Thirty-one years after starting at Bon Appétit as an editorial assistant typing recipes, Barbara Fairchild is being honored by MinOnline as one of 2009's 21 Most Intriguing People in Media and will be celebrating ten years as editor-in-chief in 2010. Recently I sat down with her to discuss Thanksgiving, 2009's gastronomic trends, and food as politics.
LM: You are a New York native who grew up in Los Angeles and now divides your time between New York and LA. With regards to food, what are the greatest differences between the two cities?
BF: With restaurants, it's fairly easy. New York is home to more classically fine dining restaurants in appearance and food. It would be difficult for a restaurant like the flagship Daniel or La Grenouille to succeed in Los Angeles now and not just because of the price point. The people who go to places like Cut or Spago are enthusiastic diners, foodies, and business people but they don't necessarily respond to the grand surroundings the way New York diners to a certain extent still do.
LM: With regards to food?
BF: LA and California have always led the way as far as the variety of produce and new kinds of produce. There are a lot of things that make their debut at the farmers' markets in California--like pluots or plumcots or whatever they're called now. The diversity of ingredients first shows up in the West Coast and then makes its way across the country.
The big cities have smaller neighborhoods that are leading the way in a lot of instances in the restaurant culture, in the food culture. I think the thing about LA that's happened in the last year is we've turned the food truck into a dining experience and everyone else in the country has now followed our lead.
LM: Speaking of chefs, are there any up and coming chefs in particular that you are currently following with special interest?
BF: I'm excited about a lot of them. Between a monthly magazine and the website we have the ability to bring them to you almost instantaneously. I can't think of anyone we haven't covered yet but I will tell you about one person who came on to my radar screen last week. Her name is Molly McCook and she is the chef at Ellerbe Fine Food in Fort Worth, Texas. I haven't done any research about her, the place, anything, but I just loved her name so I have to find out more about her.
The ten best new restaurants in the September issue and Jeremy Fox of Ubuntu--who we gave the BA best chef in the US award to--is somebody certainly to watch. David Chang seems like the grand old master at this point. He's firmly established himself but I think what he does is interesting and he takes chances and works like a fiend.
I think that there are chefs in all of these neighborhoods--in Brooklyn, in Culver City, in West Hollywood and Hollywood, out where I am in Studio City and Sherman Oaks, pockets in Atlanta and Washington DC. A lot of interesting things are also happening in what we would call the lunchtime and fast food arena--places like Sweetgreen in Washington, DC and Tender Greens in LA. Even chains like Chipotle and Ruby Tuesday are taking a look at how they source food. It's been interesting to see how the conversation about food has increased over the last ten years.
LM: You're going on your tenth year as editor in chief at Bon Appétit. What do you think, either have been the greatest changes or what have you been most happy about in the world of food over the past ten years?
BF: I just finished writing my January issue letter from the editor and it's all about what a crazy, interesting, intriguing decade this has been. The two big things that happened this decade for food were television--the explosion of food on television--and technology--the Internet, blogging, iPhone, tablets, cookbooks on Kindle. At the beginning of this decade, Julia Child was still with us, David Chang was barely out of college, and a food truck was something that delivered food to the supermarket.
At all levels of society, food has become a part of the regular conversation both in a positive and negative way. Food is politics, food is childhood obesity, and food is pleasure. The other point is that food has become an important part of the culture here the way it is in other cultures where food is important. For the first time, I feel we're on par with France, Italy, India, and China--the really great, varied cuisines of the world--where people talk and think about food all the time--and not the people I would call "foodies." Teaching people at all levels of society how fresh food can be better and less expensive than the stuff you might have been having before is really a good thing.
During his acceptance speech at the Bon Appétit Awards, Roy Choi, from Kogi BBQ Truck in LA, made a point about how when Kogi was starting out, they were trying to bring a high quality of food that's wonderfully sourced and tastes amazing to underserved areas of LA and a lot of times they were not met with welcome or open arms by the police department. I was sitting next to José Andrés and during the speech José is emailing away on his blackberry. It got to the point where it was a little distracting and I leaned over and said, "Who are you emailing?" He said, "I am emailing Mayor Antonia Villaraigosa. I know his executive assistant and I'm telling her all of this information. This is something the city should know about!" I just thought, Wow. Look at this connection. We have this guy in a taco truck, one of the leaders of Spanish cooking in the US, and the Latino mayor of LA involved. I just thought that was a great example of the ripple effect that food can have.
