Izabela Wojcik of the James Beard Foundation Talks About Beard House

Categories: Chef Interviews
Izabela Wojcik2.jpg
Izabela Wojcik from The James Beard Foundation
​Before we begin describing the amazing Bastille Day dinner the Biltmore's chef, Philippe Ruiz, created for the esteemed James Beard House this week, first we thought it best to inform those of us who are willing to admit ignorance what this honor was all about and who the heck James Beard was. 

To that end, we interviewed Izabela Wojcik, director of house programming for The James Beard Foundation. Wojcik, the former marketing director for Hudson Valley Foie Gras, began working at the Beard House as a kitchen volunteer and eventually made her way to its publications department. Today, she is most notably viewed by chefs around the country as the final say when it comes to deciding which of them get to feed the House's guests and what they can put on the plates. "We liken it to Carnegie Hall for musicians," she explained.

Beard's spirit is very much alive and well throughout the townhouse, where he spend the last 12 years of his life. Even without the portraits, artifacts, and employees who gladly share stories of the home's popular former resident, the house exudes the spirit of what the Foundation stands for. (And the aromas that swirl around each floor are a constant reminder of why it's such a treat to spend time inside.)

But we'll let Wojcik tell you more about all that.

New Times: So aside from things people can read on Wikipedia and such, who was James Beard?

Izabela Wojcik: He was known for being approachable, knowledgeable. He loved teaching cooking classes in his home. He was an imposing figure, but welcoming nonetheless. He was quite generous. He was supportive of anyone who was enthusiastic and interested in learning about food.

It was such a different world then. There was no electronic media. The food world itself was so isolated. The majority of food writing was helpful tips and recipes. It was relegated to the homemaker's realm of cooking. He really recognized that there was so much more. It was about recognizing the richness of the traditions both in this country... and culinary traditions in general. It was about preparing beautiful food and sharing with friends.

How long have the dinners been offered here?

Since 1987. Mostly because James Beard passed away and left a mortgage on the house. His friends wanted to preserve it and save it. They felt like someone should do something with this address. 

How often do you host dinners here?

We host events up to six days a week. We have lunches once a month, holiday brunches, and limited cooking classes [up to six people can participate].

Can anyone participate?

The house is open to anyone. Paid members give us money to support our endeavors, but it's not a members-only organization. 

So how do people get to go to the dinners?

They have to make reservations in advance. We're not able to accommodate last-minute guests and walk-ins. 

Can you give me a rundown of what a typical night entails?

Sure! Guests walk in, they check in with the maitre d' and are given their table assignment. Then they walk straight through the kitchen... 

Do you think chefs welcome the sight of an audience invading their small kitchen space? 

Every chef feels a sense of pride. And as a diner you can perceive the energy and dynamics of the kitchen. 

And then after they pass through the kitchen? 

They end up in the Greenhouse Room and/or the garden. The Greenhouse Room is also an art gallery. 

Then we walk upstairs and eat?

Yes. Someone from The Foundation will say welcoming remarks. The tone of the dinner changes slightly depending on the chef and team. Most people wear business attire. Many guests come straight from the office. 

And then the eating begins! How much are the dinners, on average?

Usually they are $130 per person for members and $170 for the general public. 

Next week we'll cover how chefs get selected to cook here, which Florida chef made Wojcik's most memorable meal, and how well yak cheese and rabbit rank with Beard's diners. 

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