Norman Van Aken's Kitchen Conversations: Barbara Fairchild

Norman Van Aken, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a Florida-based chef-restaurateur (Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando), cooking teacher, and author. His most recent book is a memoir, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. This is the fifth in a regular series of Kitchen Conversations — informal but revealing interchanges with key culinary figures — that Van Aken will be contributing to The Daily Meal. He also writes a regular series of Kitchen Meditations for us.

Barbara Fairchild, longtime editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit and a well-known figure at important food events around the country, was born in Queens but grew up in Los Angeles. While attending Cal State Northridge as a journalism major, she worked as a news writer for the campus radio station and interned for KGIL-AM. When she graduated, she was immediately hired as a news writer by that station. She moved to print journalism as an editorial assistant at Carte Blanche Magazine, published for holders of the once prominent Carte Blanche credit card, becoming a senior editor there at the age of 26. In 1978, she joined Bon Appétit as an editorial assistant — "It was starting at the bottom again," she says, "but I was already a subscriber and a 'foodie,' so I knew it was a good fit" — and there she rose through the ranks, taking the top editorial position in 2000. In early 2011, following a reorganization of the magazine division of Bon Appétit's owner, Condé Nast, and the moving of the editorial offices to New York, she stepped down from her position (Adam Rapoport is now Bon Appétit's editor-in-chief.) Today, based in Los Angeles, Fairchild is currently working on a custom content project for the Thomson-Reuters News Agency.

Norman Van Aken: What is the very first thing you remember eating and enjoying?

Barbara Fairchild: Well, it certainly does not predict the foodie that I would become, because it was probably in first grade, something that was in my lunchbox fairly often in elementary school: A bologna-and-Swiss sandwich on corn rye bread with mayonnaise, cut into thirds (the bread was an oval shape), if you please; very important. By the time I got to eat it, the sandwich was sort of room temperature, so the elements all came together in a lovely sort of semi-squishy way. It was my early comfort food.

Are you the first fully committed food lover in your family? If so, how did that come about? If not, who else in the family was so inclined?

I'm certainly the first in my family who ended up with it as a career. But I come from a very food-oriented family — German on both sides, half-Jewish and half-Lutheran (yes, quite the combo). My mother was a very, very good, what I could call basic American cook. She was originally from Maryland and there were some Southern influences from her relatives. Dad was New York City born and bred. We celebrated every holiday that had something to do with food (which is just about all of them). Easter and Passover, etc. Mom was the shiksa who made better matzo balls than anyone on my Dad's side of the family. And she ventured into more "exotic" territory once I started at Bon Appétit. 

When did you start writing about food?

Technically, I guess you could say that I started writing about food in the fifth grade(!). We had just moved to Los Angeles from New York, and the assignment was to write an essay about some aspect of California history. I chose to write about the sourdough bread-baking tradition of the gold miners, the '49ers. How's that for a 10-year-old? I made sourdough starter and shaped two loaves of bread, which Mom baked and brought in warm with some butter and jam on the morning that I delivered my presentation. I was quite popular that day! 

When did you realize that food was serious to you?

Probably when I was around 13 or 14. After Mom and Dad decided on a Sunday car trip or vacations, I researched restaurants for us all to go to (I have two younger sisters), using the AAA Guides! 

You were part of the breakthrough of food becoming serious in America. What was it like in the workplace for you?

Well, that would have to be at Bon Appétit, no question, as an editorial assistant in the late 1970s/early 1980s, when I was in my late 20s. When I first got there, food and restaurants, and entertaining at home, were very traditional, very French; very few chefs were known or were the "focus" of anything. And then all of a sudden we had chefs turning everything upside down: Jeremiah Tower and Wolfgang Puck in California; you, Norman, and Allen Susser, and Mark Militello in Florida; Charlie Trotter, Emeril Lagasse, the Texans — Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles, Robert Del Grande — and Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi, Jean-Marie Josselin, George Mavro, Bev Gannon in Hawaii, and so, so many others around the was freeing and exciting and it all tasted great.. .and it made sense as a continuation of what had come before. It was not silly or contrived. This change was a lot of fun to cover and it was such an honor to be able to bring it to so many people through the magazine. There was so much new to say that we hardly knew where to start. It was a delightful — and daunting — challenge, and responsibility. And I pretty much felt that way for the more than 32 years that I was there at the magazine, in thick of it, on a daily basis. 

What was the first dish or meal that you wrote about where you felt genius was at work?

My first three-star Michelin meal, lunch at Auberge d'Ill in Alsace. Very early 1980s. It was flawless from start to finish, with superb service, beautiful setting, gorgeous day. I already knew how food could make lifetime memories, thanks to the experiences growing up with my family. But this was on an entirely new level. It was inspirational in the non-religious sense: I made my first seafood quenelles when I got back home! 

Do you feel the food life you took on caused you to sacrifice having a "normal" life?

Not at all. Of course, in my part of the business I was in an "office" situation and not a "kitchen" situation. Not exactly 9 to 5, but definitely not 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. like a chef. But if anything, my career in food journalism has allowed me to work with, and become friends with, great, talented people, and to bring my family and other friends into that mix. In my early 20s, I was a subscriber to Bon Appétit, before I even worked there. So I was able to combine my college training (journalism degree) and my "hobby" of cooking, food, restaurants, travel into a long and rewarding career, and today I continue to work in the field. I am very, very grateful for that. 

