James Beard, whose eminence and influence in the world of cooking long ago earned him the status of an institution, refuses to behave like one. At 78, the Grand Old Gastronome is tweaking the culinary Establishment and proclaiming a new “era of liberation” in the kitchen. To celebrate it, he has published his 24th cookbook, The New James Beard (Knopf, $16.95), a feast of 1,000 recipes—fresh creations along with old favorites reworked for fast, Cuisinart cooking and calorie consciousness. By mixing textures, flavors and ingredients with abandon, the “new” Beard offers exotic delicacies like marrow soufflé and roast quail on scrapple. The book also serves up some iconoclastic notions about reversing—and reducing—courses. To spread his message of culinary daring, Beard finds time to teach old and young cooks new tricks in classes in San Francisco, Oregon (his native state) and Greenwich Village, where he has lived alone for the past 44 years. While demonstrating how to whip up a blackberry sherbet in his elaborately equipped kitchen, the 6’4″, 250-pound Beard discussed the new epicurean era with Anna Stewart of PEOPLE.
Who is the “New James Beard”?
Well, thinking that it’s healthy once in a while to hang yourself on a hook like a piece of meat and analyze yourself, I did so about two years ago. I decided to do and write what I pleased about food. I had never done that before. In my classes, for example, I used to feel I had to give people a great big menu or I would be cheating them. Now I only present them with three dishes or so, and that’s enough.
So we should be minimizing?
That’s right. We’ve been stuffing ourselves, and that’s not necessary. I now find great big meals oppressive. Why shouldn’t we have a helping of asparagus for a first course and then move on to something as simple as cheese and fruit? To me, the main course is whatever you want to star—the nicest thing you have to offer, whether it’s vegetables or dessert or something else.
Does that mean there are no more rules about which courses to serve when?
Taste is the only rule in this time of freshness and freedom.
How do you feel such an approach will go over in the average household?
Someday it will be accepted.
What signs of culinary liberation have you seen so far in America?
We are more eager for simplicity, variety and purity. We’re more tolerant and expansive about different cuisines and foodstuffs. People are gardening more and making things from scratch.
What has brought about these changes?
Travel abroad and the current trend toward rediscovering your lineage have helped people appreciate the importance of ethnic cooking and non-traditional foods. Also, life has speeded up, and people coming home from work want a main dish that takes less than a half hour to fix—a quick soup or pasta, for example.
What is your “flexible approach to ingredients and meal planning”?
Your approach to cooking should be determined by what’s at hand, what’s in the market and how much time you have for shopping.
Where did the old prejudices about food get started?
Family. The mother brings forth her own likes and dislikes. Personally, I grew up hating liver. But now I love it, except chicken livers.
What else don’t you like?
Broccoli. And I don’t care if I never eat pâté again.
What about meat? Do we eat too much?
There still are Americans who look upon a two-pound slab of steak as a virility symbol, the red-blooded meal for the red-blooded male. Nobody needs all that animal protein.
Where do culinary trends originate?
Certain chefs around the world—I call them the great dozen—are likely to start something that their imitators in turn try to outdo. Now in fashion as seasonings, for example, are lemon, mint and peppercorns. I know a chef in the South of France who made up his mind to prepare strawberries with freshly ground pepper, which is a nice combination. All right, now everybody’s putting pepper into everything, and that can get out of hand.
What else is fashionable nowadays?
Chinese cuisine is the thing. Then there’s a tremendous rise in vegetarianism. Also, pasta is “in” under every guise imaginable, including the boring old English standby, macaroni pudding. Despite all the enthusiasm for pasta, a lot of people misunderstand Italian food, which is basically casual. It’s not a great cuisine and never has been.
What foods are “out”?
Quiche has had its day, I think. Even the airlines serve it now. Pizza and the frankfurter are both on the wane because they’re usually prepared so badly. Right now we’re going through a taco craze, except they’re so bad they’ll soon be on the way out too.
What about American restaurants?
New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles are unto themselves in terms of quality and variety. But across the country there’s a strong movement of young people starting small restaurants, with some success. The chains are their competition.
Are you horrified by fast food?
The food is revolting, but these places are now a part of our way of life and can’t be helped. Fast food saves time, but I can’t understand what people do with all the time they save.
After the hamburger, pizza and taco chains, what’s next?
The new trend in fast food will be pastry—Cornish “pasties,” which are small meat pies. They’re easy to handle and can be eaten on the street.
Do you approve of restaurant salad bars?
They are cutting corners on something else—less meat, or it saves them preparing a lot of vegetables. By the time people have a couple of drinks and go to the salad bar, sometimes twice, they’re full. And what have they done but filled themselves up with chick-peas, beans, all sorts of things. Then the restaurant doesn’t have to give them such a large portion of meat. I don’t think salad bars are done for kindliness at all, but for pure profit.
Would you ever open a restaurant?
The very thought fills me with horror. However, if I were a restaurateur, I’d be a dictator. I’d be very particular about the palates and the working techniques of the people I hired. I’d have a menu that changed often, but it wouldn’t be too big—that’s important. I’d certainly do most of my own marketing. And too little supervision is given to small details in restaurants.
What kind of restaurant would you open?
A real glorified sandwich-and-salad place. Too few people understand a really good sandwich.
Do you want to write another cookbook?
I’m working on one now. It will contain 100 recipes for pasta—Italian, Oriental and Middle European.
What do you think of garnishes?
Food should look like food. I would never decorate a cake with sugar roses. I might sprinkle a few sprigs of mint-over a bowl of raspberries or parsley on potatoes. But you can eat these, not just look at them.
Should recipes be slavishly followed, or should cooks experiment?
People ought to do something the way it’s written once, and then branch out, unless, of course, they destroy something completely. Like the woman who wrote to me about this perfectly beautiful torte of mine that uses nuts instead of flour. She complained that she couldn’t understand why it was a dismal failure. “Of course,” she noted, “I didn’t add the nuts because my husband hates them.” Why, without the basic ingredient, nuts, you wind up with a runny pancake.
What’s the best way for us to cook and eat better?
For starters, seek out freshness and quality. And if you buy something good, like salmon or fillet, you don’t have to gussy it up. No need to drape sauce all over it. The trend today is to serve sauce on the side plate and use it as an embellishment, not a mask.
What is your philosophy for today?
Feel free and take a fresh look. My emphasis is on options. My motto: “Why not?”.