Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Christina Grdovic & Nilou Motamed

A Conversation with Christina Grdovic & Nilou Motamed:
There’s Never Been a Better Time to Eat

Christina Grdovic has been the publisher of “Food & Wine” magazine since 2007. She’s been part of the brand for nearly two decades, initiating and leading numerous marketing programs, including the magazine's partnership with the Bravo Series “Top Chef,” and its partnership with the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Prior to her first job with the company—directing the “Food & Wine” Classic in Aspen—she worked in advertising at Kirschenbaum Bond + Partners.

In February 2016, Nilou Motamed began her new role as editor of “Food & Wine,” one of Time Inc.'s flagship brands. This task includes overseeing all of the magazine's editorial content, managing partnerships, and facilitating the Best New Chefs program and the millennial food site FWx.

Ms. Motamed was host of the restaurant review show “Reservations Required” and Travel Channel's “Travel Spies.” She was Conrad Hotels' first director of inspiration, and the editor in chief of Condé Nast's Epicurious. As the features director and senior correspondent for “Travel + Leisure,” she covered hotels, shopping, culture, and other trends in luxury travel, and shaped the magazine's restaurant coverage and the brand's annual Food & Travel issue. During this time, the magazine was nominated for eight James Beard Awards. Born in Iran and raised in Paris and New York City, Ms. Motamed studied at Binghamton University and the Sorbonne in Paris, and is fluent in four languages.

Christina, for people not in the industry, what does being a publisher mean?

Christina Grdovic: You oversee all of the sales and marketing for the magazine, for the website and for the events that we do. And the sales and marketing go hand in hand, because you create the marketing to sell the advertising.

And Nilou, how did you get into this business?

Nilou Motamed: My entrée into the food world is a weird combination of passion and happenstance. I’m from Iran, so a very different food culture but very much a culture focused on food. Then I moved to France when I was nine, and I basically learned French through a combination of going to Berlitz and watching cooking shows in France. Michel Oliver was this TV cook, and I would write down the recipes; I would simultaneously translate them into Farsi so that my mom could make the dishes for me because I was too little.
We had a Vietnamese teacher’s aide, and she would come after school to my house. She would speak to us in French and teach us how to make pho. So I fell in love with Vietnamese food. And I realized very quickly that regardless of whether I spoke the language, regardless of whether I was comfortable in a new environment, food was the thing that would immediately pull me through.
So we moved to the States and I went to high school, with cooking always in the background. After college I took my LSATs, worked at a law firm, and worked for a judge. My father is an engineer. My sister’s a lawyer. My brother’s an engineer. So of course, I was going to become something very straightforward too.
But then I figured it out somehow. I started out at this magazine called “Manhattan File,” where I was a fact-checker intern. I sat in the magazine closet all day; people would come in all day long to microwave their lunches in my space.
Fast-forward to my lucky break in 2000, when I got hired as an associate editor at “Travel + Leisure” magazine. And at that moment there was no such thing as a food editor, especially at a travel brand, so I carved that niche out for myself. From there I became the food editor and then the features director. I started the first-ever food issue of “Travel + Leisure.” From there I went on to run “Epicurious.” Then three months ago, I got lucky enough to get the dream job of editor for “Food & Wine.”

Christina: People always assume that if you’re in the food industry, you grew up cooking with your grandmother. It turns out my grandmother was a terrible cook. While my mother was a perfectly capable cook and put dinner on the table every night, it was the same dinner at five o'clock.
My father had that gallon of Gallo on the floor. And he would pick it up and fill up his glass with half water, half ice, and the gallon of wine. That was my wine experience. So I definitely didn’t know there was a food world.

What are your most exciting plans for the future of the brand?

Nilou: We have a very robust social media following, about 9 million and growing. We have a very healthy footprint in digital, both for “Food & Wine” and FWx, our millennial-focused site. Video is clearly a great opportunity for growth. I learned how to truss a chicken not from my mom but from a terrible video online. So why can’t we create a much better interaction?
I love the statistic, “There are more 20-somethings cooking now than ever before in any era previously.” So these young people are so hungry for this content, and we can deliver it to them in a much more modern way than the way that we got it.

How do candidates for the Best New Chefs come to your attention? What makes them outstanding?

