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Clare Reichenbach Transcript

“James Beard CEO Clare Reichenbach” Transcript

Kerry Diamond: Hey everyone. Welcome to Radio Cherry Bombe, the number one female focused food podcast in the universe. I'm your host, Kerry Diamond. On today's episode, I'm sitting down with Clare Reichenbach, Chief Executive Officer of the James Beard Foundation. I'm sure you've all heard of the James Beard Awards. Well, Clare is here to tell us more about this organization and how it's evolved under her leadership.

Kerry Diamond: Today's show is supported by the Cherry Bombe Cookbook published by Clarkson Potter. The Cherry Bombe Cookbook features 100 different recipes from 100 plus amazing women in the food world, including Angela Dimayuga, Chrissy Tiegen and others. You can get a copy at or at your favorite local bookstore. Now here's my conversation with Clare Reichenbach of the James Beard Foundation. Welcome to Radio Cherry Bombe.

Clare Reichenbach: Thank you so much, Kerry. It's wonderful to be here.

Kerry Diamond: Most of our listeners have probably heard of the James Beard Awards, but they have no idea who James Beard is. Can you tell us a little bit about him?

Clare Reichenbach: Indeed, so the eponymous and inspiring Mr. James Beard. He was affectionately known as America's first foodie. In the '40s and '50s when much of America was looking to Europe for inspiration around food and cuisine, he was looking closer to home and saying we should really recognize and celebrate the American food culture and the talent and resource and the community we have here. He was a very early proponent of what we now call farm to table. He was prescient in terms of sustainability and was very much a champion of chefs. He wasn't a cook, he wasn't a restaurant chef, but he was a very impassioned home cook and a mentor and celebrant of the restaurant chef. He lived in The Beard House in the West Village, and that was not only his home, but it also was the home for many of the culinary salons he held and the mentorship programs, et cetera.

Clare Reichenbach: When he died in the mid '80s, the great and the good of the culinary community, including Julia Child convened and said, "We really need to enshrine this important legacy for James Beard to ensure that it lives on," and it was from that, that the foundation was born. And the objectives at the birth of the foundation were really the continuous professionalization of the culinary industry. There were three components of that professionalization. One is the awards. That is best known, so that standard bearer of excellence and putting the culinary arts on the same status as the performing arts, so hence it being known as the Oscars of the food world.

Clare Reichenbach: The second element of that professionalization was The Beard House, The James Beard House, which is now a performance space for chefs. And again, it's known as the Carnegie Hall for chefs, which is a boast given it as a humble 1840s townhouse. And the third element was around scholarships and the education of the next generation of culinary talent. And then the third act that we find ourselves in now is really about the mission and the impact work that the foundation stands for. So again, building really on the strength of what we've garnered through the awards to say how do we use our platform, our influence to support a better food world.

Kerry Diamond: You did not know James Beard, but what was he like as a person?

Clare Reichenbach: By all accounts a bon vivant, larger than life, metaphorically and physically. The party mattered and he was deeply passionate about food and cooks. He was very warm, he had a presence, and I don't think he had any concerns about inserting himself into a room or a conversation or an issue.

Kerry Diamond: I remember when the CEO job became vacant and everyone wondered who would take it. Now you were not a known entity to folks in the food world back then, so two questions. Why did James Beard want you and why did you want James Beard?

Clare Reichenbach: I can answer the latter more easily than the former probably. Personally, I've always had a deep, deep passion for food and for cooking, and as you rightly say, Kerry, I come from the media world. I don't come from the food world per se, but when the opportunity presented itself, it just resonated for me on so many levels. One, because of the gloriousness of food, two, because of the mission and the impact that this organization can make, and three really was the opportunity to grow something. It's got an amazing brand, imprimatur and platform, so what are the opportunities to really take that to the next level? So that's why it appealed to me so strongly.

