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James Beard doc reveals details about man behind the meals

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Film by local women looks at the life of the late Portlander

COURTESY: COURTESY: DAN WYNN/WYNN FAMILY AND JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION - Chef royalty: James Beard (middle) sits with Julia Child (left) and Edna Lewis. Beard is the subject of a documentary that screens May 5, 'James Beard, America's First Foodie.'The late Portland native James Beard was legendary, but outside of the culinary nerds of the world, few are enlightened about the impact he really had on the billion-dollar food media industry.

The industry's top chefs are awarded annually with James Beard Awards, but who is the man behind the name?

Wanting to shed more light on Beard and his work, and especially give young cooks another way to learn about Beard other than books, local filmmaker Beth Federici and co-producer Kathleen Squires created the documentary "James Beard, America's First Foodie" for PBS' "American Masters" series.

It will show at 8 p.m. Friday, May 5, at Northwest Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 S.W. Park Ave. Tickets are $6-$9. For more: www.nwfilm.org.

The Tribune caught up with Federici to see why she made the film and what she learned from the experience:

COURTESY PHOTO - BETH FEDERICITribune: Can you tell me about yourself, and why you embarked on the journey to make a documentary about James Beard?

Federici: So, on a personal side, I grew up in New Jersey in an Italian-Irish family who owned an Italian restaurant for almost 100 years, called Federici's Family Italian Restaurant (in Freehold, New Jersey), it's still there. My cousins run it now.

So I grew up obviously around food and a convivial table, so I think I was predisposed to falling in love with James Beard. And then I went to school at Lafayette College with Kathleen.

I worked for Greenpeace for a number of years, but I had been an art history major, so I realized one day that might be the perfect place to combine my creative side and my social justice side. I met my husband, traveled around the country and continued to make films, teaching filmmaking and working in media. I found myself back in New York and New Jersey in 2008. And through Facebook, I reconnected with Kathleen and tried to figure out a way to collaborate. We started scheming and thinking about what we could do together.

At the end of 2011, a job came up in Oregon for my husband ... so we made the decision to come back. So in early 2013, Kathy and I were Skyping and she had just come back from the James Beard Foundation.

I had read a lot about James Beard but I didn't know a lot about him. ... and she just kept telling me all these facts. I was astonished that I hadn't seen any films on him. So I did a quick search and found one that OPB had made, but it was very Oregon-centric. I realized there was plenty of room in the marketplace for a feature-length film about James Beard. I said, "Let's try it." We started shooting in the spring of 2013, and here we are four years later.

COURTESY: REED COLLEGE - Chef James Beard received an honorary degree from Reed College in 1976. Beard wrote 20 books and helped start the foodie generation before his death in 1985.Tribune: What can you tell me about Beard's influence on Portland's food scene?

Federici: The one interesting thing I learned about making the film was that ... his mother (Elizabeth Beard) was an amazing cook. She had run a boarding house. So her boarding house was known for its food. She was known at the Portland market and to all the vendors as someone who had taste. And as Lisa Schroeder said in the film, she was probably America's real first foodie because she taught (James) everything he learned about food. She took him to many of the great restaurants in Portland.

Portland had a thriving restaurant scene, and was really rivaling San Francisco as kind of the mecca of the Pacific Northwest. But that being said, over the years after that, Portland's food scene I think started to decline as we started the evolution of fast food, the rise of supermarkets with frozen dinners. The Portland restaurant scene kind of took a nosedive. In fact James Beard wrote about that. He lamented when he came back to Portland how so many of the great restaurants are gone. So I think he would be thrilled at where Portland's food scene is now. ... I think he'd be happy to know new life has been breathed into it because that was the Portland he knew.

Tribune: What was the most challenging aspect of getting this documentary made?

Federici: I think the biggest challenge about making a film about somebody who's not been alive for 30 years is how do you breathe life into them without being dreadfully boring? It wasn't a visual piece of art — so to bring his words to life, in a creative way, was challenging.

Also, finding people — and luckily we did right here in Oregon — who are still alive who have those stories to tell because they knew him in person versus scholars, who knew him in books. It was challenging to find those folks. Believe me, we were trying to count, but we lost people over the course of making this film that had passed away.

We feel we made it at really the perfect time. You feel the passion and sensitivity in the people's voices who are having actual memories. So if we had waited much longer it would've been even more challenging.

Tribune: Do you feel you've dived into a look at Beard in ways that media hasn't in the past? How so?

Federici: I think so. I think our goal was to make sure that we really gave it the time to show his life and the influence in so many different areas. Writing, TV, philanthropy — there are a lot of ways that people don't see his influence.

I think the awards get a lot of press and he gets mentioned, but you'd be amazed how many James Beard Award winners saw this film and had never known any of these things.

Our very small team packed a lot of punch. And I'm very proud of what we were able to do.

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