A Matter of Taste

Mitchell Davis, vice-president of the James Beard Foundation, believes you can’t develop a national cuisine until you create a public conversation about food

Photograph by Landon Nordeman
Mitchell Davis at the Manhattan Fruit Exchange, Chelsea Market, New York.

There is hubris to the Hearst Tower, even more than you’d expect from a midtown Manhattan skyscraper that strives to make New York’s seat of media concrete. The 1928 cast stone facade stops short at six storeys, stunted by the Great Depression and the first collapse of William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire (and they thought the newspaper business was in trouble then). Not until the dawn of this millennium did Hearst’s heirs finally get around to finishing what their granddaddy had started. Theirs was the first skyscraper development to be announced after 9/11, as if only another threat to the American empire could wake them from their torpor.

Last October, the James Beard Foundation moved into the Hearst Tower for a two-day conference with the theme “How Money and Media Influence the Way America Eats.” (Whoever chose the title must have had a wicked sense of humour; how money and media don’t influence the way we eat would make for a much shorter discussion.) Mitchell Davis, vice-president of the Beard Foundation, a non-profit with a mission “to celebrate, nurture, and preserve America’s diverse culinary heritage and future,” was presiding over 130 of America’s most powerful and influential food experts: political attachés charged with bringing reform to the farm bill; Davos World Economic Forum alumni; Michelin three-star chefs; and bestselling, New York Times–hallowed academics.

“In the beginning there was James Beard,” wrote Nora Ephron. Or perhaps it was Julia Child; the quote has been attributed to both. Back in 1954, when the New York Times first dubbed Beard “the dean of American cookery,” the phrase “American cookery” still sounded like an oxymoron. (Of course, the same observation applied doubly to Canadian cuisine: our “first” published cookbook, The Cook Not Mad, was written by an American.) But Beard remained unapologetic, whether about cooking in the nude, his kimono flapping uselessly at his sides; or about smashing old-fashioned eggs to whip up a new culinary omelette: “We are American and we can do what we want.” You might say he took the Monroe doctrine and applied it to canapés.

When I arrived at the conference, after a delay at US customs, the participants at the twenty-five or so tables were talking among themselves. Davis had positioned himself strategically close to the door and the podium. He knows everybody on the New York culinary scene, but that morning he chose to sit alone. He has worked for the Beard Foundation for eighteen years, and he could almost pass for a slimmed-down version of Beard himself: hulking, balding, dapper. Like Beard, he is a bon vivant, a cookbook writer (with four tomes to Beard’s twenty-two), and a tireless promoter of American chefs and American cuisine. During the conference, he never stopped moving: standing up to button and unbutton his black jacket; sitting down to hunch himself, like a coiled spring, over his iPhone to tweet the foundation’s more than 120,000 followers with his large baker’s hands.

Sam Kass, chef and senior policy adviser at the White House and co-architect of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, had already spoken, and his words still hung in the air: “We have an opportunity right now to move the conversation forward.” For one woman at my table, this seemed to mean drinking more fair trade coffee and earnestly quoting her own tweets and blog posts. For others, this proved to be the moment of truth: finally, culture’s poorest cousins—those who try to make art out of a three-times-a-day necessity that ends up in the toilet—might be asked to join the dance.

“We have a tremendous opportunity,” said Davis, who holds a Ph.D. in food studies from New York University, and who gets as excited about the soft pretzel rolls he just discovered in Milwaukee (“They make the best ham sandwich”) as he does about philosopher David Hume’s writings on the aesthetics of taste. The thirty-minute session entitled “What Is Most Deeply Needed in the Food System Today” had not yet begun.

Within the culinary industry, there exists a real sense that the North American food system is broken and needs a major overhaul if we are to protect our own health and that of the planet. In 2011, the New York Times moved its best-loved recipe writer, Mark Bittman—or “The Minimalist,” as he was known to readers for almost fifteen years—from the dining section to the op-ed pages. Michael Pollan, once an editor at Harper’s, became a bestselling food writer when he exposed the system’s flaws in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, spawning a generation of food enthusiasts who talk, tweet, read, and watch food content 24-7, even if they spend significantly less time cooking than their forebears did.

