For New York foodies, there's one thing more prestigious than wrangling a last-minute reservation at Campagna or C.T.--snagging a seat at a James Beard Foundation dinner when the chefs of those restaurants are doing the cooking. How did these food fests become such a hot ticket? "I don't know how to explain it," says foundation president Peter Kump, who regularly showcases chefs from all over the world at the Beard House, the former residence of the late chef. "I suppose because we are focusing a spotlight on them, because members walk through the kitchen and get to see the chefs working." Or maybe it's because a night at the Beard House is like an extravagant food orgy for silver-palated gourmands. Or because Kump and the dinner schedulers have an unerring eye for rising chefs. Or simply because at $65 to $100 a head (depending on the chef and menu) for a six-course meal--including half a dozen hors d'oeuvres and appetizers and fabulous wines chosen to accompany each course--a Beard dinner is a great deal. "It's like the old saying about the Cafe de la Paix in Paris," says Kump. "If you sit there long enough, everyone you know will pass by. At the Beard House, it's the same thing. It's the best opportunity to taste the cooking of a wider group of cuisine artists." The first celebrity chef to cook for Beard House members was Wolfgang Puck, who thought it would be a good way to raise money to pay off the mortgage on the West 12th Street townhouse, where James Beard lived for 13 years, until his death in 1985. Since then, everyone from Daniel Boulud to Alice Waters has done turns at the Beard House, which now offers exotic food tastings, pastry demonstrations and readings by cookbook authors. "It was a piece of serendipity, the way it all came together," says Kump, who started the Beard House with Julia Child. "The trustees wanted to put the house up for auction to get market value, about a million and a half dollars," remembers Kump. But since Beard's companion (who has since died) still lived on one floor of the townhouse, and another floor had a six-year lease (since expired) and Beard's own apartment had an outdoor shower, a tiny bedroom and an enormous kitchen, there were no takers. "The trustees sold it to us for $750,000," says Kump. Though the foundation is still paying off the mortgage, it's mostly on the prowl for great new food--not trendy cuisine poseurs. "I'm against the food fad of the month. I'm a conservative," says Kump, who also owns a cooking school on the Upper East Side. "Decorating the edge of the plate drove me crazy. If it's beautiful, I can say ooooh, but the taste better be there, or it's fraud."
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