Clare Reichenbach: In terms of what I represented to the foundation, I think there was a recognition the foundation had evolved really, really well, but now was the time for a different approach and bringing in some hybrid vigor from a different industry with different disciplines, a different approach, a different lens. I think they felt the value in that. And equally there's deep expertise and understanding of the industry within the foundation, so there was a complement there.

Kerry Diamond: Was there any moment where you were like, "Oh my God, what am I getting myself into?"

Clare Reichenbach: I think it was just before I sat down for a cup of tea with you that first week.

Kerry Diamond: Stop.

Clare Reichenbach: Yeah, I mean in fairness, the early days I did feel a bit discombobulated. I love a learning curve. I come from consulting, so I relish getting to understand a new industry, but there were a lot of unknowns for me. So yeah, it was ... I love that, and yet there's like I need to get to know the industry, the people, the characters, the culture, the pressures; all of that was new.

Kerry Diamond: The characters, yes. There are a lot of characters.

Clare Reichenbach: Yes.

Kerry Diamond: What were you doing professionally at the time?

Clare Reichenbach: At the time, I mean literally at the time I was on my maternity leave. I say maternity, I was working for myself, so it was a maternity leave of sorts. But my background is in media. I worked for the BBC for a long time, principally in a strategy role, then worked for AMC networks, probably best known for Mad Men, Breaking Bad, et cetera, and then set up my own consulting firm in media strategy, and it was at that point in my career that I was lucky enough to receive the call from the head hunter saying, "You are not the usual suspect for this, but might this appeal?"

Kerry Diamond: And you were based in New York at the time?

Clare Reichenbach: Yeah. Yeah. So I lived in New York for about, despite my British accent, for 12 years, and in fact the funny thing is when I first moved to New York, I lived a block away from the James Beard House, and I would go past and see these phenomenal parties going on every night and go like, "What is going on there?" And I signed up to be a member really early on in my tenure in New York City. Little did I know that it would come full circle. So it's been in my New York experience from the very, very early days.

Kerry Diamond: What was your mandate when you accepted the job? What did they tell you they wanted you to work on immediately?

Clare Reichenbach: I think the immediate-

Kerry Diamond: And by they, I keep saying they-

Clare Reichenbach: They, the board.

Kerry Diamond: The board, great.

Clare Reichenbach: Yeah, this is a phenomenal, very robust and really impassioned board. It's about 25 trustees, so it's quite a big-

Kerry Diamond: That's a big board.

Clare Reichenbach: Yeah, it's a big group but with great walks of life; chefs, lawyers, all the restaurateurs, a great breadth. I think the initial task was to really say, "Okay, what's the five year plan here?" I was lucky enough to pick up the foundation when it was in very rude health, as we would say in Britain, very good health. So it wasn't a case of come and fix something. It really was, "Okay, what is the ambition for this fantastic organization given the head room for growth, crystallize what you think the strategic priorities are and then organize the place to align against that," were the initial missives.

Kerry Diamond: I know you will never take credit for all of this, but I really think the organization has blossomed under your leadership. I mean we ... I'll just use us as an example. We weren't really involved with James Beard at all before you got there because I didn't really see the value for an organization like ours, but then I don't know if it was a coincidence that it all started to happen when you got there, but James Beard has really changed as an organization. Can you give us a few examples of some of the initiatives that you're doing now?

Clare Reichenbach: I think I have emphasized something that was already in train. Our mantra that we coined a year or so ago is good food for good, and that is absolutely our clarion call and informs everything we do.

Clare Reichenbach: So as you said at the beginning, I think we're known for the awards and the good food element of that. My passion is really around the full good element, and so we're ensuring that all our energy, every time we show up, every dinner we do has that running through it. The main strands are around sustainability and diversity, and those are very big buckets in and of themselves.

Clare Reichenbach: In terms of the diversity elements and thinking about your glorious audience, women's leadership is critical to us. This is something that the foundation has supported for a long time, but it's something that I'm personally incredibly driven by, and we've really doubled down in terms of our commitment there. We all know the stats in terms of there's a great pipeline of women into culinary, but as you grow in seniority, the number of women who thrive drop off, and that is infuriating at best.

