I had dinner with James Beard sometime in the spring of 1984. I was a youngster editing a “feature” on mentors and their protégés for a men’s fashion magazine, with photographs by William Wegman, the avant-garde artist famous for his neo-Surrealist images of his dog—things like that happened in the eighties. Beard’s protégé was the chef Larry Forgione, whose recently opened restaurant on Lexington Avenue, An American Place, had a quote from Beard on the menu. Over dinner, I had the impression that, as happens often in life, the protégé had adopted the mentor more enthusiastically than the mentor the protégé; the epigraph from Beard was opaque, not to say a little fatuous: “The truth is, one must be inspired to cook. For, You Know, we always learn from others and end up teaching ourselves.” But the point of the restaurant was to cook American American food. Part of the kitchen’s indigenous exoticism—not a contradiction; the whole point—was the presence on the menu of halibut, which Forgione proudly presented as an overlooked American fish. (Things like that happened in the eighties, too.)
Only Beard could preside over such ambition. For Beard, a stolid, even sleepy, presence that evening, was unquestionably, as the Times had called him in the nineteen-fifties, the “Dean of American Cookery,” in the same way that Aaron Copland was the “Dean of all American music,” as Leonard Bernstein called him in the same period. In both cases, the reputation was somewhat independent of the achievements. You didn’t have to know the tunes, or the recipes, to know that the mantle rested here.