Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, is on the phone, and I've posed a question that has stumped food writers in the Washington area for decades: What exactly defines D.C. cuisine?
It's not a completely fair inquiry, and I know it. Ungaro is not a culinary historian of the Mid-Atlantic, though her organization is leading a Taste America tour of celebrity chefs to 10 cities to explore the "unique range of local cuisines," including a stopover in Washington on Sept. 27 and 28. Ungaro even tells me the cities were selected, in part, based on their "vibrant regional cuisines."
She, in other words, set herself up for this question.
"Well, I think D.C. is clearly more the melting pot version, honestly," Ungaro says, laughing at her own politic response. "It's the capital. To have a Taste America tour with our foundation and not have an event in our nation's capital would just seem wrong. Clearly, we have many great chefs in D.C. that represent an array of regional and maybe international flavors."
Okay, so when Taste America arrives in Washington, the chefs may be forced to talk more about the wealth of talent and produce in the area than any regional cuisine tied to the District. The D.C. stop will feature not just a large public dinner with the celebrity chefs, but also an appearance at a local Sur La Table with chef demos, cookbook signings and other activities.
The chef line-up for the D.C. visit has not been set, but Charleston's Sean Brock (Husk, McCrady's) is scheduled to be here. Others expected to join the larger Beard Foundation caravan this fall include Jacques Pepin, Richard Blais, John Besh, Rick Bayless, Suzanne Goin, Daniel Patterson and Silver Spring's Carla Hall.
"Right after our 25th anniversary year, which was last year, we felt that we really should revisit our Taste America program, which we first launched in 2007," Ungaro says. The motivation for the tour — aside from its obvious fundraising function — is to expand the foundation's reach beyond its Manhattan address, she notes.
The tour has a "more national reach so that we're not just a foundation that holds events in New York City," Ungaro says. "We are, after all, the foundation that recognizes the best of the best in America."
(Speaking of which, the Beard Foundation is also hosting another event this Friday and Monday. You may have heard of it.)
Many of the details for the D.C. stop are still up in the air — and not just the touring chefs who will participate. The Beard Foundation still has not determined the site of the dinner, the exact Sur La Table location, what farmers will be highlighted or even the local charity that will receive a share of the profits. The organization has not decided which local chefs will participate, either.
It's unlikely that this fall's Taste America dinner will feature as much firepower as the one held in 2007. When Taste America first came to Washington, the tour made a stop at Vidalia, where the fundraising dinner featured iconic District chefs Roberto Donna, Jeff Buben, Bob Kinkead, Ann Cashion and R.J. Cooper, each a James Beard Award winner.
Details of the upcoming D.C. event — not to mention those in other cities such as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco — will hopefully be worked out by the time Taste America tickets go on sale Monday, July 8, at jbftasteamerica.org.