His family operated a small hotel in the Pacific Northwest, and he was exposed to a tremendous variety of foods native to that region as a child. He trained initially as a singer and actor, and moved to New York City in 1937. Not having much luck in the theater, he and a friend tried to capitalize on the cocktail party craze by opening a catering company, "Hors D'Oeuvre" and published his first cookbook Hors D'Oeuvre and Canapes, a compiliation of his catering recipes. Rationing difficulties in World War II brought his catering business to its end. In 1946 he appeared on the first cooking show ever televised, "I Love to Eat" on NBC, and thus began his rise as an eminent American food authority.
Over the next forty years James Beard operated a cooking school out of his apartment in New York, wrote dozens of books on cooking and food, and hundreds of articles on food for many different magazines.
Some of his better known works are James Beard's American Cookery, Beard on Bread, James Beard's Fish Cookery, The James Beard Cookbook, and The Armchair James Beard.