Davis said the next challenge for the Beard Foundation would be to offer leadership training for chefs so they could serve as effective spokespeople for the industry. (New media and food television can now do a better job of making them celebrities.) “Chefs have the spotlight, but who knows for how long?” he asked. “How can we use the media to get the message out?”

Many so-called solutions to the food crisis focus on changing the system of delivering food from factory farms to our tables. But what if the problem runs deeper than the structure of the food chain? As Pollan has noted (drawing on the work of French sociologist Claude Fischler), we would be insulated—if not fully protected—from the industrial food system’s machinations if we had a stronger food culture to begin with, one based on tradition rather than, as Davis often observes, market research. If so, the first step could be to find a way of bolstering our nascent food culture. We might, for instance, consider how other art forms have taken shape. “Cooking is like the theatre,” Beard often said, long before the advent of the Food Network. He used the metaphor to celebrate the spectacle of fine dining, but the two disciplines share many similar challenges. How do you lay the foundations for culture and tradition in a young country? The answer may lie in the discussion of taste—something we can, and should, dispute if we hope to define ourselves.

Taste comes up often in conversation with and about Mitchell Davis. It is, of course, a freighted word. When John Milton employs the word “sapience” to describe Eve’s first bite of the apple, the word’s meaning, derived from the Latin verb sapere, could be translated two ways: “to know” or “to taste.” However personal and innate our sensibilities may seem (“There’s no accounting for taste,” as the old saw goes), other factors come into play. In his 2009 doctoral thesis, which took twelve years to complete—he was also working full time, teaching, and writing cookbooks—Davis notes that “what tastes good or bad is constructed by those with the economic and cultural capital to say so.” If you are not eating according to your grandmother’s dicta, then marketers and Madison Avenue copywriters will have more sway over you. The same goes for restaurant critics, who Davis argues have more power in New York than in Paris, where everyone has strong views on when and how to serve a brie. Just as art and literary critics help to define the standards and language of their respective disciplines, so, too, do the aesthetics of taste help define a nation’s culinary culture; before you can judge art, you must have the language to talk about it.

Davis’s weekly Internet show, Taste Matters, on the Brooklyn-based Heritage Radio Network, is described on its website as “a journey of exploration of the sense, the cultural construct, and the culinary phenomenon of taste.” Says cookbook author and National Post columnist Bonnie Stern: “He has great taste, and not just in food.” She hosts Davis and his close-knit family for Friday-night dinner whenever he visits Toronto (her cottage was near his sister’s, in Kawartha Lakes, to the northeast). “He always has a unique approach to things.” He also seems to show good taste in people: he remains close with many of his schoolmates, and the first person he hired at the Beard Foundation, Adam Rapoport, is now the editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit magazine. Another of his proteges, Elizabeth Blau, went on to “create Vegas”—the restaurant scene, that is.

Although Davis was born in New Jersey, his parents moved to Toronto when he was three; most of his family still lives there. According to family lore, his father, an ex-Brooklynite, visited Toronto to shoot a television commercial and realized that it offered an urban alternative to the suburbs of New York. At the time, he did not drive, and the city’s subway system clinched the deal. When he finally got his driver’s licence, he would prop one of his 20,000 books on the steering wheel as he drove. The family is middle class, Jewish, and intellectual; all four children attended graduate school. “Being in school,” Davis said, “is my favourite thing outside of being in the kitchen.”

At his bar mitzvah, his grandmother asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. A chef, he replied—not an acceptable choice for a middle-class Jewish kid in the 1980s. Back then, cooking schools resembled halfway houses, populated by misfits if not ex-cons. She turned to her niece, who owned a restaurant in SoHo, and asked what a chef could earn; “$150,000” came the reply. “Okay, you can be a chef,” she told Davis.

He earned money catering in high school, but when he graduated from the gifted program his family insisted he get a university degree before joining a kitchen brigade. The compromise: hotel management at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. A year abroad in Paris made him a “super-foodie” (in his words), and he won a scholarship to spend another year, post-graduation, studying in Italy, then returned to North America with ambitions to be a restaurant critic. Although he speaks fondly of Canada as an incubator—no emerging artist can afford to live in New York these days—he says he always knew he would end up working in Manhattan. “Canada was too small for me,” he said. “I love excitement, big things.”