What other magazines did you feel were capable of understanding the shifting American appreciation for food in ways that had not existed before? How were they different from Bon Appétit?

Well, given that I was at Bon Appétit for more than 32 years (ahem), I think that the identity of the most important magazine kept changing. When I arrived in 1978, it was Gourmet, because they pretty much were "the category" at the time. Gourmet had a longer history — it was founded right after World War II; Bon Appétit came along around 1956, but really in a more modern form around 1976. Gourmet at that time ran long essays about the changing nature of food, although through the late 1970s, French food and cooking were still the standard. But theirs was a more esoteric and less practical approach. When Food & Wine came along later, I thought they did a good job of covering the emerging wine scene. They devoted more pages to that than we did. Quite frankly, I still think Bon Appétit did the best job of covering the American food revolution and translating it for the home cook, so the home cook could participate in it and understand it no matter where he/she lived. We made it approachable, and we knew that was a big responsibility for us. Much later on, I knew that Food Network Magazine would be a big competitor, even more so than the others, really, since they had the built-in following of the TV viewers, the online users, and, of course, the magazine could draw from its stable of celebrity chefs from the network. It was to me the first 360-degree integration across all "platforms," as we say today. It was formidable from the start.

What was your arc in terms of the first kinds of cookery you loved and how it morphed over your career? Feel free to take it decade by decade.

As an enthusiastic home cook, I liked all kinds of dishes and flavors, so I cooked across a lot of cuisines. I like to eat (still do!), so really, I made whatever sounded good to me. In the early part of my career at Bon Appétit, when I worked in the food department, I did like challenging myself to do things I hadn't tried before: puff pastry, baguettes, big dishes like ratatouille, cioppino, the holiday entrées, fancy desserts. Part of that was because back then I was the person responsible for typing (yeah, typing) all of the recipes to ready them for the typesetter (such archaic terms now!), so I thought it would be helpful for my own accuracy and help the reader if I made some of the recipes that seemed a little complicated to explain in words. I never actually made the first wedding cake we ran — June 1980, by Rose Levy Beranbaum — but I sure felt as if I had by the time I finished working with the recipe tester and writing the multi-part recipe. But we got letters from people who had taken the time and effort to do it, and that felt very good to know they had success. We ended up doing a wedding cake in June issues for a long time after that, but I had moved out of the food department and on to assistant editor the next year and then and further "up the ladder" and so left it to others after that! 

Who is the most important American born cookbook author of the past 50 years in your estimation? Why?

We're in 2015 now, so 50 years ago is 1965. We're getting to the point where the obvious — and true — answer, in my opinion, Julia Child, is almost on the cusp. Wow. But she did codify the cooking that people were interested in back then and between Mastering the Art of French Cooking and The French Chef cooking show, she drew people into the kitchen and expanded their curiosity as she moved into other areas, too. Just for the heck of it, if you had asked me for the past 100 years, I would have said Julia's almost polar opposite, recipe-wise: Irma Rombauer. Because with Joy of Cooking she did for "American" food to that point what Julia did later with French. And Irma was just as popular in her day, without the TV exposure!

Who is the most important food writer of the past 100 years? Why?

Gosh, that term "food writer." It means so many different types of writing now. For "recipe communication," you have to look at successful authors like Julia, of course (see above), but also these days, I think that the cookbooks of Yotam Ottolenghi are excellent — interesting, with such a strong point of view, and the recipes inspire you to get into the kitchen. But for pure, entertaining writing, I have to go with Calvin Trillin. M.F.K. Fisher has soul, but it's Trillin's wit that I so admire. And, just to throw this into the pot, I re-read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast every year.

Who is the most mischievous chef you have ever known?

For "mischievous" in the cooking/menu sense, I would have to go with Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He has left what we would think of as his "comfort zone" many, many times to try new things, push himself, his interests, his restaurants. And the food always  tastes great. I think he's a genius. "Mischievous" in the behavior sense? After all my time in this business, I'll plead the Fifth on that one! 

If you could go out for drinks and dinner with any '"food person," living or dead, who would it be and why?

I have thought about this one and thought about this one, and really, I can't choose just one: I have to put together a table with Brillat-Savarin, Diamond Jim Brady, and Elizabeth David. Would make for some very interesting conversation! At Da Delfina outside Florence. Why not?  

If you were doing the cooking instead of going out, what would you serve?  

Definitely modern takes on things familiar from their day: Thomas Keller's Oysters and Pearls; one of Mark Vetri's sensational pastas (the rigatoni with chicken liver ragù; yowza, so good); a delicious steak preparation from Ari Rosenson, the chef at Wolfgang Puck's CUT in Beverly Hills; potatoes and other side dishes from Dan Kluger from his time at ABC Kitchen; and to really get them talking at dessert time, Christina Tosi's Crack Pie with gelato from Grom.          

What food or ingredient do you adore?

