Stories / Interviews

How This Patron's Tenure Has Shaped His Perspective on the Industry's Evolution

Janae Butler

January 30, 2024


Lee Kowarski and his wife, Melinda Miller (photo: Jeffrey Gurwin)

The James Beard Foundation (JBF) Patrons are a community of supporters that believe in our mission, including both food lovers and the people behind the plate. In this series, we’re highlighting Patron Program members who are working to improve our food system and embody our Good Food for Good™ mission.

Meet Lee Kowarski, our first member spotlight of 2024! Kowarski, along with his wife, Melinda Miller, are based in New York City and have been Patrons since 2005. Kowarski served on the Beard House Programming Committee from 2012 to 2020 and sits on the advisory board of Rethink Food. We spoke with him about how he has deepened his connection to the restaurant industry and his perspective on the evolution of New York City's culinary scene.

JBF: How did you first get involved with JBF and what has kept you engaged in the mission?

Lee Kowarski: Melinda and I got a membership in 2005 as a wedding present to ourselves after she’d read about the Beard House dinners featuring chefs from all over the country. We quickly realized that the dinners were a unique way to have amazing meals, meet interesting people, and get exposure to chefs and restaurateurs in a [unique] way. At our first dinner, we were surrounded by James Beard’s contemporaries and the youngest people in the room, and now we look around and think, “oh, we’ve become the old folks!”  

I've watched the average guest age evolve partially through steps the Foundation has taken to build awareness and attract new audiences. But the desire of people in their twenties and thirties to spend time with amazing chefs and winemakers has also grown.   

JBF: How did the opportunity for you to join the Beard House Programming Committee come about, and what excited you about it?

LK: We started attending dinners once every month or two and ended up meeting a lot of folks on the Programming Committee. Through my consulting work, I was often traveling to cities with the country's top restaurants and getting recommendations on where to eat. When I learned how the committee worked, I realized I could bring a new perspective to the group. I got invited to a meeting where they quickly saw I was already plugged into the next generation of chefs and restaurateurs, tech savvy, and able to leverage social media to grow those connections. From there, the committee’s outreach broadened, and we were able to get the message out to some new places without having to travel there, be regulars, or know the owner. I enjoyed being a part of the committee and I’ve loved watching the Foundation evolve beyond the volunteer model to where it is now with its Platform by JBF programming.  

JBF: Have you built your own network of restaurateurs and chefs from that experience?  

LK: There are definitely relationships that deepened through the Beard House and hosting chefs for dinners. I think back on the very first chef I invited—Alex Stupak from Empellón. He brought his team with him for that dinner and there are a number of them that I'm still close friends with.

JBF: How has your life informed the causes you choose to support?

LK: As a first generation American, my parents worked hard to put me through a great school in Baltimore that instilled the importance of giving back—a value I carried with me when I moved to New York to attend NYU. After I graduated, I started a research and consulting firm. My business partner and I started thinking about how we could give back through our work and realized the best value we could offer was money and connections to financial literacy organizations, and encouragement to our clients in the financial services industry to help fund them, too. That work was very rewarding, so it’s been great to see JBF prioritizing financial literacy through the Financial Literacy Workshop for Women as part of their Women’s Leadership Programs. Traditionally, the industry has focused more on knowing every cooking technique and less on knowing how to run a restaurant and manage people, [which has] become a much bigger component for success.

Additionally, as I got more involved in the food world, I got curious about how I could do more with restaurants and address some of the industry’s challenges. Financially supporting JBF and its mission was one way, and working with Rethink Food became another. Through that first JBF dinner I hosted with Empellón, I ended up reconnecting with a buddy who was friends with Matt Jozwiak, formerly of Eleven Madison Park. I went to the first unveiling of his Rethink Food concept and, after seeing the passion Matt had for helping those suffering from food insecurity and his conviction for finding a solution, I was immediately on board.

JBF: As someone who has spent decades in touch with the industry, how would you describe the spirit of the New York City dining scene from your perspective?

LK: I would say that I’m as excited and concerned as I've ever been for the New York City dining scene. I'm excited because there are tons of interesting, creative restaurants from a diverse set of chefs and cuisines—everything from high-end Nigerian cuisine to affordable but excellent Mexican cuisine. Whatever it is you're looking for, there's a lot of it, which is great.

At the same time, what concerns me is that the two areas finding success are primarily the high-end and the low-end. Can you open that neighborhood restaurant that’s the affordable everyday spot without owning the real estate, being a chain, or having a big financial investor? I think that has become harder than it’s ever been. And for smart economic reasons, you’re seeing the operators gravitate towards either a fast-casual model where they’re aiming to open at least four if not 40 locations, or the rise of fine dining, high-priced meals. Again, it’s exciting and interesting, but it can’t be everyday dining and isn’t accessible to 99% of New Yorkers. 

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Janae Butler is manager of development operations at the James Beard Foundation.