New Times: Do chefs have to be award nominees or winners to be considered for cooking at Beard's House?
Izabela Wojcik: It's unrelated. [But] often chefs who have won cook here. It's a... goal.
How are they selected?
We're contacted by chefs or their publicists, wives, mothers, restaurant owners... they find us. Or Beard members, staff members, or trustees call. I reach out to chefs I'm reading about or am interested in. Sometimes I have a theme in mind, and then I have to think about who can I ask.
And how did you get chef Philippe Ruiz of Palme D'Or here?
Unbeknownst to him, this was a conversation that started two or three years ago. Our former president... was based in Florida, and she recommended I keep an eye on this chef and this restaurant]. I started to get more buzz. And then Jonathan Eismann did a fundraiser, and Kris Moon, my colleague, was going to represent my foundation and stay at [The Biltmore]. I thought, This is the perfect time to sign him!
With all chefs, I interview them or talk with their publicist about what their goals are here and make sure they don't assume it will lead to an award. And we have to create something unique.
Who decides what will be on the menu?
I have to determine [what's] feasible and sellable. Historically, rabbit has been a very tough sell, especially as a main course. I need to make sure menus are as approachable and popular-seeming as possible.
What's the weirdest thing anyone has ever suggested for a menu?
I was recently having a conversation with somebody who wanted to bring an idea from the Nordic kitchen. And musk ox was one of the ingredients. There was somebody making yak cheese out of the Himalayan region. Esoteric ingredients because we've entered a very modern age of cooking.
This is not intended to be silly or pushing boundaries of what's edible. But occasionally, there are themes that are not that interesting, like an all-avocado dinner.
What was the most memorable menu you recall?
The Swan and Dolphin hotels [at Disney World] did a dinner that was color-themed. It was monochromatic, and the drinks matched the color.They did a white fish with white asparagus and some creamy sauce.
Who is responsible for what costs?
Chefs are responsible for their cost of travel and hotel stays for themselves and their staff, along with all the food. Wines are often donated. We take the reservations and collect revenues from memberships to pay for service staff, dishwashers, event staff, linens, overhead, publications, and mailing.
Do you often get Miami chefs here?
We have a great relationship with Miami and Florida in general. Lots of our diners go there and have a second home. People like Alan Susser, Mark Militello, Michelle Bernstein, Michael Schwartz -- who's coming back in January... I attended his dinner. I still remember it. It was lip-smacking good! Peter Vauthy from Red, the Steakhouse...
If there's one thing you'd want people to know about the James Beard Foundation and its events, what would that be?
Our hope is that we can help [people] recognize what an amazing resource restaurants are... Not just for dining, but for culture, for entertainment, for learning, and for connecting, and how incredibly talented chefs are and what an incredible task it is to run a restaurant and to operate a restaurant... It isn't just about food.
If that in any way changes someone's perception about restaurant life, that would be our goal.