Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Dana Cowin

Dana Cowin shares her culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.September 2008

Dana Cowin has been Food & Wine's editor in chief since 1995. She also oversees Food & Wine Books, which include Best of the Best, the Food & Wine Annual Cookbook, and Food & Wine Magazine's Annual Cocktail Book. She sits on the board of directors of City Harvest, where she launched the annual Skip Lunch Fight Hunger campaign. Before becoming one of the leading forces in the culinary media world, she was managing editor of Mademoiselle, managing editor of HG, and an associate editor of Vogue. The Main Course met her in her office, where she sits surrounded by photos, for a constant flow of inspiration.

How did you get your start in magazines?
I went to a college that had no journalism program, but they did have news journalism, and that professor I credit with my career, because he sent me to Vogue magazine, and I got a job through his recommendation to another person who had gone to Brown, which is where I went to school. That job led to the next job, which led to the next job. I worked for someone at Vogue, who then left, and then I worked for Amy Broche for a long time at Vogue, and then she brought me with her to House & Garden. There, I worked for Nancy Novogrod, who is now the editor of Travel & Leisure. Nancy was amazing, and when I was there, I went from being an associate editor to a managing editor, which is a big deal and a lucky leap. And then I went to Mademoiselle. It was really kind of Condé Nast to find a place for me, because House & Garden had folded at that time. Nancy and a bunch of other forces and people ended up helping me get my job at Food & Wine. I came as executive editor, in '94. Six months later, January '95, is when I became editor in chief.

Had you been interested in food before? From Mademoiselle to Food & Wine, it's a big jump.
I know [laughs]. Those girls don't eat. I grew up in a completely non-food-oriented family. Some people, their mother cooked, or their grandmother cooked, or someone cooked; in my family, no one cooked. We didn't even go out to dinner that much. We went out a little bit, to Chinese restaurants, but that was about it.

What did you eat, then?
It was really bad. It was cooked from scratch. It was cooked in the middle of the afternoon and served at 5. It was horrible. It was all boiled or broiled. There were no sauces, there was no flavor, there was nothing ethnic, completely meat-veg-starch, that was it. Although we had perfect apple pie and baked brownies. That was the best part of my childhood food. I didn't grow up with a great fascination with food. But when I graduated from college, I was cooking a little bit on my own, and I got interested in entertaining and cooking for other people. Honestly, I thought I'd find a boyfriend or a husband. It didn't work out that way, but I did throw a lot of parties, explored cookbooks, and also became interested in great restaurants. I had a very moderate price point, so not the great restaurants, but the sort of accessible restaurants. At Vogue, I didn't really have a fascination with food, but I had a fascination with entertaining and design, and the way life revolved around the table. I've always had a vision of food that food is part of life, not something to be worshiped or pulled apart or picked at intellectually, necessarily, but it's a thing to enjoy with your friends, and it shouldn't be too difficult. It's not a chore, it's not a project. When I came to Food & Wine, I sort of brought that idea of lifestyle to food here.

The magazine wasn't like that before?
One of Food & Wine's greatest strengths when I came were fantastic recipes. They had a modern sensibility, and interesting chefs. They had already started the Best New Chef program. They were interested in what was next, and so, I just took all those pieces, which were all sort of part of lifestyle, the modern design that went with the food that went with the sort of 'what's next?' I smushed them all together and expanded them to a bigger idea about lifestyle overall.

What distinguishes Food & Wine from the other food magazines? Is it that lifestyle approach?
We all probably say that we're very lifestyle-oriented, so I hate to even suggest that as a point of difference. We tend to be more trend-oriented, more chef-oriented, more engaged in what's next. Our January issue is all about what to look forward to in '09, whereas Bon Appétit has a fantastic January issue that is sort of a recap of the year that was. It gives you an idea of how the magazines think about themselves. We do an enormous amount of travel all around the world, but a lot in the U.S. We're really fascinated by people, their obsessions and the way that they really live. It's the real person's story, what are they, what's their passion? We're sort of unlocking people's passions, and having our readers see a mirror-image of themselves in the pages.

What do you like to write about most?
Well, I do my column, so I write about the issue, to sort of recap it. I don't do much more writing than that. I wrote a piece on the Philadelphia restaurants, which I loved doing, and I wrote a piece for Travel & Leisure Family, which is one of our magazines, about a trip to Blackberry Farm, which was the greatest food trip in the history of my life, including kids. Without kids, I'm sure there is another great trip to be done, but maybe not; it was really fantastic. I like writing about experiences that have a point of view. At Blackberry Farm, the question was, 'Can you ever take your children on a vacation and eat well, and have a good time?' And the answer to that question is 'Yes.'

