A Career In Food? There’s More on the Menu than You Might Think
James Beard Foundation Scholarships Can HelpMitchell Davis
March 25, 2019
The James Beard Foundation is guided by our mantra of “good food for goodTM.” For chief strategy officer Mitchell Davis, that means digging into the complex relationships of our current food system through global conversation, finding ways for the Beard Foundation to collaborate with others in envisioning the future, and making sure that chefs have a place at the table when we talk about feeding our planet both sustainably and deliciously. Below, Davis shares his personal, unexpected path to a career in food outside the restaurant kitchen, and how the Beard Foundation is trying to make it easier for food-focused students of all kinds to pursue their passions.
Since the age of three or four I have been obsessed with food. In elementary school I watched every cooking show I could find—The Galloping Gourmet, Wok with Yan, Pasquale’s Kitchen, What’s Cooking with Ruth Fremes (the last two fixtures on Canadian television). Because these shows were mostly geared to housewives who wanted to add variety to their daily meals, many aired on weekday mornings. School got in the way, and I confess to faking being sick on occasion so I could stay home and see what, in fact, was cooking. Saturday mornings and afternoons while other kids watched cartoons and sports, I turned to PBS for the latest episode of my favorite "dump and stir"—The French Chef, The Frugal Gourmet, Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pépin. Avoiding piano practice, I spent my spare time in the kitchen. By high school, after working in a butcher shop, starting a catering company with my sister, and preparing gallons of chicken soup daily for wholesale delivery, I was sure I would become a chef.
But the professional kitchen is not the only place someone with an interest in food can find a home. Though I wanted to go to culinary school, negotiations with my mother landed me at hotel school, which put me on a career track in food that I love. My work has included cooking and writing recipes, reviewing restaurants and working with chefs, but it stretches beyond the kitchen into cultural anthropology and food-systems thinking. I completed a Ph.D. in Food Studies at NYU, exploring the field of restaurant reviewing, its impact on taste, and its influence on nation building. Back when I was in high school in the 1980s, who could of imagined any such opportunity or field of study would exist?
Today there are so many ways to study food, in culinary schools and dedicated food studies programs for sure, but also in anthropology, sociology, history, literature, agriculture, nutrition, environmental studies, cultural studies, urban studies, sustainability, social activism, even political science. I’m just back from moderating a panel at SXSW on “gastrodiplomacy,” which is a burgeoning sub-field of international relations. You can enroll in professional programs that teach you the art and craft of winemaking, cheese making, bread baking, and more. Or you can leap overseas to gain a cross-cultural perspective in degree programs geared to expand horizons and generate new forms of knowledge and skill.
What all of these programs require, besides passion, commitment, hard work, and time, is money. And that’s where the James Beard Foundation can come in. Our scholarship program began back in 1991 with a focus on scholarships and tuition waivers to culinary schools. But as the fields of study of food have exploded, so have our scholarship offerings. Our largest grants, the $20,000 awards from our National Scholars Program, can be used to support any academic pursuit related to the study of food, whether that is food as a product of material culture, an object of scientific inquiry, the produce of agricultural systems, or a filter through which to understand human relations. Since its establishment, the James Beard Foundation Scholarship Program has awarded more than $8 million to over 2,000 students. This year you or someone you know could be one of them. Find out more here. Applications close May 15, 2019.
Funnily enough, through the coincidence of friendship, I have reconnected with my high school guidance counselor, a worldly traveler who loves to cook and eat. It’s hard to imagine us sitting in her small office when I was a teenager, with her listing myriad options for me to pursue my passion in food beyond becoming a chef or food and beverage director. Back then, my options were limited—thankfully, the menu has changed.