Clare Reichenbach: And so we have a suite of programs that support women right from the early stages in terms of scholarships all the way through to the very end professional elements. Our hypothesis is if you get more women in the leadership roles at the business helm and businesses of scale, that's where you can really meaningfully move the industry. Everything along the journey is important, but that's where we think we're trying to be single minded.

Clare Reichenbach: So just to unpack that a bit, we have a program in partnership with Babson College, which is where we have 20 fellows every year. It's like a mini MBA. It's a fully paid scholarship, but it's an MBA and entrepreneurial course but specifically with a culinary lens applied to it. We're now in our third year of that, so we have about 60 fellows alum.

Kerry Diamond: Babson's in Boston?

Clare Reichenbach: It's based in Boston, but they have posts in different areas of the country. In fact, the last one we did was in San Francisco. So it's a very pragmatic but very intensive week course, but actually not only are we providing that toolkit and the coaching, but actually the networks that come out of that are phenomenal and the breadth of the attendees is great. So it is chefs and restaurateurs, but it's people from fishing, from butchery, from distilling, farming, so we have this great panoply of people and you can see the dynamism of the group and how they really use each other as a resource going forward.

Clare Reichenbach: We've got some great stories of how those women ... So the women are business owners to begin with, and the premise is that how can we help you scale your business, and we know from the first two cohorts that over 50% have expanded their businesses, which is fantastic.

Kerry Diamond: So how do our listeners avail themselves of something like that?

Clare Reichenbach: Very excellent question.

Kerry Diamond: Thank you.

Clare Reichenbach: And it's very timely. So this year's applications are opening up on the 1st of March. The other compliment to that course though, because my sense was great, this is about how we help women scale their businesses, how do we scale our offering? So 20 women a year is wonderful and all of the cascade benefit from those women and their businesses is critical, and what else can we be doing?

Clare Reichenbach: So last year we launched this great program called Owning It, which a day, a day and a half for more nascent entrepreneurs, early stage entrepreneurs, women, who either own their business or want to get into that world, and it's an intensive city-based course, which starts with visioning, how do you really set the right level of aspiration and ambition or the piece around financial literacy and business cases, and then critically, how do you market yourself? What's your distinct point of differentiation, how do you pitch with confidence, and how can we very practically unite you with funders in your locality?

Clare Reichenbach: So we've done ... In fact we were just there last week in Raleigh. Next one's coming up in LA in April, so again, for your audience, please sign up for that. That is open now.

Kerry Diamond: And are these free programs?

Clare Reichenbach: All of these are fully free.

Kerry Diamond: Fantastic.

Clare Reichenbach: We are a chef first organization, and again, this is really so important; we want to be seen as an incredibly valuable resource, so yes the awards, but we have this great programming that's really designed at its heart to help people in the industry.

Kerry Diamond: And don't wait until the last minute for the application because you do have to get letters of recommendation and things like that.

Kerry Diamond: Let's talk about the awards. There's so much pressure to make awards interesting. How do you deal with that at James Beard? Is there entertainment? Does somebody come out and rap or sing or ...

Clare Reichenbach: it's quite a full program because there are many categories and many awards, which is wonderful. We are very intentional in terms of who we pick as the host and the presenters to try and ensure we're injecting that energy and dynamism and entertainment factor. We don't have acts, per se, as such because we're very mindful just of how long the program is.

Kerry Diamond: So it seems to me, and I don't know how this is happening, but it seems like the awards have gotten more diverse and more interesting and a lot more women are winning awards. It's been really amazing to see Rita and Jody, Mashama, Missy Robbins, all these women who we really love and admire finally start winning awards. How does one win a James Beard award?

Clare Reichenbach: So there are three types of awards. We have kind of this trifecta. So we have the main restaurant chef awards, we have the media awards and we have the leadership awards, and each of those has a different process. The diversity piece is really, again, a real priority for the foundation, and last year we worked with the committees and were very explicit about ensuring ... The foundation is church and state in terms of the winners, so we can't influence that.