What about books? You have the Food & Wine books, but have you ever thought about writing your own? A memoir, perhaps?
I'm going to leave that totally to Ruth [Reichl]. She can own the memoir zone. I don't have enough memory. I admire her memory. I don't want to say never, but it's unlikely I'm going to do a memoir. You know what? I often think about doing a book, but books are time-consuming, and I haven't found the perfect book to do. I have one in the back of my head that maybe I'll do, but one thing at the moment.

What type of book would that be?
I may do a party book. I love parties, and I'd love to do a really special party book.

Do you like to cook?
I love to cook. In order of preference, I like to find the perfect recipe, I like to shop for ingredients, I like to prep ingredients. I like all of it. I like all of that better than actually eating what I've cooked, and I like to cook. I'll have nibbled all along the way, and I won't even eat in the end, necessarily. I like people who like to eat. I don't think it's any fun to cook for people who don't like to eat.

What has changed in these 14 years you have been here at Food & Wine? Both with the magazine itself, but also with the food world?
So much has changed. It's the magazine's 30-year anniversary this year, in September. We did a story that is essentially The Cheater's Guide to the Last 30 Years. That story will tell you everything that has changed in the last 30 years, not the last 14 years. This notion as food as lifestyle now almost sounds just too ordinary. But it wasn't ordinary back then, because you didn't have Gwyneth Paltrow doing a TV show with Mario Batali, and you didn't have Meryl Streep playing Julia Child in a movie, and you didn't have food memoirs being such a huge hit, and you didn't have this vast number of cookbooks available. It just wasn't as knit into pop culture as it is today. There is this incredible change in the appreciation of wine. It used to be a snob's pursuit. It has just changed completely, as prices have gone down and quality has gone up, and wine has become part of this American lifestyle. Lagging not far behind is our interest in spirits. There is the change in the interest in things that are artisan. In the '70s, you had this artisan moment, movement, but it was small. Now we are seeing a huge artisan movement in everything. Then you had artisanal cheeses, and you had artisanal, small batch wines. But now, there is artisanal coffee and artisanal chocolate and artisanal cheese and artisanal spices—everything. A lot of the hippie-dippie stuff of the '70s has come full circle, and it's not hippie-dippie at all anymore. The way we use those ingredients, I think has changed so much. I can go on for a while, but you get the idea. Teens interested in cooking, the Food Network, the fact that there was no Food Network. It exposed so many people to cooking. The idea of Top Chef and Iron Chef, that people want to watch this and then try it at home, it's amazing!

Speaking of Top Chef, tell me how the collaboration, or what you find interesting about the collaboration, what appeals to you in having this partnership with a TV program.
I think the partnership is great. The partnerships that work the best are where your identity is aligned to somebody great, and in the case of Top Chef, it's a competition among talented people for a prize, and at Food & Wine, we have Best New Chef, so we are always looking for talent. We don't pit them against each other in the same way, and we're maybe not interested in what they did in their dorm room, but the idea that those chefs are finding ways to innovate, and they're talented, they're not hacks. Top Chef is just plain fun. At Food & Wine, we take ourselves seriously on the one hand, but we want to have fun. So I think it captures our effervescent side.

Do you have any creative input, can you tell them what a challenge should be, for example?
We can recommend anything, but they are pretty genius. It's astonishing what they come up with.

Digital content is becoming so important. You have an editors' blog on your website. What are some of the other things that you are currently doing, or that you will be doing more of, with new media?
One of the things that I was just looking at before you came was some video that we did, of chefs giving really quick hints on how to prepare foods. We do a story in the magazine called Chefs Know Best, and it's one of the most popular features that we do. So, we basically took this notion of Chefs Know Best and we did a video version. I'm really excited about that, because I was listening to Barbara Lynch tell you what to do with zucchini in less than one minute. I was, like, 'That's great. I can do that.' I'd be happy to go and follow her directions. It took three seconds, I didn't have to read it, I heard it, I'm done. So, we're adding video to the site, which is fun. We have a vast amount of cocktail content, we have a vast amount of wine content, and, of course, recipes; working with those three cornerstones to make more interactive and useful material available is what I am looking forward to doing. I spend a lot of time working on web stuff, which I suppose isn't entirely surprising, but every day we have a new idea. There's so much you can do, as long as you have the technology. One of the most exciting things that I do every day is come up with 'What's next?' What's the next great web app?

