Although Beard wrote restaurant reviews and launched several chefs’ careers, for him, cooking was really about the food you made in the home,” Davis said.

For many students in attendance, the portion of the talk that focused on the current political climate resonated the most.

“People don’t really pay attention to what they eat or where their food comes from, but food should be an important topic,” Sara Hamilton ’16 said.

In addition to traveling and speaking on behalf of the foundation, Davis has authored three cookbooks.

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