When Pilar Guzmán came on as Editor-in-Chief of Condé Nast Traveler in February, it was clear that the vision was going to be less about just travel and more about the lifestyle of travel. As the founders of a site that looks to have a conversation over food rather than one just about food, we appreciated the direction. We loved that Guzmán’s first issue had a legendary model (Christy Turlington) on the cover rather than a destination, and even more we loved Guzmán herself; she’s everything an EIC should be. Over breakfast at Lafayette, we discussed everything from toast points to reinventing the wheel…
What would be your ideal food day? What restaurants might you frequent?
That’s exciting; the ideal day. So as you can see, I start with the soft-boiled egg or eggs in general. I often do breakfast at Balthazar – the soft-boiled eggs and toast points. The other thing that’s great at Balthazar is the gruyère and fines herbs omelette. Nobody does a good omelette. I feel like anytime you order an omelette anywhere it’s like a folded over futon with melted cheese. They do a real French omelette that is light and delicious. I love Buvette; they do eggs with fava beans and it’s delicious. I’m a definite savory person as far as the breakfast goes. Even at home, anytime I have a leftover sauce or something, like a tomato sauce, I’ll poach eggs in it. My dad was a food adventurer. We would always travel to the farthest reaches of Los Angeles and up the coast to Ojai for breakfast just because he loved to try different things. I still love the chilaquiles at Hugo’s. It’s great. It’s so old school and they haven’t changed a thing. There’s nothing trendy about it, which is what I love. It’s just one of those places that is sort of perfect. [I love] the chilaquiles at The Americano at Hotel Americano. They have a very small Latin menu and they do a fantastic chilaquiles with a salsa verde that is delicious. Mexican is a huge theme for me. Having grown up in Southern California, that’s a big one.
For lunch, the midtown options are slim, but in an ideal world Sushi Yasuda is phenomenal. Even though the old chef went back to Japan, it’s still amazing. Keen’s Steakhouse is a great one. They have the most beautiful chopped salad with steak, hard-boiled egg, blue cheese and bacon. And they have this delicious limeade (laughs) that’s amazing. If I’m having a whole other ethnic moment, I’ll do Hanbat right in Koreatown. It’s this fluorescent lit, low on ambience but totally authentic Korean food. They do this spicy seafood bean curd soup, or stew, I think they call it. You’re sweating by the time you leave but it’s the thing that I love if I feel a cold coming on. I feel like I burn it out of me with this because it’s incredibly spicy and delicious. And their bibimbap is great too. But, a regular lunch is often in the neighborhood – and I’m no stranger to a Chipotle.
The other one I will trek to is Prune. Their lunch is great and the menu changes all the time. It’s totally seasonal. For dinner, I live in Brooklyn, so nine times out of ten we end up back there. Franny’s is huge for us. Their menu changes constantly. Primarily it’s a pizza place, but we actually never eat the pizza. If you list the ingredients, it’s so refreshingly minimal – to me it’s the most perfect food. They cure their own meats, they do everything themselves, and they work with specific farmers very closely. I feel like they’re a cut above everyone else somehow.
For dinner, I recently went to Dover which is great. They make the most perfect Meyer Lemon spaghetti. It’s just so simple. But their starters, their little salads, are great – even just a puntarelle salad with chicories. Another one that I’m crazy about is Estela. That’s become my go-to in the city. They do this amazing ricotta dumpling with mushrooms. They have these beautiful scallops. It’s super fresh and vegetable focused, but it’s not starvation food.
Could you tell me a little bit about the process of moving from Martha Stewart Living to Condé Nast Traveler?
I was there [at Condé Nast] a few years ago for many years, so I was no stranger to the company. I had been in conversations with the company off-and-on ever since Cookie folded. I have always been in the lifestyle categories. I started out as a travel and food writer and then migrated over to the interiors and architecture world. I’ve flip-flopped between print and digital my whole career, and always in these lifestyle arenas. Cookie in some ways was a combination. It was a lifestyle magazine for people who happened to be parents, inclusive of design, food and travel.
