An Interview with Dawn Perry, Digital Food Editor at Bon Appétit Magazine
We are thrilled to collaborate with Dawn Perry, newly titled digital food editor (formerly senior food editor) at Bon Appétit magazine, on our Writing for Food Media Certificate Program, where students will learn to write and develop recipes appropriate for cookbooks, magazines and digital media. Dawn is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts at the California Culinary Academy and has worked as a savory and pastry chef. Read on to learn more about her background, as well as what it's like to be a food editor and what makes a great recipe.
Tell us about your journey to your current position at Bon Appetit.
I got my BFA in Film Production from University of Colorado, Boulder. I thought I wanted to do documentary work but when I moved to San Francisco after college, I became more and more obsessed with food and cooking (hard not to in that city) and decided to go to culinary school. I graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts at the California Culinary Academy.
I worked in restaurants (in both savory and pastry) in SF and in Baltimore, and did a lot of private chef and catering work on the side. I ended up working as a private chef in the Hamptons for four summers. At that point I knew I wanted to stay in food, but I didn't want to go back to restaurants, and the private chef thing felt like a dead end for me at that time. When I was working out there, I was introduced to Ina Garten (the Greatest) who suggested I consider editorial work. Shortly after that, I moved into the city and got a job at Martha Stewart, first as a freelance cross-tester (really, the best way to learn how to develop a recipe is to cross test a ton of recipes) and then I got hired full time as one of the food editors at Everyday Food. After that came Real Simple, then Bon Appetit.
What does a regular work day look like for you?
Every day is different as far as what I'm working on in the kitchen. I usually get into the office around 9 or 9:30, check e-mails and get organized for the day. We have a daily web ideas meeting at 10:30 where we brainstorm ideas for that day and the coming days. Then I head down to the kitchen and tinker with recipes I'm developing, style recipes for photo shoots, or get ready for tastings. We have tastings almost every day at 3pm where we present our recipes to our Food Director, Executive Editor, Creative Director and Restaurant Editor. They evaluate recipes, give us feedback and we make tweaks as necessary. I've also been doing more and more how-to videos which are really fun to shoot.
What is your favorite part of being a food editor?
All the pie! Not really. The reason I got into food in the first place was because I knew there would always be something to learn whether it was a different type of cuisine or a new technique, and it still holds true. In this role, what's especially cool is getting to connect with other chefs and food professionals outside of the magazine world. Restaurant chefs are the ones that are really pushing things forward and I feel super fortunate to have direct access to them.
What is a common misconception people have about working in food media?
That we're constantly evaluating everything we eat all the time. I get a lot of, "So, what do you think?" I mean, yes, we're thinking about it, deciding what we like and don't like, but we're not always assigning a number of stars or something. Sometimes we just want to eat and enjoy and not think too hard about it or judge it. I am so happy to have someone cook for me - even if it's peanut butter and jelly - that I'm just really psyched to eat it.
How do you go about choosing recipes for upcoming features?
It all starts with the “Big Ideas Meeting.” We'll have a meeting to determine the features for each issue, or week or month (when it comes to the Web). Then we have a recipe meeting with our Food Director, our Executive Editor and the Editor of the story. In the recipe meeting, we (the food editors) pitch ideas in the form of recipe titles, including techniques, preparation and ingredients. Then we settle on a recipe lineup, one that is balanced within the story and within the issue (for print) or the recent posts (for web). You wouldn't want shallots and lemon juice in every single recipe in one story, unless of course, it was a feature about shallots and lemon juice. We also consider prep time and sourcing of ingredients. Every recipe in a story shouldn't require a trip to a specialty market or take 8 hours to prepare. There should be a nice mix of accessible and more challenging recipes within any collection. For web we are constantly trying to stay on top of what people are searching for whether that's due to seasonality (all the strawberries at the farmers market!) or the holiday (Turkey! Christmas Cookies!), or what's in the news/media (Beyonce wore a kale sweatshirt!) and address that with appropriate recipes, relevant food tidbits, or slideshows so we can drive traffic to the site.
What makes for a great recipe? How many times do you usually test a recipe before it goes to print?
1. It tastes great. 2. It's beautiful enough to photograph or we can figure out a way to make it look "good on camera." 3. The recipe WORKS.
We cross test everything to make sure it works for somebody else, not just the person who developed the recipe. We make each recipe a minimum of three times but some recipes take a lot more massaging. A lot of the recipes from chefs take more time and effort then the ones we develop in-house. I always say being a good cook, being a good recipe developer, and being a good cross-tester are three different skills and being good at one of those things does not mean you're good at the others. Some of the most incredible chefs working right now (who shall remain nameless) cannot write a recipe to save their lives. It's our job to translate their ideas to the masses.
What traits should someone who wants to work in food media possess?
Patience, resilience, curiosity, a healthy appetite. Recipes don't always work, even after you've put a lot of effort into them. You've got to know when to keep pushing on a recipe, when to listen to outside criticism (very helpful) and when to abandon ship. The more you are curious about what's going on in the food world, the more successful you'll be. We're constantly looking for what's new, whether that's an ingredient, an approach, a point of view, or just a groovy restaurant. The most successful food editors are immersed in the food "scene" not because it's their job, but because they love it and it fascinates them. And we do eat a lot. So no picky eaters. Although, truthfully, I am fairly picky and I get by.