Kerry Diamond: You're not involved in the voting.

Clare Reichenbach: I personally, although-

Kerry Diamond: People should not send you cash. No.

Clare Reichenbach: No.

Kerry Diamond: I'm looking at your PR.

Clare Reichenbach: Let me just disabuse people of that.

Kerry Diamond: That was a joke everyone.

Clare Reichenbach: It's a very rigorous system, but where the foundation can influence is in terms of the shape and the composition and the strategy around the committees and the judging pool. And last year we were explicit in terms of ensuring that going forward that that composition is at least as good from a representation perspective as the census and that we have been, again, very clear in terms of the remit of the committees and to ensure that the consideration set is as diverse as possible. And we know that the debate around the candidates is really robust, and we've seen that born out, as you said, on the stage. Last year was one of the most diverse set of winners ever. So it's good to see that actually downstream that is coming to bear fruit.

Clare Reichenbach: In terms of how one wins, for the media awards, that is a direct application, for the restaurant chef awards, there is an open call which helps get names in the frame-

Kerry Diamond: Oh so you can nominate yourself?

Clare Reichenbach: You can nominate yourself… Don't feel like you have to get your granny and your cat and everyone doing it for you. Only one goes through, but that is just presented to the committee for consideration, but it is a means of raising a name. But it's really for the committee members and the judges who are in our now 12 regions; we extended it from 10 to 12 this year. They are on the ground in these restaurants getting to know them, and it is their job to bring the people that they want to see for consideration.

Kerry Diamond: And then media is different because you do nominate yourself for media.

Clare Reichenbach: That's a direct application. Correct. And part of the diversity was, again, two years ago we opened, we made the free window there, so we were concerned that the payment required to apply may be hindering or precluding people. So we eliminated that for a window and for all new voices. We saw a record level applicants for the media awards, which was fantastic, and seeing a really fresh set of voices and names and faces coming through.

Kerry Diamond: And who picks the people who win the leadership awards?

Clare Reichenbach: So there is a committee for that as well.

Kerry Diamond: Okay. So many committees.

Clare Reichenbach: It is committee-tastic for sure, but it's good. It is very rigorous, and that is different in terms of, again, that is looking at real thought leaders and visionaries in the broader ecosystem.

Kerry Diamond: Again, for those listening. So if you want to nominate yourself, apply for any of these things, pay attention to deadlines. I've not been good with that in the past, and I have missed deadlines, and don't wait until the last minute also. And for everybody listening, who can join James Beard? It's a membership organization. Like I mentioned, we're members at Cherry Bombe. If you're just a food fan, like let's say you're not a chef or restaurateur, should you join?

Clare Reichenbach: Please come and join. Absolutely. So we have a professional membership. We also have, actually the mainstay of our membership program is for food lovers, it's for consumers. We have recently just launched it actually, Kerry, so thank you for the question. Just signup as a member and you get a different rate to come to the James Beard House. We have 200 phenomenal dinners every year at the Beard House in New York City, which are glorious, but if you don't happen to live in New York City, we've extended the benefits so that it's really meaningful if you are wanting to become a member and you don't live in proximity to the Beard House.

Clare Reichenbach: So we have events all around the country. We have this fantastic program called Taste America where we're in these 20 cities three times a year. Obviously we have all the awards activity. We have a foodies under 40 program called Greens, et cetera, et cetera. So there are lots of ways to come and get involved, and I strongly encourage the membership piece.

Kerry Diamond: Well it's such a vibrant organization today, and I think you've just done a great job energizing what was already a very important thing to the industry, but making it feel fresh and relevant again, and we definitely appreciate all the women in leadership programs that you're doing.

Clare Reichenbach: That is wonderful to hear, and it's great to partner with you.