So then, what's next, in terms of general trends? We talked about the last 30 years. What are the next trends that you see?
It's interesting to think, for the 30-year anniversary, about what will be important. The things that are important are acknowledging the limited resources of the planet, and trying to navigate our way to joy through these minefields. There is a world rice crisis. Should we not eat rice? There is a corn crisis because of ethanol. Should we all start planting a garden? We live every day as though it's always going to stay the same, but it won't. I think we need to make choices every day, whatever those choices are, to be sure that we all eat well and happily in the future. There are billions of people who need to be fed. Not that it is all gloom and doom. I think that the point is that if you acknowledge what the issues are, then you can have a great time, because you are working within sort of the confines of the resource issues. You should live as though there are issues, so that in 50 years, there isn't any problem. That's why in every single issue, we think about [sustainability]. At the same time, we think about people having a really, really good time. We see people in the future living a lot of their life outside. The move from people not cooking, at all, to their fabulous indoor kitchens, and now they've moved to their fabulous outdoor kitchens. We've made these outdoor living rooms that are incredibly comfortable. People are outside grilling and eating summer, winter. I think that we will integrate this love of food and the importance of food into our lives more and more.

At the same time, that can also alleviate a sense of guilt. You are aware, you are worrying about the future, but you can indulge with your $5,000 outdoor grill.
[Laughs.] I think you're making choices, right? We probably all deal with guilt in our own way. There are lots of people who don't think about it at all. I'm not doing a magazine for people who are thinking about it every day. So, I want to think about it for them. That's why it's nice to do a local issue, just saying 'eat local.' You don't have to think about anything, just follow this, and you're going to have delicious food, food you can really feel good about. But we are not a preachy magazine. I have no interest in preaching to these readers. They are very educated, they're very informed, they can make their own choices. I want them to just have really good recipes to make those choices with, and good wine to pair with it, or a cocktail.

Do people write and tell you 'This was a great story,' or 'This was terrible. I hated this'? And what might be their reasons?
We get great feedback for the regular columnists. Lettie Teague, Grace Parisi, who does a lot of recipes in the Tasting and Testing section. Anything that is an essay, people respond to. I don't get a lot of hate mail. I guess if we really make people angry, in general, they'll just shut the magazine and never open it again, and not pick up another copy, rather than write and say, 'How could you?' In addition to not being preachy, we're not really inflammatory. We're not trying to take sides in such a way that we're going to really piss people off. I feel like I know them so well, I'm sort of close to them. The way my mind works, I don't think about things that they wouldn't want. Our readers are adventurous, which is nice. If I want to do something that is a little off the grid, they are really interested in that. The other thing that I loved finding out is that they are really interested in a lot of ethnic dishes. We did some Moroccan food and some Turkish food. Not that one would expect them not to be interested, but the fact that they were so positively interested, was just great. I'm like, 'I love you people!' Or, we've done stories on a lot of avant-garde chefs around the world, because they're interested in what is going on. They're curious.

You cover the country so extensively, and the world as you just said. How do you keep up with everything? It's one thing to know the restaurants in New York, but what about the ones in Houston, for example?
The U.S. stuff is actually quite easy, because I get to a few cities. But it's not about me, the team is amazing. We consider ourselves, essentially, talent scouts. Every day we are ferreting out information about talented chefs, designers, wine makers, restaurateurs, everywhere. And then, we have a stringer network that is around the world, and around the US. I try to get the editors out and about as much as possible, so they can experience it first-hand. For the last 18 months, or so, we have done a series called Food Line Across America, because we felt like the food and wine in smaller American cities had just gotten so much better. So I sent the editors all across the country. That's just great, because they see what people are eating not just in New York and L.A. That's of interest, but it's always a part of the country.

What are some of your favorite restaurants, if you can name names?
I'm pretty omnivorous. I was at Hundred Acres the other night, and I thought that was really great, really simple, and really good. I'm very devoted to David Chang. I'm devoted to April Bloomfield at the Spotted Pig. I'm devoted to Daniel Boulud. Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] is a genius. He is a contributing editor, too, but even if he wasn't, he is a complete and total genius. The Danny Meier restaurants.

So, you're more interested in the work of chefs than in specific restaurants? Wherever David Chang would open, for example, you would be interested in that?
I guess. It's an interesting point. I tend not to go to restaurants just for the ambience. There are a lot of people who will go, and they actually don't even notice what they're eating. That doesn't happen to me much. I'm not the person who goes and notices the noise level first, or the design first. Or, did I love sitting in there, in that restaurant? Also, because I never get to go back to any place twice.

How often do you eat out?
Two nights a week. I do have these two little kids. I can do anything I want during the day. And of course, there are the weeks, clumps of time, where there will be two months at a time when I go out more. When I travel, I go out a lot. But I honestly try to keep it to two nights a week.

Aspiring food writers always wonder if they need to have gone to culinary school to succeed. What's your take on that?
I think a depth of food knowledge is helpful. Culinary school gives you so many of the basics that you couldn't hope to master without it, and it gives you a depth of understanding, so that if you are doing a restaurant review, for example, you know what went into that dish. It gives a certain appreciation. If you are traveling, then you will know something about the history of the place, and all of that. So, I think it is very helpful, because there is nothing worse than really ignorant food writing. But, I don't think it's an absolute must. Not having gone to culinary school myself, I would be really hypocritical to say that it was absolutely the most important thing.