Nilou: This is a program that’s been going on since before the Food Network started, before the James Beard Awards. The talents that have come out of it are basically every boldface name in our world as chefs—Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Alice Waters, Nobu Matsuhisa, Tom Colicchio….
So the way that the editors approach this is diligent. We travel all around the country, all year long. We tap into former Best New Chefs, and our correspondents around the country to give us feedback. And then we go to those destinations.
Each chef has to have been running a kitchen for five years or less. But I love the fact that these chefs are already entrepreneurs. They’re already little empire-builders. A younger chef who’s not that established can already have multiple restaurants. The guys from Contra and Wildair in New York, Fabian von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone, they already have two restaurants. And that, to me, is a testament to how sophisticated chefs have become in realizing that this is both a labor of love and a business.

Christina: If you look back on the 1988 class, those were all fine-dining restaurants. But now everything has evolved so much. Roy Choi won when he only had a food truck. He was the first winner to not have a brick-and-mortar. David Chang won when he was at Momofuku. Momofuku would not have won in 1988.
Last year we had a guy in Indianapolis [Jonathan Brooks of Milktooth] who serves breakfast and lunch, but he doesn’t serve dinner. So a restaurant that doesn’t serve dinner winning as a “Food & Wine” Best New Chef is a big deal.

Nilou: As an example, Mike Gulotta won this year, at MoPho. He’s doing a very individual take on Vietnamese food in an up-and-coming part of New Orleans. These are very singular, very passion-driven restaurants. The criteria are ephemeral.
We want every single one of these restaurants to be pioneers in whatever it is that they are passionate about. So it’s not necessarily about the décor, the vibe, the food. It’s about all of it together, and this singular person who is the driving force behind it.

Some of the Best New Chefs' venues definitely wouldn’t have been on the list at the beginning, such as a food truck.

Nilou: If we looked at the list when it first started, I think there was a model that you had to pursue in order to get Michelin recognition, in order to get “New York Times” stars or whatever it is that you thought was the paragon. You have this image of the classic way of delivering excellence.
Now the definition of excellence has expanded in a way that’s really dynamic and fun for the diner. There’s never been a better time to eat—not just in New York or in the U.S., but around the world. It’s why we’re so obsessed with food, because it’s such a fun joy ride on your palate, emotionally and culturally.

There are so many outlets for food information—photographs, media about recipes, videos about food. What is your brand’s role in today’s food culture?

Christina: We have credibility because we’ve been doing this longer than everybody else. And we provide access. We have the “Food & Wine” Classic in Aspen, but we’re also involved with 15 other events around the country and in the Caribbean. So that’s good for our advertisers, but also good for chefs and wine experts, because we have a place to bring them and showcase all the talent.

Nilou: Editorially, we're authentic in what we do. So I think there’s a real engagement with what it is that our audience is looking for because we are that audience. Our recipes are rigorously tested in our amazing test kitchen.
Because of the proliferation of food content, I think that authority is sometimes lacking. People are just trying to create the next great list and sometimes that list may not come from a place of expertise. The fact that we have the expertise, we have the authority, those are great things. But I think it’s the authenticity that we have—people have that love for our brand.

What’s exciting to you right now in terms of cuisines, countries, or trends?

Nilou: I’m very excited about Iran.

Christina: Everyone’s excited about Iran.

Nilou: We just acknowledged Alon Shaya [of modern Israeli restaurant Shaya, in New Orleans] in our Best New Restaurants platform, and I do think that Middle Eastern cuisine is having a moment. Michael Solomonov [chef-owner of modern Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia, and winner of the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Mid-Atlantic Chef] has just opened Dizengoff in New York's Chelsea Market.
Chef Solomonov told me he's literally taking the train up to New York so that he can make the bread himself, because his favorite thing to do at Zahav is making the pita. He said, “There’s nothing better for me than the idea that I touched every single piece of bread that my guests are eating.”
It’s not just about being in the kitchen anymore. It’s about being on social media, coming up with event platforms, being a businessperson. But the fact is, Chef Solomonov still wants to do the most elemental thing—he wants to make the bread. That's really why chefs go into the business. They, and we by extension, are feeding people. And that is the most intimate and most genuine thing that I think anyone can do.

What about health consciousness as a trend?

Nilou: I’m really excited about the idea of chefs' awareness of the importance of eating healthfully. It’s a business, and you can’t burn the candle at both ends the way I think some chefs did 10 years ago. They’d get off after their shifts, and they’d be drinking to excess and then just pass out. And I’m sure plenty of that still happens.
But these guys who run these businesses, they have to be able to get up in the morning and bounce back again. It’s so hard on you to be in the kitchen all day, on your feet working. It’s so physical. So they’re really thinking about how they’re feeding themselves, but also thinking about how they’re feeding their guests.
Marco Canora is an example: he started looking at brodo [bone broth], which was an outcome of him thinking about how he could be more healthy. Now bone broth has become the latest big thing. It's very pho-like, very Vietnamese. I recently asked Jacques Pépin about trends and he said, “All the trends are what we used to do.”

