THE ABSOLUTE PALATE
Dana Cowin – Editor in Chief of Food & Wine Magazine – has a way when it comes to speaking about food. We’re not sure if it’s that she’s “pathologically positive” (as she puts it on twitter) or that she has vast experience in the industry, but she speaks about food with both elegance and clarity – sometimes an unlikely pairing. She’s a culinary realist, who off the top of her head can describe things like Babbo’s black spaghetti or Momofuku’s ramen with the same ease as Michael Phelps’ butterfly stroke. Raise your eyebrows, but if there was a culinary editors’ olympics, Cowin would no doubt be its champion to beat. This is why we couldn’t help but sit down with Cowin – the culinary guru that sets the tone when it comes to food.
Could you take us through your ideal food day? Where would you go? What would you eat?
I love breakfast. So I’d start by going to Maialino. They have egg dishes that are also served for dinner. I’d have the Eggs Arrabiata. I’d have fantastic coffee with it.
Then I’d come to the office. We do things in our test kitchen all day. At that time there’d be a chocolate tasting, so I’d taste some chocolate after breakfast. Then for lunch I’d go back downtown; [I’d] get on the train and go to Babbo. They just started serving lunch, so I’d go to discover something new, instead of going to an old favorite. There’s always something new; that’s what’s great about food. I’d have the Rock Shrimp with Black Spaghetti.
Then I’d go back to the office. We are testing recipes for a discovery book we are doing on up-and-coming chefs. So I’d try something from a chef that’s not in New York, something I can’t get here – maybe something from Jimmy Bannos from Chicago. I’d test a recipe from him.
Then I’d have a great power juice. My favorite juice of the moment is beet, celery and cayenne – so it’s like a bloody mary but with beets and no alcohol. Then I’d go to Brooklyn and go to Battersby, where I’d have dinner with friends. I love their pasta but I’d try to see what’s new on the menu. Then I’d head home and have a big glass of water.
What’s the process behind creating content for Food and Wine? How do you determine what’s worth it, and what’s not?
We have a rigorous process for deciding what goes in the magazine. We like to find something we haven’t seen, and we sift through ideas and pitches that I get. We try to find things that have freshness to them. We’re looking at chefs, travel, design, mixology, wine and where these things intersect. We pick people our readers will relate to. There’s also timeliness to it. We all sit in a room musing on people we have seen and people we met, and then develop ideas around those people and places.
Do you concentrate (regarding your content) at all on the negative dialogues between chefs, food TV personalities etc.? What do you think of this?
I feel like we are most interested in the celebration of food, the lifestyle of food, the people behind it. Getting involved or chronicling disputes between chefs wouldn’t help readers love life more, so it’s not really something we have time to think about.
How has the industry changed since you started?
In food or the magazine world?
I’ll start with magazine. Over time, as an editor, you become a steward of the brand. So I’m overseeing all the ideas of Food & Wine, every aspect, and there are so many things now: magazine, books, digital, tablets, mobile…I never knew that there would be so many ways to express one central idea. So that central idea really has to be really strong as a result of this.
For food…food has changed tremendously. When I first started, people loved food and restaurants, but there are so many more of those people now. And there’s a more intense, deeper knowledge; we’re getting back to the source. People are far more interested and involved in where their food is coming from. Whether they’re killing it or growing it, the DIY movement in food has really developed.
Another thing that’s changed is, it used to be that no one was doing fast casual. Now there are so many great choices, and so many people are doing it – the absolute best fast burger, the very best fast pizza. If you look at someone like David Chang – at Momofoku and his food – it’s essentially a ramen place. But his food is so delicious, so satisfying and so compelling. He’s not trying to be three-star or four-star.
Another change is, chefs used to be on PBS, but now they’re even more visible. Now, whether it’s being a sex symbol, or recognized on the streets, people have become more interested in the people behind the food. People want to hear what they have to say; chefs have become a greater political force because of this new visibility.