Norman Van Aken's Kitchen Conversations: Barbara Fairchild


Barbara Fairchild joined Bon Appétit in 1978.

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!