The Beard House Fellows Program Opens Doors for Young Chefs
Fellows gain critical skills and the confidence to impact their communityLayla Khoury-Hanold
December 15, 2022
Most young professionals wouldn’t be able to write a personal brand statement or speak passionately about workplace equity and industry sustainability. But Gabriella Perez and Marcio Moran are not your average twenty-something upstarts—they’re the newest alumni of the James Beard House Fellows program, presented by Capital One, which gives up-and-coming chefs a platform to develop their careers and hone critical skill sets, all with an eye toward community impact.
The James Beard Foundation has a long history of supporting chefs at the beginning and height of their careers, through initiatives such as culinary scholarships, chef dinners at the Beard House, and the James Beard Awards, which celebrates exceptional achievement across American food culture. In recent years, the Foundation’s programs have expanded to address other stages of a chef’s culinary journey, such as the Chef Bootcamp for Policy and Change, which provides advocacy training, as well as the Legacy Network, which provides mentorship to up-and-coming BIPOC food and beverage professionals, in addition to train-the-trainer curriculum for mentors. But there was still a segment of the industry that needed more support for professional growth—chefs that are just starting their careers: “The kind of communities that have been underserved with education, access to skills, access to opportunities, access to the kinds of things that give people leverage in life,” says Claudia Karach, the Beard House Fellows’ program director. “[Things] that give them real strength in being able to leverage a future greater than what they thought was possible.”
In May 2021, JBF launched the Beard House Fellows program with the intention of giving these early-career working chefs foundational tools for professional development and a path to positively impact their communities. The program’s 10-week curriculum, developed with an advisory committee from various facets of the food, beverage, and media industries, includes coursework on brand development, social media training, publicity and media training, financial and business advice, and food policy and advocacy education.
“This [group] is in that sweet spot where their professional direction can go in many different ways,” Karach says. “This program helps empower them and gives them some foundation to be able to make choices for themselves that they’re much more confident about.”
Moran, currently a line cook at Bar Boulud, stood out for his energetic, positive personality and his interest in labor issues. Perez, currently a culinary coordinator at the Food Education Fund, came to the program with a focus on sustainability, bolstered by winning a scholarship to participate in the Anne Saxelby internship at Von Trapp Farmstead in Vermont. Both their resumes are impressive, and it’s clear that they have curiosity to learn and a readiness to grow. But translating that experience into a story isn’t something that most chefs are adept at. That’s where personal brand building and social media and publicity training comes into play.
“Chefs now are perceived as a brand,” Karach says. “They need to be more savvy dealing with media and talking to the public. Working with media and developing a personal brand helps them focus on what they want to do. It helps them develop their values and lead from that place.” First, the Fellows complete a behavioral and personality assessment and then participate in peer-to-peer role playing and conflict resolution exercises to help them identify their core values. It culminates in writing their personal brand statements.
A key takeaway of brand building, Perez found, is embracing one’s unique traits. “I’m a Latina chef, I’m Hispanic,” she says proudly. “In one of the classes they were throwing out numbers, like 18% of the industry are women. Learning to be able to say, ‘Yes, I am a woman chef’ and say that with meaning, it made me realize every characteristic and value point I have.”
Although alums of the Beard House Fellows program have tended to be prolific social media users, that doesn’t guarantee that they understand how to leverage their story to build visibility while maximizing audience reach. To practice, the Fellows developed Instagram reels and stories. Moran said that distilling his message took several tries, but he harnessed his heritage and zeroed in on his desire to motivate other young chefs. “I was not born and raised here,” Moran says. “That’s a big difference, comparing someone who’s from here and me coming from Ecuador. I want to make my Latino heritage proud. I want to be a successful and well-known chef.”
But gaining visibility and establishing a platform comes with responsibility, too. One of JBF’s core tenets is food policy and advocacy, so the program curriculum also helps the Fellows understand why chefs matter in policy and advocacy conversations and how they are positioned to create change. Each Fellow selects a food policy topic of interest to help them gain insight, develop frameworks, and gather resources.
