NEW YORK — The food world appears to be reacting with more dismay than shock at news of financial irregularities at the James Beard Foundation, the leading promoter of gastronomy in America. The group gives chefs from around the country a showcase in James Beard's old Greenwich Village brownstone and hands out awards each May at every level of the industry: chefs, restaurants, food writers and more.
The New York Times reported last week that the nonprofit, tax-exempt organization could not account for hundreds of thousands of dollars raised at lavish dinners for which food, chefs' services and often wine were donated and for which patrons paid up to $150. The foundation's longtime president, Len Pickell, resigned after the disclosures, which followed an internal audit. And the Office of the New York State Attorney General is investigating the foundation after it failed to file financial disclosure statements for two years as required by law for charities.
But what has some chefs, journalists and sponsors most riled is that the Times investigation indicated that the foundation devoted only a tiny fraction of its revenue to scholarships for aspiring culinarians: $29,000 out of $4.7 million last year. The organization's newly elected chairman contends that the figure is closer to $200,000 if scholarships it administers are included, but some Beard supporters already are pulling out in disgust.
Many more, however, are taking a wait-and-hope attitude. As more than one insider said in interviews over the last week, the Beard Foundation is too important to the industry -- and the awards must go on.
"I don't want it to die," said Ariane Daguin of the foie gras and game dealer D'Artagnan, a sponsor. "But I want it cleaned up."
Ruth Reichl, editor in chief of Gourmet magazine, resigned Monday from the restaurant awards committee.
"We don't know, any of us, whether money was misspent," Reichl said. "The one solid fact is that what we thought was a charity is not giving money where we thought it was giving."
Gael Greene, longtime restaurant critic for New York magazine, resigned from the advisory board last week; she said she was offended by the apparent lack of financial oversight by the board of trustees and by the paucity of scholarship money.
Jerry Shriver, a features writer at USA Today, resigned from the restaurant awards committee on Monday. Others, such as Barbara Fairchild, editor in chief of Bon Appetit magazine and a member of the journalism awards committee, are standing by the foundation.
The New Yorker decided, "after long discussions," to give the money raised this month at its Moveable Feast to God's Love We Deliver, a nonprofit food delivery service, rather than the Beard Foundation as previously announced, said the magazine's publisher, David Carey.
Los Angeles Times columnist David Shaw and restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, who were members of the restaurant awards committee, also resigned from that panel Monday. In previous years, The Times submitted its work for consideration for Beard journalism awards, and its writers won a number of them, but it will cease participation in the awards pending the outcome of the investigation.
And some chefs are taking a much closer look at where they donate time and energy. Charlie Palmer of Aureole in New York and Las Vegas and Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, Calif., said he had heard of chefs canceling dinners for the foundation, but he would not name names. "It's unfortunate," he said. "It could be such a great thing. Now, you have to tell me where the money goes if you want me to do anything."
"A lot of us have wondered over the years what's up with this," said Charlie Trotter of Chicago, a longtime Beard Foundation supporter. He added that chefs were always puzzling over the math on the dinners. His own scholarship fund, he said, had "given money to the Beard Foundation just for scholarships, and I wonder what ever happened with that."
Others are more pragmatic. Marcel Desaulniers of the Trellis in Williamsburg, who is scheduled to present a dinner in November at the Beard House with another Virginia chef, says "this certainly can't help in terms of corporate sponsorship." But "people are not going to say, 'I'm not going to the James Beard House.' It's too tantalizing."
David Burke of Davidburke & Donatella in New York is scheduled to cook at the house on Sept. 27. "I have a commitment, and I keep my commitment," he said. "Whether or not I will continue to do so is another question."