Odd Timing

In the early 1980s, a slender, London-born chef named Bruce Auden came to downtown Houston to cook at a cutting-edge restaurant called Charley's 517. Auden went on to fame and fortune in San Antonio, where he helped pioneer Southwestern cuisine. His latest restaurant, Biga on the Banks, is one of the most popular culinary destinations in Texas.

Last Saturday, October 23, Auden, one of the state's top celebrity chefs, returned to the Bayou City for a special guest appearance. He cooked a benefit dinner for the James Beard Foundation, co-sponsored by American Express and ClubCorp at the University Club of Houston.

Recently, Auden helped Lisa Wong develop the "Modern Tex-Mex" menu for Acenar restaurant on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, and it shows. His own Southwestern cuisine has been sounding more and more like Nuevo Tex-Mex. At the Beard benefit, the menu included smoked-salmon nachos, chicken-fried oysters in squid-ink pasta and Hill Country venison with a tamale tart.

But it was an odd moment to be doing a Beard benefit. Like most people in the culinary world, Auden lately has felt a little skeptical about the James Beard Foundation. "I signed up to do the dinners a long time ago, before anybody knew about the problems," he says.

In an accounting scandal that has made headlines across the country, it was discovered that the foundation's former president, Leonard F. Pickell Jr., squandered hundreds of thousands of the group's dollars on questionable expenses. It also was reported that only token contributions were made to scholarships. The foundation's finances are now under investigation by the New York attorney general.

Prominent journalists, including R.W. Apple Jr. of The New York Times, Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine and David Shaw of The Los Angeles Times, have resigned from the committee that oversees awards to chefs and restaurants, according to The New York Times. And The New Yorker magazine reportedly diverted the proceeds of a recent charity event from the James Beard Foundation to a charity group that delivers food to the infirm.

The Beard Foundation is keeping a stiff upper lip. "They are still holding dinners at the Beard House," Auden says. "I just got the new schedule." At Beard House dinners, guest chefs cook a dinner at their own expense. The foundation sells tickets to the event to raise money.

"But now I'm kinda glad that I never spent the $10,000 to go cook there," Auden quips. That amount is a conservative estimate of what it costs a chef to throw a dinner at the Beard House. One Texas chef is rumored to have spent more than $50,000. Auden wasn't asked to pay his own way at the American Express- and ClubCorp-sponsored event.

"A lot of chefs thought the money they were raising went to scholarships; I know I did. But it looks like the money never got there, and that's really bad," Auden laments. "It puts a bad face on the whole culinary scene."

The foundation's new board chairman, George Sape, has issued a statement to the food community that pins all the blame on former president Pickell. "We do not want the mission or any of the Foundation's programs tarnished by the actions of any individual," the statement reads in part. Sape also promises to "reaffirm and strengthen the Foundation's mission to support and promote the culinary arts."

Auden is satisfied that the foundation is sorting out its problems. "Hopefully, some good will come out of all this, and the Beard Foundation will get back on track," the chef says. "Unfortunately, there's nothing else like it. No other organization gives chefs such a great stage and so much support and recognition."

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