My feeling about travel is it is contiguous with a greater lifestyle. We [at Condé Nast Traveler] have a very high-end reader who cares deeply about food, wine and hotels. They’re generally well-read, sophisticated, and intellectually curious. I think increasingly, as we unroll our digital strategy, we see that travel becomes the umbrella for all of these passion points. I think our thesis is that Condé Nast Traveler arms its readers with the information and the inspiration to be at home in the world. Whether it’s going to the shows in Paris or haggling at a bazaar in Morocco for a rug, you want to feel like you’re armed with all of the insider information. I think because it’s so much easier to travel in this day and age, it’s not its own stand-alone category; things are not so compartmentalized. You can find cheap tickets and go to Paris for the weekend. It’s not so outlandish for a twenty-five-year-old to take trips that, in another generation, would have been the trip of a lifetime. I think the idea is that many people who do travel consider themselves citizens of the world – and I think that it’s a huge opportunity for us.
When you’re talking about fashion, food, or wine, you want to give it a sense of place. Going to a flea market can be enough of a reason to get on a plane, if you’re a passionate collector. Going to a budding wine region in South Africa can be a reason to get on a plane. It becomes a microcosm of the culture at large, and often it is a better way to enter a culture because you will see the whole culture through a passion point, whether it is art, antiques, jewelry or whatever it is. So I think we have this great opportunity to start our storytelling from the passion point.
When we started our site, the whole idea was that food, fashion, travel, and design aren’t mutually exclusive. So we always say that it’s the world through the lens of food. Do you see it the same way with travel?
Yes. You know, we’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re still all covering some of the same topics, but I think it’s about being honest about the inspiration for a story and about finding people who are the most passionate on certain subjects to be your lens through which to see a culture. I think that is really the difference. You can do two stories on the wine country in Willamette Valley, but you can have five different points of view on that, rather than doing a ‘dropping myself in and exploring it myself’ point of view. I want to find the person that knows the most, whose sensibility I trust the most, who is on the ground, or who knows something about that world, to be my guide. It’s really about giving ownership.
Obviously, we’re still producing the story in a Condé Nast fashion – and we’re getting the best photographers. Sometimes the stories come from photographers themselves because they’re some of the best travelers in the world and they have great taste, for the most part. In some cases, depending on the subject, I will trust a photographer more than a reporter to be my eyes and ears on the ground. It really just depends on the story. The idea is about telling an authentic narrative from someone who is really passionate and knowledgable about a subject. Rather than: I’m interested in X, so I’m going to send a writer who may or may not know anything about this, even if they’re a good reporter. It’s about creating dream teams for every story.
We just ran a story in the April issue on Seoul, about the artisanal food and craft movement that is going on, next to the most future-thinking culture on the planet. These things exist side by side, literally bifurcated by a river. You have the old school and the new school. You have the absolute reverence to tradition on the one hand, and the absolute new on the other hand. It’s a really great story. That story originated from Marcus Nilsson, a photographer who happens to be very knowledgeable about food and very passionate about this. So then we called in a bunch of other people who we know have a lot of authority in these various areas, and put together this little dream team. Manny Howard was the writer on it; he is a fantastic writer and also a food guy. So you get that magic from people who are super excited about it, rather than giving a photographer a shot list saying, ‘Okay, get the picture of the food market, get a picture of this and that…’ Let them discover it together and come up with a shot list together.
How do you think that Instagram and social media in general from people all around the world affects a twenty page travel story that now might be a little lackluster compared to what it used to be?
I think it’s a fantastic question. We are now multiple generations of self-published storytellers. I think it has made photography and storytelling much more honest as a result, because the reason we respond to pictures on Instagram and get excited about them is because they come from a passionate place. It impinges on magazine makers to be even more authentic and honest in their storytelling, because you can smell a fake. Now readers and users, they can smell a fake. They know when something is a real moment and they know when there is passion behind it. The pictures don’t lie. I think that our eye has become better trained, and so it demands a level of authenticity. It’s the most overused word of the year – maybe decade – but it’s true. As we were pulling swipe for our launch issue, the stuff that our Creative Director and I were printing out, at least half of it came from Instagram. What is worthy of the printed page is different than what is worthy of this tiny little screen; I do believe in the power of great photography and great photographers and great writers and great storytellers, but I think it has forced us to hit the reset button as storytellers – and it has made us more honest. It has reminded us that travel is the category – more than any other – that allows people to dream. So our photography and our storytelling has to sit at that intersection of inspiration and actual tactical service, because we want people not only to dream, but to be able to do.