Rachel Belle blinked her eyes in disbelief.
The list of James Beard Award nominees included the usual culinary leaders: Ina Garten, Anthony Bourdain, Bobby Flay. Then, sandwiched below The Sporkful and Why We Eat What We Eat, she spotted her own name.
“I was like, ‘Me? Me!’ I jumped up and just started walking around and talking to myself,” she said. “And then I called my producer.”
The Seattle radio host had been producing her podcast Your Last Meal since 2016 as what felt like a decadent indulgence, nothing more than a side dish to the main course of her news and feature reporting. Well-versed in imposter syndrome, she never expected to garner any attention for it.
Being nominated for a James Beard Award, known as the “Oscars of Food”, is an incredible honor—regardless of how cliché it sounds, she says.
“This is the only thing that matters to me. Food is my favorite thing,” she said. “It’s such a nice reminder to myself that I should not just be doing it on the side because it’s the thing I love—and apparently I’m good at, because I’ve been recognized for this.”
Food has always been a key ingredient for Belle (Communication Design, ’02). Whether it was eating dim sum with her father in San Francisco or late-night burrito runs to Tacos de Acapulco as a college student, she said, “I came from the kind of family that eats breakfast while asking ‘What are we having for lunch?’”
Until a few years ago, food had been more of Belle’s personal preoccupation than a professional one.
Her first taste of radio was during a Chico State internship at KPAY, which also became her first job after graduation. This led to a position at KFBK in Sacramento before she moved to Seattle to work at KIRO 12 years ago. She’s been there ever since, reporting on topics as newsy as the Super Bowl and natural disasters, and as creative as a plant-based burgers and the world’s first tearless onion.
In addition to her live daily segments and human-interest stories, Belle’s self-described “show-pony personality” has landed her guest segments on the Cooking Channel, Discovery Investigates, and countless radio programs and once earned her the title of “Seattle’s Best FM Radio Personality” by Seattle Weekly.
When KIRO told its staff to generate a few podcast pilots, she knew instantly what she wanted to do.
The idea dated back years, when Belle found a website listing the last meals of everyone executed in Texas. She found it fascinating to learn something so personal and yet so innate to the human experience.
From that point forward, Belle was always thinking about options for her own last meal and envisioned a TV show on that theme. She now serves up the Your Last Meal podcast twice a month, interviewing celebrities on their final food choice and then unraveling its history, preparation, cultural influence, and quirks in 30 minutes or less.
She started with Seattle celebrity chef (and James Beard Award winner) Tom Douglas, who talked about the fund he set aside for a crab fest at his wake. Since then, she’s uncovered the last meals of the likes of chef Paula Deen (baked potato), astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (lobster), and Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro (mole poblano).
“When I was developing the concept, I was trying to figure out how I could reach more people. You could listen if you like food, or if you like history, or if you like celebrities and being entertained,” she said. “Being a reporter and feature reporter for so long, I want to teach the audience something. Because I like to learn when I listen to podcasts.”
Most of her guests opt for comfort, like singer Mary Lambert wanting chicken-fried steak or journalist Dan Savage opting for peanut butter and jelly. Some want luxury, such as actor Kevin Allison’s pick for a rare steak and martini.
If a film director says Funfetti cake, she’ll find someone who has baked one from scratch, and when a rock star suggests noodles with butter, she sets off on a quest to find out what macaroni really means in the song Yankee Doodle. Did you know Macy’s department store was the first to offer a baked potato bar or that Jell-O is the regional food of Utah? Those are just the kind of obscure details Belle loves to reveal.
“Learning about the history of food has taken it to a new level of fun,” Belle said. “It’s not just food—it’s war and politics. … It tells you a lot about what is going on in the culture and economy at that time, and where people are from and who is living where.”
While she has certainly fangirled over some of her guests, she said she cares less about who they are than she does with making a connection.
“You read a lot of celebrity interviews and it’s a fun way to get at them, asking questions they don’t normally get asked,” she said. “It opens up who they are as a person, and it’s humanizing.”
Her natural curiosity makes her both a skilled conversationalist and producer. Whether she is talking with former California first lady Maria Shriver or 90s rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot, it’s like they are pals from her past, catching up over cocktails or coffee.
Whip smart and wonderfully witty, Belle has always been an extrovert, but she chalks up a lot of her social skills to her years at Chico State.
“I remember when we went to tour the campus, it was one of those moments where ‘Yep, I don’t even need to walk around. This is where I want to go,’” she said. “I was instantly smitten with Chico—I am still smitten with Chico. I go back every year. I have never been anywhere so friendly.”
Her coursework in creative writing and media arts paved her way toward her current career.
“I have a couple friends from my major who work in media,” she said, noting a talk show host and network executive are among her college pals. “We feel like we all shot out of Chico with the skills.”
Always thinking about the next course, whether Belle wins a James Beard Award on Friday or not, she’s mulling a menu of choices. She’s been in touch with a book agent, is still dreaming of that TV special, and fantasizes about a live event where people eat while she interviews.
One thing’s for sure though, she knows her last meal: Oysters.
“I would like to get them off the beach and shuck them myself and drink beer and wine,” Belle said. “They are such a delicacy and it’s something you don’t get to eat that much. Anytime they are around, I just want them so badly. Plus, they taste like Seattle.”