Peter Kump

Beverly Stephen - January/February 1994

Food Arts presents the January/February 1994 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Peter Kump, culinary impresario and educator.

Food may be Peter Kump's third career, but it's his primary passion. His mother liked to recall that one night when he was about two years old she heard noises in the kitchen and got up to find little Peter stirring. Next to the pot were empty cartons of milk, pudding mix, and ant poison.

Even after such a precocious attempt at recipe development, it was many years before he got to the stove full time. "When I was a kid, becoming a chef simply wasn't an option. It was like saying you wanted to be a brick layer," Kump recalls. So off he went to Stanford University, where he started a theatre repertory company that he continued to run for nine years. Subsequently he became national director of education for Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics. Finally, in 1974, after taking some cooking classes from Simone Beck and James Beard, he founded Peter Kump's New York Cooking School in New York City.

Though his career path was circuitous, it has been fortuitous. His entrepreneurial skills and sustained theatrical experience have enabled him to make several singular contributions to the food industry both through his school and through the James Beard Foundation, which he helped establish and now oversees.

His cooking school, now in its 20th year of operation in a former carriage factory on Manhattan's Upper East Side, graduates 5,000 nonprofessional and 300 professional students each year and has five satellite locations. On the drawing board are joint-venture plans that will allow the school to expand nationwide. "When I started, cooking stars were giving classes in their homes, but there were no schools to go to unless you wanted to study at the CIA or the Cordon Bleu," Kump recalls. "I was not an expert in Mexican or Italian cooking, but I knew I could teach fundamentals." So he developed his Techniques courses, which have remained essentially the same throughout the years. "I'm basically an entrepreneur and I knew I had to grow," says Kump, "so I started taking on other teachers, and I started advertising in Gourmet magazine. No one else had advertised—that came from my theatre background."

In 1985, after James BEard's death, Kump and a group of food luminaries, including Julia Child, founded the James Beard Foundation, and raised the funds to purchase Beard's Greenwich Village townhouse. Today the foundation numbers 3,500 members nationwide. He has been president since its inception, though he insists that he is not necessarily president for life. It just seems no one else wants to take on this particularly time-consuming job, which, among other things, requires eating multicourse meals several times a week. Drawing, once again, on his theatre experience, which included a lot of fund raising, Kump has turned the FOundation's headquarters, The James Beard House, into a little culinary Carnegie Hall, providing a stage where chefs from all over the country consider it an honor to strut their stuff at virtuoso lunches and dinners. He has worked hard to make the Beard awards system, started three years ago, nationally recognized, with both the glitter and the heft of such show biz industry awards as the Emmys and Obies. This year, the ceremonies will be aired on national cable television. Fittingly, restaurateur Ella Brennan calls it "Oscar night for the food and beverage industry."