James Beard’s name is well familiar to anyone who follows the world of fine dining. His non-profit James Beard Foundation bestows annual awards to restaurants and chefs, and when the honorees are announced, it’s a foodie equivalent of the Oscars.
Beard, who died in 1985 at the 81, often appeared in LIFE toward the later stages of the magazine’s original run. For one story, in the June 16, 1972 issue, LIFE had Arthur Schatz shoot Beard in a way that mimicked Gjon Mili’s famous pictures of Pablo Picasso that ran in the magazine in 1949. Back then Mili asked Picasso to “draw” in the air with a small electric light, and the photographs captured a new kind of artistic creation. Decades later Schatz had Beard replicate the process by affixing a light to the chef’s wrist and capturing his motions as he made a souffle.
The results with Beard are perhaps less illuminating—Picasso’s motions were meant to be an end to themselves, whereas Beard’s end product was dessert. The motions that Schatz captured are simply a fun jumble. But the underlying message of the shoot was clear: chefs are artists too.
The 1972 LIFE article that went with the photos also included conventional photographs from Beard’s cooking classes. For the classes the renowned chef welcomed groups of 12 students into his New York City townhouse (which is still open to the public today for special events).
The article described Beard as a man who knew who he was, and also what he loved:
He seems to be that rare thing, a happy and fulfilled human being, as far from an identity crisis as the planet Pluto. His only problem would appear to be the occupational hazard of excess. Not exactly obsessed with vitamins and nutritiion, he says, “I happen to think that good food is good for you. Nothing can take the place of good butter and good cream.”
In addition to photos from that story, included here are also a couple photos from an earlier appearance by Beard in LIFE magazine as part of a Nov. 23, 1962 issue devoted to food. In that issue Beard was part of a trend story on the popularity of cookbooks—he had a dozen out by that time‚ and was photographed making a casserole. Perhaps the most notable thing about that photo, shot by Yale Joel, is the pineapple-patterned wallpaper that is visible in the background. That same wallpaper also shows up in the background of the photos of his cooking classes that Schatz would take a decade later, confirming that both shoots took place in his home kitchen and that Beard was not just a fine chef but also a welcoming host.