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An Epicurean Inquisition with Dana Cowin, Editor-in-Chief at Food & Wine

It’s hard to imagine that print could be dead after a conversation with the ebullient Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine magazine, Dana Cowin, and a look at the empire her publication has built.

Food & Wine isn’t just a magazine. No matter how you slice or dice it, it seems to extend forever past its pages. It’s evolved into an epicurean powerhouse, from the flagship magazine to books, a website, mobile apps, events around the world, even a TV partnership with Top Chef.

That empire starts with its mothership. Flip open an issue of Food & Wine, and you’ll feel the vibrant pulse of what people are eating and drinking across the country at this very moment.

June is no exception. This month’s issue covers a dinner party with the new private chef startup Kitchit. It features a “Grilling Olympics” in preparation for London, inviting chefs worldwide to compete with their own national recipes. There’s a sense of culinary frontiers: smoky mixology, the art of cellaring beer, and the dining scene in Detroit. And then there’s cooking, not just in the kitchen but camping (biscuit s’mores!) and grilling (paella!). From cedar-planked salmon to brown butter chocolate chip cookies, the magazine bursts with recipes tested right in their editorial kitchen, many tasted by Dana herself.

Since Cowin took the reins in 1995, she’s held the magazine true to its name and its mission, which spans both food and beverages in this exciting culinary space. From the first word out of her mouth, it’s clear she thrusts every ounce of gastronomic passion into the job.

What’s the biggest change you have coming up for F&W?

The great thing about F&W is we reconsider the format and content constantly. We always want to be fresh, we always want to address what people are really interested in. A year ago we introduced Trendspotting and the Gastronaut Files – and now we’re working on a couple new columns that don’t even have a title yet!

We just introduced the Top Chef Challenge, where we give a chef a market basket with five ingredients. They can add two ingredients, and use our wacky basket to make a great recipe.

Sounds like you’re at the nexus of food trends, both dining in and dining out.

F&W’s sweet spot is discovering new talent. It’s also about cooking that’s really accessible, but updated and upgraded. We also love to look at the big national trends.

What’s one trend you see now?

We’re looking at the juice trend, which of course has been around, but we didn’t realize there were so many elements – juicers, juices – of it out there.

Are you pressing juice in the office?

We’re testing so many juicers in our test kitchen. I can’t wait to find one that’s not a pain in the neck to clean. It doesn’t encourage you to make juice if the machine gets gummed up and has 25 parts.

I’ll juice for 3 days and then give up. So we’re testing something like 15 juicers. I loved pressed juice!

What’s your favorite?

I like to go to a café called Free Foods around the corner – the last thing it is is free – but they do some great juices. There’s one called the Bloody Mary, made with beets, cayenne and celery.

In all your years as editor, what food trend do you think was just the most off the reservation that, looking back, you shake your head in disbelief that Food & Wine and other magazines dedicated space to it?

Gosh that is such a great question. At F&W, we try to separate horrible fads from the stuff that’s really good. Some trends have taken long time to mature. To eat vegan or raw in the ‘90s – you had to be hardcore. But vegan today is so awesome! Those are two things I’ve seen go from gross to gorgeous.

Time heals all?

Well, the original people were going vegan for health reasons, and weren’t particularly focused on flavor. It took a while for people trained on flavor to grasp the trend. Today, a trained chef can make a vegan meal spectacular.

What do you think about molecular gastronomy, rosemary pillows and sous-vide and all?

We’ve gone through an equipment revolution, but it takes a while for people to adopt it and learn to cook well with it.

Pressure-cooked food used to be really sort of hearty, country, without finesse. Now enough people have played with pressure for refined dishes to come out of it.

Our idea about what belongs in the pantry is going to be – and has been – transformed. Some of the things that molecular chefs have used, like xantham gum, would have made us say “that’s gross” when they have really practical uses just like baking powder.

Grant Achatz has said, in short, if you’re disdainful of molecular gastronomy, you’re probably disdainful of your own cooking, because baking powder accomplishes similar reactions.

Do you have any of these crazy ingredients at home?

No, but these experiments are on the never-ending to-do list. I also have a NYC kitchen with the space that it would imply.

So what’s your typical workday like?

I spend an enormous amount of time talking to my team and with people involved in this world – what they think is next, what they’re excited about. Trying to track down what people think about food informs all meetings and conversations.

I eat all day! We have a test kitchen 30 yards from my office. It’s a great joy to see what recipes we will be publishing.

What’s the thing that caught you most off-guard recently?

I tend to be pretty open-minded. It’s one thing to be understanding of certain trends, but it’s another thing to be eating them.

When the offal thing came along, I said I understand that, but then it came to eating it. The brain of the cow, brain of the sheep, the tuna heart – it’s not shocking, but it definitely makes you think, why do I eat muscle but I don’t eat this?

Has F&W worked with offal?

Restaurants do offal exceptionally well. It can be hard to access good offal if you’re not a restaurant. It doesn’t tend to be what people want to cook at home.

Do you cook a lot?