Christina: What’s old is new.

Nilou: Pépin said that when he was growing up in France, he started cooking when he was 13 as an apprentice. He said, “We didn’t have refrigeration. We would just go to the market that day and get whatever and cook it and eat it. And the eggs came straight from the chickens.” So I think the fact that we are coming closer to where our food source is, being organic—and the conversations around GMOs, sustainability, less waste—those are all topics that we as a brand can help elicit conversation about. And I think chefs play a big role in that. Chefs are the new rocks stars.

Christina: Except for the most part, they’re nicer.

Nilou: I think rock stars have gotten nicer too. Chefs in people’s minds are the people to emulate. We talked to Gail Simmons, who’s part of the brand and works on “Top Chef” and is an ICE graduate. And she says people come up to her now and say, “I watched ‘Top Chef’ as a kid, and that’s why I became a chef.”

Christina: Or even if they’re just cooking at home. How great is that that more people are cooking at home because they’re obsessed with Gail or “Top Chef”?

Nilou: Little kids are cooking. I love the fact that now men are cooking more than ever, which is phenomenal. Not professionally, but men cooking as the primary cook in their family, which is very exciting too.

In your observations and travels, have you seen ways that we can make good eating habits and fresh produce more accessible, especially to people who might not be able to afford fresh food every day?

Nilou: Two Best New Chefs, Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, have opened this healthy fast-food concept called Locol. They actually met through us. And they are really keen to put these restaurants in underserved communities. They just got a 2016 Best New Restaurant from us for that. Nothing’s over $6. There are no sodas, no french fries. They’re sneaking healthy stuff into the food. So there’s a burger, but it has tofu in it too. They’ve now opened in Watts, in Oakland and in other underserved communities.

Christina: Nine years ago we were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the "Food & Wine" Classic, and we wanted to do something philanthropic. We had always worked closely with Share Our Strength and Taste of the Nation and Second Harvest, helping to raise money. But we wanted put all of our efforts in one place, so we partnered with Michel Nischan’s Wholesome Wave.
Wholesome Wave is about teaching people about sustainability and trying to get good food into underserved communities. Ultimately, if we could teach people about this and help this happen, that would help the hunger problem. For example, Wholesome Wave works to set up farmers’ markets, which helps the farmers because they have to agree to go not just to the affluent communities, but to sell in underserved communities.

What would you say to people who are thinking about going into food, hospitality, or food media? How they can develop their voice, whether it’s their culinary or written voice?

Christina: Find people whom you think are really good at what they do, but whom you also respect and want to be around. If you surround yourself with people you like and you’re proud of, everything’s going to be better.
Grant Achatz runs an unbelievable organization in Chicago, but that’s not for everybody. And Union Square Hospitality Group is spectacular. I love every single person that I come into contact with there, but that’s not for everybody.

Nilou: There’s never been a more exciting time to be an individualist in food. You have an opportunity, whether you’re going to be a chef, or in food media, or in hospitality, to deliver a message. So my advice is to be yourself, because you can’t fake it. That, to me, is very much what our brand represents.
Be proactive and over-deliver. I think that those two things have been the keys to my success.
Just because you’re in contact with somebody who’s more senior than you or more seasoned than you, don’t be cowed by that. If you have an opportunity to engage with somebody, ask questions but be smart. Don’t waste anyone’s time.
Be proactive, over-deliver, and follow your passion.

Christina: You should get into this business because you want to be a “hospitalitarian.”

Nilou: That’s a Danny Meyer word.

Christina: Be a hospitalitarian. It doesn’t mean that you won’t be famous. It doesn’t mean that you won’t make lots of money. But in my opinion, the people who are the best at this are the people who want to serve others.
It’s funny, because in the hospitality world, I think a lot of people would say, “Oh, there are so many divas.” There are some divas. But the vast majority of people are, “Let me get you a drink. Can I get you something else? How can I help you?” I don’t think there’s another industry where you would have all these people coming together to help each other, entertain each other, serve each other.

Nilou: Being present for people is the best gift you can give to anybody if you’re in hospitality. Your job is to be engaged with them and to make them feel like they’re a VIP.
They walk into your restaurant, and they’ve had a terrible day, and you are going to feed them. You’re going to take care of them. You’re going to make them feel special, and they’re going to walk out feeling better. And they’re also not going to be hungry. That’s it.