In time for the “Oscars of food,” a one-man play ponders the complex life of James Beard

The play explores the many layers of America’s first foodie

James Beard

Illustration by The Ellaphant in the Room

Up-and-coming stage director Clifton Guterman didn’t know much about James Beard until he read I Love to Eat, a one-man play about the iconic cookbook author, television pioneer, and father of the American food movement. “I didn’t know that he was gay, honestly,” says Guterman, the associate artistic director of downtown’s Theatrical Outfit.

The playwright, James Still, lives in Los Angeles but understood Atlanta to be a city of foodies, most of them aware of the prestigious James Beard Awards (the so-called Oscars of the food world) but not necessarily of the man himself. Still pitched his script to Guterman at just the right moment, when Guterman was shopping for a play to mark his professional directing debut.

Guterman assumed I Love to Eat would be a predictably “funny and charming” stage biography that would touch on the high points of Beard’s life without going terribly deep. Instead, he found it to be a resonant portrait of an 81-year-old contemplating his mortality and questioning his relevance. “It shows every layer of the man’s personality,” Guterman says. “His insecurities, his anger, his health issues, his self-criticism. He was so beloved and praised, but he sometimes wouldn’t even believe the praise. And he would turn around and be his own greatest promoter, extremely proud and confident. He vacillated his whole life.”

“He was so beloved and praised, but he sometimes wouldn’t even believe the praise.”

The play, which makes its Atlanta debut at Theatrical Outfit this month, arrives at a time when the food world is doing some soul-searching of its own. In the midst of the #MeToo movement, the restaurant industry is being scrutinized for failing to meaningfully include women, people of color, and the LGBT community. Against that backdrop, the influential James Beard Foundation now sees itself as an agent of change. “I think kitchen culture is a culture that is changing,” says Mitchell Davis, the foundation’s chief strategy officer. “Historically, it has been a macho, homophobic, misogynist culture. There’s no question.”

The foundation was established in 1986, a year after Beard’s death, by a group of friends who wanted to preserve both his legacy and his legendary West Village townhouse, where I Love to Eat is set. (As part of his research, Guterman visited the Beard House late last year, and he tapped Miller Union’s Steven Satterfield, Atlanta’s most recent James Beard Award–winning chef, to help coach the actor portraying Beard, William S. Murphey, on the ways of the kitchen.)

The Beard Awards were established in 1990 to honor excellence in the culinary field. Coincidentally, Theatrical Outfit’s I Love to Eat, which runs April 10 to May 5, overlaps with the 2019 Beard season: Media honors will be handed out April 26 in New York, restaurant and chef awards on May 6 in Chicago.

While the foundation has helped advance conversations about diversity and sustainability in the food world, Davis says the LGBT piece is “kind of our next frontier.” “We’ve always been sensitive to LGBT issues,” Davis says. “Beard was our muse.”

Last October, the Beard Awards took steps “to increase gender, race, and ethnic representation” among committee members, judges, and entrants. Now, works like I Love to Eat and a forthcoming Beard biography by California writer John Birdsall are poised to help foster discussions on gender equity and Beard’s queerness.

In I Love to Eat, Beard declares: “To my friends, I’ve never made it a secret that I’m gay. And I don’t mean jolly—I mean gay. I’ve known I was gay since I was very young. Very young. I never really questioned it.”

Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1903, James Andrew Beard weighed 14 pounds at birth. He briefly attended Portland’s Reed College but was kicked out for having an affair with a professor. His dream of working in theater never took off. However, he excelled at going to parties and making canapés, a skill that led him to open Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc., a small New York food shop, in 1937. From there, his culinary career blossomed. In 1946, he hosted television’s first cooking show, and he went on to author more than 20 cookbooks.

The play depicts Beard as a chatty, opera-loving bon vivant who wears Chinese pajamas and slippers and sips Glenlivet on the rocks. Alternately singing the praises of American cooking and fresh seasonal ingredients and fretting that his numerous product endorsements could make him look shallow, the grand poo-bah fields calls from a “Mrs. Martin in Kansas” (who is having trouble with her soufflé) and his dear friend Julia Child (whom he adored and whose success he envied).

Guterman believes the crux of the play is Beard’s inner conflict and the toll it exacted. “We all wear these different masks. I have done that my whole life,” says Guterman, who grew up in rural Seminole County in South Georgia and is gay. “I had to assume several masks just to survive.”

This article appears in our April 2019 issue.