LM: Jumping off of that, there is much public debate now over nutrition, health, and obesity. How do you feel about calorie postings or the proposed soda tax?
BF: We've incorporated a lot of health information in to the magazine in the last year because we know that our readers are interested in it in a certain way. Our magazine is about choice. We put all the information out there and you can make a chicken or you can make a cake and some weeks you'll make both. For weeknight cooking, it's important for our readers to keep track of what they're eating, so in the front of the book columns like "Fast Easy Fresh," "At the Market," and "Family Style," we've printed nutritional breakdowns on page. We have nutritional breakdowns for all of the recipes available online, so you can find the breakdown on everything from the most decadent dessert to the simplest salad at bonappetit.com.
We're also reporting more. We have a Health Wise column now that runs every month. In the December issue, the "Fakeoff Bakeoff" is about being honest baking with natural sweeteners instead of sugar. Maybe the texture isn't so great, but if you have to cook like this or you want to try cooking like this, here's how to do it. In January, we have gluten-free pasta. We know that our readers eat the gamut and cook the gamut and want the information. As editors, we're sifting through all of this, curating and showing them what tastes the best and what does the best in the kitchen.
We don't have the challenges that you have in New York with the taxes, and in LA we don't post calories. It's kind of funny to walk into Starbucks here and see everything that I see at the one in LA with all the calories out there. But I think I would know that a wrap with egg whites in it doesn't have as many calories as a piece of marble cake--which is probably what I really want to eat anyway.
BF: I would probably choose the sides. But I would never have a Thanksgiving dinner without a turkey because it's a tradition to walk out into the living room with it on a platter. I still do this. Everyone oohs and aahs because it looks so beautiful and then we bring it into the kitchen and my brother-in-law always carves it. The best part of the turkey is probably the leftovers. We put the leftover story in the November issue because everybody loves making the sandwiches.
LM: At the end of every year, predictions are always made for following year. What do you think will be the big 2010 food trends?
BF: We're probably porked out a little bit. I can't think of a meat. I think what's really interesting is to take a classic American thing like a meatball and show that it's indigenous to a lot of cuisines--"there are meatballs in Indian cooking and Latin cooking and here's how they do it" type of thing.
People have become more willing or more sophisticated in discovering pocket subcategories of favorite cuisines. Indian is now about food from Goa or Kerala rather than just being from the big umbrella of India.
I think Puglia will finally come into its own as a place to travel to and appreciate the food. I also think that the southwest area in France around Toulouse will make a resurgence. You see in restaurants that people are eating terrines, pâté, and home cured meats. The home cured meat is very Pugliese, and the terrines and pâtés are very much of the southwest part of France.
LM: A journalism major, you started at Bon Appétit as an editorial assistant over thirty years ago. Did you always hope or dream that you would get to where you are today?
BF: At the beginning, I was working at a magazine that was moving to New York, and I was looking for a new place to go that wouldn't leave LA. When I got the job at Bon Appétit, I liked it for two reasons. One was I was already a subscriber to the magazine, so it was great to work at a place that I already was familiar with through the pages of the magazine and loved. Second, I have this journalism degree and I love to cook and look at where I'm working! The first year was a big learning experience because as an editorial assistant in the food department, I was basically running the test kitchen. I became much more involved with food as a recipe, not as a user of it but as someone who is typing it for people who are going to use it. I spent a lot of time at my desk putting things into the style imaging myself make it.
After six months of working at this place that I had already been a subscriber to, I just fell in love with it. It's a very seductive subject and a very fun place to work. No matter what my title has been, my job changed all the time because food changes all the time. Right now it's so fascinating and energizing and challenging because there's so much happening so fast. I want to embrace it all and keep up with it all and have Bon Appétit be a part of it all.
Another thing that journalism school doesn't train you for and that I found out about myself is I really enjoy the challenges and the satisfactions of the business side. When you're in the lower ranks you're concentrating on what goes into the magazine as an editor or writer. When you get to the level of editor-in-chief, you see it as a business that you want to keep vital and out there. Something that I've really discovered about myself is how much fun I have finding new ways to bring Bon Appétit as a brand into other platforms.
LM: Since the closing of Gourmet, Bon Appétit is Condé Nast's sole epicurean magazine. Will Bon Appétit change at all?
BF: We always are evolving. You could pick up an issue from two years ago that would be entirely different from what we're doing now. But fundamentally, our basics, our approach and our viewpoint are very solid, so from that point of view, I don't think there's anything to change.