But he is not blind to America’s shortcomings. He seems to have a love-hate relationship with most things in the United States, including capitalism and its “logical conclusion,” Las Vegas. “We make money better than anyone in the world,” he observed, “which leads to some amazing things. It also leads to shitty food: twice as salty, twice as crunchy.”

When he joined the James Beard Foundation in 1993, the seven-year-old non-profit was little more than a fusty, overdressed dining club that gathered in the rabbit warren of rooms in the foundation’s Greenwich Village brownstone. (The organization was created a year after Beard’s death in 1985, by friends and former students, including Julia Child.) For a select group of well-heeled gourmets, the James Beard House had always been a place to discover and cultivate talent and foster a homegrown cuisine; Child compared cooking there to playing at Carnegie Hall. (Beard had introduced her to New York after reading—and approving of—the galleys for her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking.)

Davis’s timing was impeccable. The Food Network, which had launched three weeks earlier, had not yet made stars out of mile-high plates. Chefs were mostly invisible and out of place on the cooler side of the swinging doors. When someone at a restaurant made an impression on diners, it was usually the restaurateur or the maître d’. And then everyone went food crazy. Chefs became celebrities, the cookbook industry exploded, and the Food Network became wildly popular. The consumption gap began to close; fine dining was no longer confined to the super-elite. New media began to offer fresh ways of communicating about food. Soon he was acting as an ambassador, for the Beard Foundation as well as for the Canadian chefs who now cook at the house three or four times a year.

The day after the conference, I met Davis at the Beard House, and as we wandered through the four-storey labyrinth, past dark oil portraits of the culinary giant himself, he enthused about the previous night’s dinner. Friends had taken him to Jungsik, New York’s first “high-end thoroughly modern Korean restaurant,” according to the New York Times, to celebrate his forty-third birthday. He noted that the restaurant, located in the former premises of Chanterelle, cleverly borrowed some techniques from the French culinary canon (just don’t call it fusion these days). “Why has it taken New York so long,” he wondered, “to open a high-end Korean dining room?”

From there, he moved on to ruminating about his love-hate relationship with food television. He thinks the most significant aspect of the Top Chef phenomenon is that viewers get to watch experts discuss the flavours of the dishes for fifteen minutes of each episode. “That’s how you create a food culture; it’s just like eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France,” he said. “If we can create a discourse around taste, then we can create American cuisine. To me, that’s exciting.”

About nine months ago, I attended a Writers’ Trust of Canada gathering at the Toronto Reference Library. Writers of Margaret Atwood’s vintage, including her husband, Graeme Gibson, recalled the organization’s beginnings, back in the 1970s, when “Canadian literature” was considered an oxymoron. Gibson, who was giving the annual Margaret Laurence Lecture, remembered asking a teacher why there were no Canadian writers on the public school curriculum. “Is there any Canadian literature worth teaching?” came the bigoted response. I often think of this exchange when someone asks me, scoffingly, whether there is such a thing as Canadian cuisine. The Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction was created seventy-five years ago. Only in 2010 did Michaëlle Jean’s husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, create the Governor General’s Award in Celebration of the Nation’s Table. Give it time.

As far back as the eighteenth century, French cookbooks emphasized the ways in which taste related to fine arts and played a role in national culture. In the preface to Les Dons de Comus, ou l’art de la cuisine, redun en pratique, the authors note that “cooking, like any other art invented for need or for pleasure, was perfected along with the national genius of each nation and became more delicate as the nations became more polite… Among the civilized nations, progress in cooking followed progress in all the other arts.” It also laid the foundation for a new discipline: gastronomy. In his doctoral dissertation, Davis draws a parallel between the food culture that took hold in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France and the one that had its beginnings in postwar New York.

And look at it now. In 2007, the Beard Foundation moved its awards to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Time magazine had already dubbed the awards the “Oscars of the food world,” and the star power of some chefs (Mario Batali, flanked by well-known actresses, springs to mind) has now turned such hyperbole into reality. “Moving to the Lincoln was a watershed moment,” said Davis. A sign, perhaps, that the James Beard Foundation—and American food culture—has arrived.

This appeared in the March 2012 issue.

Sasha Chapman
Sasha Chapman is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and was previously a senior editor at The Walrus.
Landon Nordeman
Landon Nordeman has contributed to The New Yorker and Saveur magazines.