Kerry Diamond: Aw, thanks. All right, so now I want to ask you some personal questions. I don't want to make you uncomfortable. I know you're British and the British love personal question. You are a single mom and you have a very big job, and not just a single mom in the sense that you're divorced or widowed; you're a single mom on purpose.

Clare Reichenbach: Yes.

Kerry Diamond: Can you talk us through that decision?

Clare Reichenbach: Yeah. I mean, I feel very lucky that it was a decision I was able to make to start with. What I'd say is I'd always anticipated being a mother. I thought it would happen in partnership with someone, and it got to the stage where I wasn't in a relationship that was working and I thought, "Well, I can just keep trucking along and praying that I meet some bloke that's going to work or I can take things into my own hands," so I chose that route.

Clare Reichenbach: I actually froze my eggs in my 30s, which I'm very grateful for doing that, so then in my mid 40s I thought, "Well I should probably get on with this now," and I did, and I was just really lucky that it all worked. And I started this job when my daughter was six months old, so it was quite a lot to contend with, but you make it work. And again, I'm profoundly lucky that, she's now two and a half, that she is happy and healthy and getting on with life, and so I can make it work. I have a great spreadsheet of nannies and babysitters and carers, and you just have to be bloody organized. But she is such a source of joy. It's, It's all wonderful.

Kerry Diamond: It's such a big question for women in the food industry right now, especially in restaurants, the whole childcare issue. We had Camilla Marcus from west~bourne on-

Clare Reichenbach: Yes, she's fantastic.

Kerry Diamond: If I can nominate her for a leadership award, I absolutely would. It's remarkable that someone her age is moving the industry forward when it comes to childcare.

Clare Reichenbach: She's phenomenal, and I think what she's doing not just in terms of childcare but what she's doing in terms of sustainability and food waste and creating an environment for new employees from disadvantaged backgrounds to really thrive is amazing.

Clare Reichenbach: The childcare issue is very real and it's not by accident that lots of women go into the pastry arena because they get to clock off at a time where they can go and look after their children. So again, as we think about getting more women at the helm and in leadership positions because it is so front of mind, we think that that will actually really see more of a sea change in that provision too.

Kerry Diamond: What advice do you have though for women who are like, "I know I want a family but I don't even know when to start thinking about it or really taking action?"

Clare Reichenbach: I think A, there's never a good time. There's always, "Oh, I've got a new job, I've got a new boss, I've got a dah, dah, dah, dah, dah." There's that. There's definitely a point where it is no longer a time you can even consider it, and that is very real. I think the fact that we have the option to do the whole freezing thing is remarkable. That was not available a few decades ago. It is a process and a procedure and a commitment, but in terms of giving yourselves some optionality, I would strongly recommend it.

Kerry Diamond: And you have a lot of travel for your job. How do you deal with that having a child at home?

Clare Reichenbach: It's tough. And the other tricky thing is because most of my family is in the UK, it's not like my mother lives around the corner. Again, the factors are one of logistics and expense and being away from one's child, but at least a lot of the travel I do is domestic, but there's a lot of it, and you just have to suck it up.

Kerry Diamond: I mean, it does help I think to have lots of examples out there. You are an example to women how to make a certain aspect of it possible. We just had Crystal De Luna from the Grilled Cheeserie on the show, another example. There was so much of a focus on just getting women into this industry and getting them into positions of leadership and owning restaurants, being executive chefs, but I've actually started to walk back from that, and it's like we have so much to fix first before we push women into those positions. There's a reason they're not in those positions, and it's not always because the opportunity's not there; it's that the underlying support doesn't exist, so women are just finding other ways into the food world.

Clare Reichenbach: Yes, and I don't think they're mutually exclusive at all and both need to be addressed. I think one would hope if there are more women with that level of influence and command that they could accelerate that.

Kerry Diamond: Well there's no wood in front of me, but knock on wood that that's going to happen and there are great powerful women like you and other women working to make this happen.

Clare Reichenbach: And there are great men who also believe in this too.