I cook a lot on the weekends. I don’t pick up a pan from Monday to Friday.

Are you invited to dinners a lot?

I have two little kids, so I only give myself 2 nights out a week. I just say no a lot. I would love to say yes, but I can’t do it.

What would be the biggest surprise to find in your fridge or pantry?

My fridge is not quite empty. In my case, I like that shopping every day thing. My kids, surprisingly, like stinky cheese. Sometimes you’ll open the fridge and ask what has gone rotten! But it’s just the cheese.

Where do you like to shop?

I’m pretty tactical. Fairway is very close to my apartment. Or I go to Murray’s in Grand Central.

If you’re going to Murray’s, you must like cheese.

My daughter, for her 12th birthday party, requested soft ripened white-rind cheeses! I asked her if she thought her friends would like it, and she said yes! We got a beautiful camembert with Herve Mons as the affineur and a beautiful robiola. And they ate it all.

Do your kids like the kitchen?

My son is not remotely interested (he’s 9), but my daughter (she’s 12) has her own repertoire without using a cookbook. She can make the following from scratch: biscuits, sole meunière, a tofu stir fry and a chicken soup. They’re super simple but all things she loves. She also checks and corrects the seasoning, which I love.

Some daughters are critical of their mother’s wardrobe, but more importantly she’s critical of my cooking.

When Gourmet and other lifestyle magazines were shutting down a couple years ago, what was Food & Wine’s secret to survival and, today, thriving?

The great thing about F&W is that we’ve always had a diversified business model: magazine, books, connoisseur club, website, mobile apps, events, television through our partnership with Top Chef.

The magazine has thrived because as a brand, it’s really robust. Someone who’s devoted to the brand is interested in coming to events, buying a book, checking out the clubs – each one of those parts contributes to the brand’s success.

If we only had one or two of those, maybe we wouldn’t be successful today. It’s sort of like having a chair with a woven fabric seat, and even if one of the straps pops, the chair would still hold.  

What do you think viewers miss or don’t understand about the judging on Top Chef? The picking of the winner, the dressing down of the losers, the selection of who goes – it’s all cut down to 5 or 7 minutes. What don’t we see?

You don’t see how seriously they take it! It looks like they just put their heads together, and it seems like it takes 30 seconds, but as Gail Simmons will tell you – they take a long time. Gail would say it can go from 10 minutes to hours!

Food & Wine has something like 15 festivals it puts on around the country each year. Do you attend all of them?

No, I don’t – it would be almost impossible; I go to some, and they’re amazing. 

The greatest thing is getting to see the chef community that I love. For example, Thomas Keller did an extraordinary cooking demo in Aspen with the guy who raised lamb for him.

I made it out to Pebble (Beach) and had a terrific time there. I met Guy Fieri – I jumped from the stage when I was finished introducing him. I felt like, if you introduce him, you have to do that.

You were just inducted into the Who’s Who of the James Beard Foundation, but I know you’ve been going to the awards for years. How have the awards changed over the years?

Susan has done a great job bringing the glamor back to the awards. She also revised and pushed around some of the categories, which was smart. She re-engineered it to make it better.

What do you think about the criticism that they’re too old and stodgy?

I think the Beard Foundation works incredibly hard to re-think their program. They’ve done some brilliant programming. People love to be critical.

When they moved to the Lincoln Center, it was a big change. It adds a lot of glamour, and it’s a great venue to match the talent of the chefs.

Who’s your favorite chef or food personality to have a meal with?

I could never answer that question! My favorite chefs are the thinker chefs, the ones who are either trying to reinvent something or trying to change the world.

What about traveling, what’s your favorite travel destination just to eat?

I’ll go anywhere to eat, literally anywhere. I live on the UWS, and the other day I did a walking tour of Brooklyn. To me, that’s traveling to eat — not because I went there for one meal, but because I treated it like it was Paris. I went to Bien Cuit, One Girl Cookie, Van Leeuwen ice cream, Seersucker, the smoked fish guy. I love touring boroughs of Manhattan as if I’ve gotten on a plane to get there.

And this year I was also in Brazil, LA, New Orleans …

In each issue of the magazine you recommend a few restaurants where you’ve eaten recently. What are a few of your guilty pleasures you wish you could recommend? In-n-Out Burger? Pret A Manger?

(Laughs) That’s funny because on my anniversary, I was supposed to go have dinner at a jazzy place near my office and that didn’t work out because there was confusion over the reservation, so I ended up eating a Pret sandwich for my anniversary.

I don’t believe in guilty pleasure. I believe pleasure is just fine, and no guilt. If I did feel guilt, I’d eat less of it.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever eaten?

Tuna heart, which was amazing. Or beef heart. Eating hearts is kind of funny, you think of the metaphor of it all. Hearts and brains.

Any favorite spots for offal in the city?

There’s a beef place called Takashi that is supposed to be phenomenal. It’s a Yakiniku restaurant, downtown.

Last but not last, the infamous death row question – what would be your final meal?

I think my last supper would be fried chicken, and apple pie with ice cream!