While interviewing world-renowned Chef Marcus Samuelsson at last month’s Chefs & Champagne was an honor and privilege indeed, I also interviewed another very special someone on that glorious Hamptons evening. Someone I’m very excited to feature as this month’s “Inspiring Woman of Food + Wine,” James Beard Foundation President, Susan Ungaro.
You see, the 2017 Chefs & Champagne event had special significance not only because of its amazing honoree, fabulous sponsors and talented Chefs. It was also the last for Ungaro in her official capacity. After eleven years with the foundation, she announced just weeks before this year’s event she would be stepping down in December.
And as the woman behind one of the most revered culinary organizations in the country, not to mention one of my favorite foodie events of A L L time, I just couldn’t let that happen without giving this inspiring lady some major props!
But Ungaro’s role with the foundation was not this accomplished woman’s first rodeo. Prior to joining the JBF, she made a name for herself during her twenty five years at Family Circle Magazine, twelve of which she spent as the publication’s Editor-in-Chief. Here, she received numerous accolades and awards for her achievements and only left in 2005 after the magazine sold.
Ungaro assumed the reigns of the James Beard Foundation in 2006 during a very tumultuous time, rife with financial scandal. Previous President, Leonard Pickell, Jr., had recently been convicted and imprisoned for embezzling over one million dollars from the organization, leaving it seemingly inextricably tarnished.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Ungaro spent the next eleven years restoring the culinary institution’s once sterling reputation and elevating it to new heights. She re-energized the foundation’s scholarships programs which today award over $750,000 in financial aid to deserving students. Ungaro also created the super successful Women in Culinary Leadership Program and even moved the James Beard Awards ceremony, the culinary equivalent of the Oscars, from New York City to Chicago where it will remain until 2021.
Ungaro also expanded the Chefs & Champagne event from a mere “Summer soirée” to a true “party with a purpose” and I was happy to catch up with her before this year’s event on a gloomy evening at Wölffer Estate in Sagaponack. As if on cue, however, the clouds dissipated as soon as guests began to arrive, revealing a stunning blue sky followed by a breathtakingly beautiful sunset…what can’t this woman do?
The warm and welcoming Ungaro was happy to expound on the highlights of her career with the foundation as well as her future plans:
Q: What went into making the decision to step down from your role as JBF President?
A: Well, this is my twelfth Chefs & Champagne and I really feel like I’ve done so many things I really wanted to do with the Foundation and honestly, I really want to think about my next adventure. I’ve had two great careers, one in publishing at Family Circle and this running a foundation as great as James Beard and I want to do things that maybe a little bit simpler, give back, maybe work part time…I’m really not sure.
I’ve got five more months on the job, got a lot of things happening and I’m just going to be here for the board and staff as the next leadership is decided upon and help with that transition.
Q: What has the Chefs & Champagne event in particular meant to you?
A: It was one of my first big events. My very first was the James Beard Awards but I was only on the job two weeks, but the next big event was this one here in the Hamptons when Christian Wölffer was still alive [Wölffer passed away unexpectedly in an accident in Brazil in 2009]. What I’m really proud about was the first year I asked him if we could start a scholarship in his name and he agreed. That’s when we decided we’d make this event a “party with a purpose” and raise more money for our mission and its just grown every year.
Also, our first honoree was Chef Thomas Keller and what’s really special about Marcus [Samuelsson] is he’s been around this tent cooking for other honorees, he’s a man whose always giving back, honoring others and I just think tonight is so special that we’re able to honor him for all the great work he’s done in the food world and his philanthropy work as well.
Q: What’s been the highlight of your tenure at the James Beard Foundation?
A: I’m proud that every year is our best ever, you want each year to be better than the last. I’m also proud we’ve never had rain even when it’s forecast (laughs) somehow even if it’s not the sun, the weather is cooperating and I’m proud we’ve named a scholarship for the man who founded this vineyard. This is the twelfth time we’ve honored him and I think his family appreciates that as well.
Q: What are your favorite flavors of Summer?
A: Right now I’m really into peaches and cherries. I like James Beard’s approach of, “whatever’s in season.” When strawberries were in season, I was very into them, the ones that were literally just picked – there’s nothing like a fresh picked strawberry!
Q: Favorite wine or cocktail of this Summer?
A: In the Summer I like Rieslings and I’ve also been going along with the rosé trend so of course tonight along with the Champagne, I’m gonna enjoy some Wölffer Rosé.
Q: Is there anything else about the foundation you’d really like people to know?
A: Yes! The one thing people don’t realize…is that anyone can come to James Beard’s house in New York City. We’re online, on Open Table there’s welcome for anyone to come and enjoy one the over 200 dinners a year at the James Beard House.
The gracious Ungaro closed with the sentiment, “I’m moving on but my heart will always be involved.” I know all my fellow Glamorous Gourmets join me in wishing her the best of luck on her next adventure and I greatly appreciate her taking the time to chat.
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