Before Julia Child and Anthony Bourdain, there was James Beard.
An American cook, cookbook author, teacher and the first to use the medium of television, in fact, Beard championed American cuisine and taught and mentored generations of professional chefs and food enthusiasts.
Carrying on his work — Beard passed away in 1985 — is the New York City-based foundation named for him. Its mission, according to the web site, is “to celebrate, nurture, and honor chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse, and sustainable for everyone.”
The foundation is also “the voice of chefs,” said Ashish Alfred, chef/owner of three restaurants in the Metropolitan Region. His county establishment, the Duck Duck Goose in Bethesda, was named “Best Restaurant in Maryland” by Southern Living magazine last year and “One of Bethesda’s Top Ten New Restaurants.” Another Duck Duck Goose opened recently in Baltimore.
Chef Al, as he’s called, recently came to know the James Beard Foundation up close. Beard House, home of the foundation, recently invited him to showcase his culinary talents at a dinner for 80 invited paid guests. Both world-renowned and rising chefs may receive invitations. The theme for the dinner, which took place Dec. 20, was “French Flair.”
Alfred isn’t 100 percent sure who recommended him but said he’s “very happy” to have been honored — “a dream come true.”
“It’s a very intensive experience,” he said. “You put your food in front of a very discerning group of people at a very rapid pace. It’s a five-course meal, which also needs to look a certain way.”
“You don’t have to be super talented or virtuous to do well,” he added. “It requires showing up and working hard.”
Although the kitchen there is smaller than a typical chef today would have, Alfred praised the James Beard House’s “spectacular: staff, from the managers to the servers, etc. They really support your vision,” he said.
Much as the experience at the Beard House was “singular and humbling”, Alfred said, reminding him that “you can’t rest on your laurels.”
Ironically, the Bethesda native chef arrived at his profession “by accident,” although he did watch cooking networks growing up.
“I tried the college thing, and it didn’t work out, so I tried on a lark [to apply to chef school],” he laughed. “Applying to FCI — the French Culinary Institute — was my excuse to get out of town.”
Once there, he “fell” in love — with the “regimentation, creativity, and physicality of being a chef” — and FCI’s prestigious teachers, such as internationally recognized American chef Jacques Pepin. Although he teaches new chefs that it’s important to learn the fundamentals — which French cooking provides — Alfred said he isn’t afraid “to experiment.”
He received his classical training at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. Alfred completed the FCI program in 2009 and opened his first restaurant three years later.
The emphasis of his restaurants isn’t food — at least not exclusively.
“We’re client driven,” Alfred said. “It’s more important for people to have a really good time than for me to show culinary skills. We make it relaxing.”
Also important is treating his staff like colleagues. “You build a reputation more than a restaurant,” he said.
Alfred also expressed gratitude for the “love and support” of his family. His mother accompanied him to the James Beard event. Anyone connected with the food industry knows its travails: long hours, fluorescent lights, loneliness. Above all, there’s the sense you’re married to a restaurant — “they’re your wife and children,” Alfred said.
What keeps him going is the “high” of observing pleased customers.
“If you don’t have it, you’re in the wrong business,” Alfred said.