In the dawn of digital publishing, few print publications still catch one's eye, but Food & Wine magazine is one of those publications. Founded in 1978 by Michael and Ariane Batterberry (who later went on to co-found Food Arts) as The International Review of Food and Wine, with funding from Hugh Hefner, the magazine started life as an insert in Playboy. Today, it is one of the leaders in the crowded so-called epicurean field. With its March 2013 issue, Food & Wine celebrates 35 years in the business, and we spoke with the queen of their empire, editor-in-chief Dana Cowin, about what defines the magazine today.
The issue is a celebration of the magazine’s proudest moments in its history. There’s a tribute to the many legends the editors have worked with in years past, such as Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, and Marcella Hazan. There’s acknowledgment of the magazine's many recipes, with 20 of the best they’ve ever published, and then there’s a nod to all of the trend-spotting the editors have participated in over the years.
The topic of trends was the starting point of our conversation with Cowin, when she described who the readers of Food & Wine are. "[Our readers are] people who have food at the center of everything they do," she explained, whether it’s design, sports, fashion, or travel. According to Cowin, Food & Wine's readers are adventurous, and they look to the magazine to tell them what the new trends are and how to make sense of them. As we mentioned, trends are something the magazine reflects on in its March issue, with pages devoted to all of the movements editors and contributors have highlighted over the past 35 years and taking a look at where those trends are today. Did they know they were spotting trends when they spotted them? In reality we’ll never know, and some of them could be more a stroke of retrospective luck. And even though the magazine got a lot of it right, there were also some misses (anybody remember "Floribbean" cuisine?).
Another aspect of the magazine Cowin is proud of is their talent scouting. Along with the magazine’s birthday, they’re also celebrating the birthday of one of its features — Best New Chefs. For 25 years, the awards have been a channel through which the magazine spots new talent, announces it, and then nurtures it into success. What’s interesting about these awards is how they reflect the chef’s role in the editorial business today, Cowin explained.
"The original icons [that we worked with] were more cookbook authors, who went to the countries and did the original research, [but] then it morphed over time," she said. "The people who are now our biggest scouts are really chefs, [and] following the chefs and seeing how they dive so deep into cultures, that has been really exciting."
And then of course, besides all the trend-spotting and chef-scouting, there are the recipes. Here is where Food & Wine walks a fine line between being a trendy, forward-thinking magazine and one that’s accessible to all cooks. Accessibility is what defines the success of a cooking magazine, and Cowin believes they do a fairly good job of it.
"[We try to] make the food accessible but always with something that makes someone go, 'Oh gosh, I hadn’t thought of that,'" she said. The recipes are not only supposed to inspire people to cook, but also play a role in the translation of trends the magazine scouts. "Some of the trends are translating so fast," said Cowin. "The average home cook doesn’t want to be making kimchi" — but might be willing to go out and buy it and place it on top of a burger, instead. A lot of the recipes you’ll find in Food & Wine don’t scream weeknight dinner, though, and even Cowin admitted that most will require a supermarket run, but every now and then you’ll come across a "seven-minute recipe" or one that’s mostly straightforward and just has a small, interesting twist.
The success of a print publication is measured in ad revenue and its number of subscriptions, and with digital media on the rise and print on the decline, it can be a pretty scary thing for an editor to consider. Cowin seems unfazed by it, though.
"One of the things that is exciting about being at Food & Wine is being a solid brand," she said, because along with the magazine, there’s the website, the events, and the cookbooks. "What would scare me the most is if the topics of Food & Wine somehow, suddenly, were not of interest to anyone more," she confided, and hey, that would scare us, too.
Anne Dolce is the Cook Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @anniecdolce