“I’m obsessed with sustainability,” Perez says, a passion that began as a student at Food and Finance High School. She says that watching a video, in which a turtle had a plastic straw pulled out of its nose, spurred her to become part of the solution. “In the past couple years, they required all Department of Education buildings to compost and get rid of food waste. In high school, I would monitor my class about where they were putting food scraps. They called me the compost police.” In her food policy and advocacy class, Perez learned that BIPOC farmers own only 1 percent of farmland. “I’m fully Hispanic. When I heard that, it motivated me to really research all these communities and spaces that have all this farmland,” she says. “I want to get into working on being able to promote more Hispanic people to be able to own the farmland, not just work on it.”
Moran wants to advocate for the Hispanic community, too, through labor issues and wage equity. “I struggled when I first got here with my parents. Back then it was challenging, but we were able to overcome obstacles. Now, it’s so expensive to live in New York City. All those undocumented people working in [the] industry are very overworked. What can they say? They have no papers,” Moran says. “Those are the ones that are making $15/hour or not working in a safe kitchen. A lot of Hispanic people have two, three jobs. I want to stand up for [Hispanic] people.”
Honing in on the communities they want to serve, along with their individual core values, helps the Fellows think more comprehensively about their career aspirations. But to achieve those professional goals, they must also be equipped with financial savvy. Historically, financial literacy has been a mystery to many chefs. One might only see their portion of a profit and loss statement, without any idea of the bigger picture. To set the Fellows up for success, their financial and small business advice lessons included finance basics, a deep dive into credit and cash flow, and personal wealth development.
Both Perez and Moran described the finance curriculum as eye-opening. “If I want to open my own restaurant,” Perez says, “I have to take all my ideas and put them down on paper. Even how much it costs just to take the train to my restaurant. Every little cent counts toward everything you need to buy in the future.” Moran also hopes to own a restaurant and now feels better prepared with an understanding of cash flow, assets and liabilities, and credit. Moran was also intrigued by the personal finance piece, learning about the necessity of multiple savings accounts (he’ll enroll in his company’s 401K as soon as he’s eligible) and tips for building generational wealth.
Learning from professionals at the top of their respective fields not only equips the Fellows with critical skills, but it also bolsters their confidence. As a result, Fellows can think more expansively about career opportunities. It’s reflected in the way that they talk about their future, intoned with a palpable buzz. Moran aspires to become a restaurateur and open a vineyard or a café in his native Ecuador. He also wants to be a food critic and compete on television cooking shows. Perez has already imagined the signature dish for her future restaurant, a play on Italian–Puerto Rican fusion featuring ricotta and goat cheese–stuffed tortellini tossed in a light butter–sage sauce with a crushed chicharrón garnish.
Although the Beard House Fellows program is in its nascency, graduates are already making their mark and honing their professional focus. Karach shares that four of the Fellows have launched e-commerce businesses, two have received promotions, one started a wine club, and three were accepted into the JBF Legacy Network to further their professional development. A few have participated in industry panels at JBF, Google Food Lab, and Cherry Bombe.
Being able to deepen their commitment to the industry and lead from a place of confidence is also facilitated by the Fellows gaining a network of people and resources and a lifelong connection to the James Beard Foundation. “[It’s] definitely a changing-your-life kind of program in the best way possible. It opens up doors that you didn’t even know you had, and it makes you walk through obstacles you didn’t think you were ready for,” Perez says. “And it does create a bridge for the success of a chef.”
The Beard House Fellows are part of our suite of programs that touch every step of a culinary career. Won't you consider giving a JBF Inspired Gift this year to help our mission to create a more equitable, sustainable, and delicious food industry? Donate now.
Layla Khoury-Hanold is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on Food52 and Food Network and in the Chicago Tribune. She is working on her debut memoir. To learn more, visit her website and follow her on Instagram or on Twitter.