What do you look for in the people that you hire here?
The first thing that we look for is people who understand the Food & Wine point of view, what a Food & Wine story is. Because that's going to make you much happier here. If you don't understand what a story is, that means that someone else will give you your stories, and you won't generate them yourself. Then you are always following somebody else's idea, and that's a bummer. So, first understanding what it is, and then, an enthusiasm and insatiable curiosity, and a really great attitude. We look for a diversity of interests, not somebody who is completely focused on one thing. Because we are interested in what we call the 'and factor,' the overlap of food and wine and something else. So, it's food and wine and style, food and wine and design, food and wine and travel, food and wine and art. We want people who are interested in food and wine and pop culture, food and wine and politics. We don't want people who are only interested in food on the plate. Because, again, their contribution to the magazine will be frustrating for them. That gives someone a lot more to write with than just the clinical food story.

Tell me a little bit about your charity work.
I am on the board of City Harvest. Six years ago now, I created something called Skip Lunch Fight Hunger. Originally, when it started, I called all of my friends at magazines and I said, 'I'm doing this thing, will you pass around a paper bag, and get people's lunch money for one day, and we'll see how much money we can raise.' We raised $30,000, and I got $30,000 in matching funds that year. So we raised $60,000. This year, we raised over $500,000. I'm so proud of that program. Now they don't need me. But the first year, I was counting the money on the floor, and my ex-boyfriend was picking it up from the different team captains. I do whatever I can for City Harvest, I think they are amazing. We also have a program here at Food & Wine, and we raise money for sustainable agriculture. We have raised $500,000 for sustainable agriculture in the last year, and we will continue to raise money.

What are the challenges of your jobs?
I think because I like it so much, I don't think about it that way. There must be some, but, honestly, what do I do? I try to figure out what stories readers will like. I work with the editors to come up with original stories. Perhaps one of the challenging things is coming up with stories that are original. At the end of the day, there is Christmas every year. There is grilling every year. How are you going to make that original and relevant? But honestly, I have to say that's also the fun part. Doing the same Christmas every year, that would be boring. The challenge would be how to not be bored. Rethinking, reimagining, that's the fun part. Coming up with new issue topics every year. I work with amazing people, and my core team has been here with me for a really long time, 10 years or more for most of them. I have an amazing boss, and an incredibly supportive company. I have an incredible publisher, who lives the Food & Wine lifestyle, she is like the poster child for Food & Wine. Sometimes there can be friction going that way, but not here, she is amazing. The things that are the biggest changes in this world, which is the advent of digital media, are also the most interesting. Since I got to Food & Wine, I took over, I came and I was just doing the magazine, and then I took over Food & Wine books, and I took over Food & Wine online. Each of those things just makes the job more diverse and more interesting. I just get the happy side. The publisher, her job is probably more challenging. She has to make all the money. I just got to spend it.

A lot of the magazines are struggling. Is that the case here, or you're not feeling any tightening?
We haven't felt it here yet. Which is fantastic, and I'm grateful. I'm holding my breath. We haven't felt it here, but that doesn't mean in the future that it would be impossible to feel it. I don't feel like we are immune to market forces. We just so far have had a really solid newsstand year. We've had a really solid ad year. And I think we've had a really solid editorial year. There's nothing positive about a shaky economy, but during a shaky economy, people will retrench and spend more time at home. So, if you're a magazine that is essentially talking to people cooking at home, where you are offering a bit of escapism, I think that you have a little bit of relief, unlike a magazine that is about money, for example. I think that being in this sort of happy lifestyle zone is good.

What has escaped you in your career? Is there one big story you didn't get to write?
Not that I can think of. I bet there is a great answer to that question, I just don't know what it is. Unlike news magazines, where I could be really proud of predicting the bubble. But, for me, it would be like predicting heirloom chicken. I don't feel like we've missed that boat. And I don't think the world is waiting to find out. We don't take it as our mission to break news that way. If we're two months late on something, and hopefully we're not—because we're always ahead of the curve. But, it is not as poignant. So, it's not memorable. I can't think of something where I've said, 'Gosh, I wish I'd got to that earlier.' It's more like, 'Wow, I'm really happy we did that story early,' and people can look back and go, 'Food & Wine did that,' if they remember, 'two years ago.'

So are there times when you are ahead of the trend?
We're usually ahead of the trends. That's just, again, it's because it's what we do and what we focus on.

At what point do you decide something is worth writing about, where you know that you are ahead of something?
We'll track trends for a long time before we'll write about them, because we want there to be critical mass, and we want them to land and make an impression on people. For the mainstream press, it takes them two years to catch up to something, at times. We did food trucks, I guess in May, and the [New York] Times did it a few weeks ago. It's always nice to be early. It's better to be early than late.