Kerry Diamond: That's true. They did have a long time to figure this out and they didn't, but you're right. And it's not just women, it's families. I think we all agree the industry needs to become a more welcoming place for families, for moms, dads, everybody. So yes, we can agree on that. Absolutely.

Kerry Diamond: Okay. We're going to do a little speed round with you. All right. Favorite kitchen utensil?

Clare Reichenbach: Other than the corkscrew, obviously. I love microplanes.

Kerry Diamond: Oh my God, no one ever said corkscrew. We've been doing this for so many years, and you're the first one to say corkscrew. I'd just say own that.

Clare Reichenbach: Corkscrew!

Kerry Diamond: A treasured cookbook? Now I know how political it is for you to pick favorites, so what is a treasured cookbook?

Clare Reichenbach: It's actually Prue Leith's Cookery Bible, which was my Bible when I was really getting into cooking in my 20s, and that came with me over the Atlantic.

Kerry Diamond: I wouldn't even dare ask you a favorite restaurant because I know you can't answer that.

Clare Reichenbach: No, they're all God's children.

Kerry Diamond: The oldest thing in your fridge?

Clare Reichenbach: Probably some quince jelly from the early 80s or something rattling around at the back.

Kerry Diamond: A song that makes you smile?

Clare Reichenbach: I love Imogen Heap and there's one, Say Goodnight and Go, which my sister and I went on a wine tour of Santa Barbara years ago and we basically played that on a loop, and whenever I hear it, I just have this like Pavlovian, I'm back there in the vineyards in the sunshine with my sister drinking beautiful wine.

Kerry Diamond: Dream vacation destination?

Clare Reichenbach: Bit of a wine theme coming. I love Tuscany. It's not as exotic as I'm sure other destinations, but there I feel just a spiritual home.

Kerry Diamond: A food you would never eat?

Clare Reichenbach: I'm not sure I'd tuck into a live bug or bluefin tuna ever.

Kerry Diamond: Okay. Because of sustainability issues?

Clare Reichenbach: Yeah.

Kerry Diamond: Yeah. If you were trapped on a desert island with one food celebrity, who would it be and why?

Clare Reichenbach: So I'm thinking if I'm on a desert island, you want someone who knows their way around seafood, so my choice would be Eric Ripert, but also, I mean, he's by all accounts at glorious human beings. Also I think if I'm stuck on a desert island, I'm going to be wanting to meditate a lot and to get into a different dimension, and I would like him to give me some guided meditations.

Kerry Diamond: Good answer, Clare.

Clare Reichenbach: Thank you.

Kerry Diamond: I like that. Okay, good. Well, again, Clare, we're so happy we finally got you on Radio Cherry Bombe.

Clare Reichenbach: Thank you so much. This is a treat.

Kerry Diamond: You are doing great things in this industry. We're so happy you're part of it, and it's been really nice getting to know you.

Clare Reichenbach: Thank you, Kerry.

Kerry Diamond: Bye.

Clare Reichenbach: Bye now.

Kerry Diamond: That's it for today's show. Thank you to Clare for sitting down with me and thank you for all the foundation is doing to help women in this industry. We'd love for you to subscribe to Radio Cherry Bombe wherever you get your podcasts. We'd also love if you could rate and review the show. This episode of Radio Cherry Bombe was edited and produced by Jess Zeidman. Our theme song is All Fired Up by the band Tralala. Thanks for listening everybody. You're the bombe.

When Harry Met Sally Clip: I'll have what she's having.

Kiki Aranita: Hi, my name is Kiki Aranita, and I'm the co owner and operator of Poi Dog, a restaurant that serves Hawaii style local food in Philadelphia. Do you want to know who I think is the bombe? Jiyun Jennifer Yoo of Gotham Grove in New York City. She imports the most incredible range of vinegars, seaweeds and soy sauces from small family producers in Korea. She's adamant that she doesn't want these ingredients restricted to Korean food, and so she's introduced me and my casual Hawaiian food to ingredients that make fresh fish poke sing in new extraordinary ways.