I love the variety and versatility of mushrooms: As a side dish, in soups, pasta, as a topping, in sauces, stuffings, stir-frys, etc. Most frequently I just sauté them with a little olive oil and herbs, but I would say next most frequent uses are as part of a topping for baked potato for a quick, meatless entree or I use hearty cremini mushrooms in a super-easy vegetable soup that I keep on hand to snack on, or to use as a "base" to create something more substantial (add chicken and/or beans, etc.). 

What is your favorite holiday for food?

The obvious answer here is Thanksgiving, but that one does have its parameters, so to speak, and it can be limiting for, shall we say, experimentation or variety. (Someday I'll tell you about the time I tried to change up the turkey and gravy; not pretty.) Anyway, my favorite is the Fourth of July — there are so many ways to go with it, the food tends to be fresh, easy to make, and very seasonal, and we get to sit at a big table on our patio and enjoy being together outside. Those summer wines are terrific, too!

What food or ingredient will never enter your body again?

Oh, God: Beef tongue. My Mom used to make it occasionally when we were growing up because she and my Dad loved it. My sisters and I... ugh. I can still remember seeing it sitting there. Even now just thinking about it gives me the shivers.

Where in the world would you like to dine now and why?

Istanbul. I have not been to that part of the world very much at all. Not exactly the greatest part of the world to travel in right now, but I love the idea of the spices, vegetables, breads, meats, etc. I would love to go on a food tour there with a guide who knows his/her way around. If you know of any, let me know!

Do you feel that culinary schools are preparing young folks for a life as a chef?

Well, there is such a range to the term "cooking school," from places like the CIA, of course, to trade schools, extensive private courses, etc. I think they all do a very good job of teaching techniques and skills. Quite frankly, there is some sort of crazy education about how hectic it can be in a restaurant kitchen to be learned from all of those chef-competition cooking shows on TV, too. But as a chef, you need to realize that what you are doing is a business. So you will be just as much — sometimes more — a manager of people and budgets, etc. Even as the newbie, you will need to understand people. You will be a psychologist and a mentor. You will need a vision. And... the bottom line is the bottom line, no matter how passionate you are about your craft. Maybe that sounds too cold-hearted, but better to know it going in than to be made aware of it too late. 

What famous guests have you enjoyed interviewing for the magazine the most? (Plural is fine!)

I didn't do a lot of "interviewing" of people per se, although in my various positions at the magazine I worked with a lot of great writers, and I met a lot of great people. I did a story once about unexpected places where foodies like to shop, and I remember Julia [Child] telling me that she bought all of her meat at Costco. I commissioned work from "non-food" writers such as Bill Bryson, Tama Janowitz, Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer; people whose work I just admired and I knew would do an excellent job on certain stories, and bring a different voice to them. They did not disappoint. The most memorable person I ever met was... Queen Elizabeth. (Not kidding.)

What is your favorite food movie of all time?  

I really enjoyed Mostly Martha, (sometimes spelled Marta), the original German-language film (with subtitles) about a woman chef that was remade into a terrible American movie called No Reservations with Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The original I felt had a lot more truth, more grit, and a more accurate portrayal of what it is like for a woman chef in a restaurant kitchen. Martina Gedeck was not all glammed-up like Ms. Zeta-Jones; she was more real, in my opinion. That said, the food scene that gets me every time is in Ratatouille, such a charming animated film. It's when the food critic, Anton Ego (voiced by the inimitable Peter O'Toole), talks about what the simple food and dishes of his childhood mean to him and how they resonate. Really, I'm tearing up now just writing about it.  

If it all came down to the world knowing your life's work via one story that you wrote or published, what would that story be?

I'm the person who spent almost 33 years at America's most popular food and entertaining magazine: I was there to witness (and to tell millions of readers about) the food world expand and envelop; the personalities come and go; and to experience all of the events — the good, the bad, the indifferent — that shaped food, wines, home cooking, travel, and restaurants from the "awakening" era of the late 1970s well into the twenty-first century.   

If you had not made it as a magazine editor (and more), and money were not an issue, what profession would you have chosen?

A Broadway musical star, comedy and drama.

Would you want your child to become a chef or magazine editor?

If he or she truly had the passion and commitment to be a chef, of course. You have to follow your dream, even with the understanding that not everyone becomes a "celebrity." Far from it. But there are talented chefs around the country who have created wonderful restaurants with interesting food. They have a steady local clientele plus the occasional traveling/touristic interloper like me, all of us leaving very satisfied and very impressed. Make a living, enjoy yourself, and don't get hung up on being "famous." As for being a magazine editor? Hmmm. Who knows? The business has changed so much in the past few years, as has the landscape for magazines of all types. I would say be open to bringing the topic of food (if that is what you're interested in) to a broad range of outlets, including magazines and newspapers (particularly smaller local ones), online, whatever is out there. It seems that the demand for content is only growing as the use of all the devices expands, and all sorts of companies jump on the bandwagon, so to speak. I mean, Amazon is making TV shows! But I am hoping that younger people these days are still interested in being journalists.

If you wrote an autobiography, what would it be called?

Maybe Splattered Pages: My Life in Food Writing!! Hah!