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Part One: Dana Cowin on Octopi, The Always Hungry and the Sunny Side of Life

dana-cowin-eaterrogation.jpgAs Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine magazine, Dana Cowin is arguably the most important woman in food media. She's like Padma Lakshmi but she actually knows what she's talking about. I recently ate dinner with Ms. Cowin — she only goes out two nights a week — to discuss the future of, well, everything and her pathological positivism.

Let's start with the important stuff. Are you a good cook?
I'm an adequate cook. I'm really high on doing very little with very great ingredients. I can do a lot of very acceptable simple food. I love cooking from cookbooks. I go to Asian with that.

Do you do most of the cooking at your home?
The last thing my husband [AC360 Producer, Barclay Palmer] cooked was steak on our first at-home date. That was about 14 years ago. He does do fantastic crepes from memory. There are two other things he makes. He makes a fantastic lemon egg soup and he makes a great Caesar salad. It's a pretty good repertoire for a guy, three.

[Dana Cowin's chargrilled octopus with fingerlings, feta, and fresh mint arrives. After a suitable pause we resume.]

What's going on with Food & Wine?
Food & Wine has all these legs, like an octopus. [She looks at the pile of tentacles in front of her.] It's like the title is a big octopus and it has all these legs and it walks on them. Above it is this head, this idea of what it is, of talking about what's new in the world of chefs and food and the way trends affect people at home and what they can drink to pair with it and have fun. And then there are the tentacles. I'm spending a lot of time on the iPad which will launch with our October issue. That's one tentacle. [She eats a tentacle.]

Are you expecting people to take their iPads into the kitchen?
I am, which is what is so exciting. You put the iPad down and it has a splatter screen — I hope —and you have the video. There's Mario Batali making it for you. I was actually at the shoot for Batali video shoot for the iPad in our October issue, and I was drooling. He's such an amazing communicator. You can see why it all comes together. We did a shoot with him and Joe Bastianich pegged to the opening of Eataly.

Oh yes, Eataly, coming in forever?
Well, I think it will finally open and it could indeed change the way people shop and eat in America.

So the iPad is one leg and there are seven others. We're working on that mobile app; an eat and drink mobile app; we're working on the building out parts of the site that aren't exercised right now. Oh yeah, and print.

There's a finite amount of energy and resources. Do you find yourself having to marshal your troops at one front at the expense of the other?
Not yet. So far so good. We're trying really hard to take what is at the brand core that each person is an expert at and adding on a little.

Are you being pushed by your parent company, American Express Publishing, or is it your idea into the iPad world?
American Express is insanely supportive. Each of these ways of communicating with people I embrace. It sounds sappy but basically I really believe there is this person, we call him the Always Hungry, who exists who wants to get this information in all these different ways. All these tentacles just solidify the connection with these people. There are some magazines which are doing just print and I feel sorry for them. They must feel that they're missing the boat. Not only am I on the boat but I'm on the Queen Mary, I'm on a great beautiful ship going in the right direction early on in cruise history. I'm a little polyannish.

I saw on your Twitter account, you describe yourself as pathologically positive.
That came from a year of dealing with breast cancer and being very cheerful about everything. I had a year of many many benefits and so that's where the idea of it came from. Then I looked at the rest of my life and I thought it doesn't take being sick or dealing with cancer to say, I want to see the happy side.

Have you always been like that, was there ever a dark Dana Cowin?
I think I've gotten lighter and lighter with age. In ten years they'll have to keep me down with ballast. I see more and more reasons for appreciation and not looking at something and feeling cranky about it.

[She stabs a tentacle.]

Are the Food & Wine Classics, and the Food Festivals, which seem to be growing exponentially, another major F+W component in the octopus?
Yes and we're doing more of them. We had Aspen, which is what we call the Granddaddy. Now there are so many young food festival, it's actually the Great Granddaddy. That's another tentacle. It's a big part in understanding the Always Hungry person.

But the demographics of who goes to these festivals are different.
But on the other hand, all those people really like the subject. They might like different ends of it but they are interested in food as entertainment. They fall along a continuum that says food is a fantastic part of life.

Do you find yourself striving to keep the balance between those ends. For instance, in this issue, you have two core features, one about Pierre Gagnaire and one about Best New Chefs. Then you have a big feature with Spike Mendelsohn. There's something about Tim Love who is another genre of chef whose restaurant isn't that well known but who appears consistently in food media.
I do spend a lot of time in my mind, in the matrix, making sure that I don't fall off the deep end and fall in love with every trend that comes my way or every artisanal cook who is making pigs trotter because really there is a core people who want to cook and they want to live this lifestyle. They may want to cook like Tim Love most of the time or they want to know about Pierre Gagnaire too or maybe they're two separate people.

It seems you are broadening the definition of what it means to be "into food."
At this point in time, it's broad. One reason is TV, which is another tentacle. The relationship we have with Top Chef is fantastic.

Do you watch regularly?
I do watch. To be honest, I don't watch every single one on the night it's one but if I miss one, I'll watch it and catch up. I love Top Chef, I love the personalities that come out and Gail Simmons being on that show is fantastic and, again, another type of food person. We're a big tent.

A big tent made out of an octopus.
A submarine.

In programs like Top Chef, food is simply the background in which chamber dramas are played out. Do you ever have reservations about commingling your brand with messages whose directions are dictated by extraculinary considerations?
At the heart of food there's already the narrative. Food isn't really about what's on the plate, entirely. This meal is about our conversation, with or without digital recorder. So something that has a narrative, like Top Chef, is great for that because it creates the emotional connection. My goal is to create that emotional connection because that is what makes good great. Not a tablespoon of olive oil.

[Waiter: Are you done with that?
DC: I just want to get that one last leg.
Waiter: I'd stab your fingers if you tried to take that away from me.
DC: Polite silence]

Is there any sort of emotional connection that doesn't fit with the brand?
We start from a foundation of simple, honest, good ingredients, from a farmer's market ideal. That's not to say we don't embrace a supermarket aesthetic but I think it is important to have that as a foundation from which things are built. So for example if there was a recipe that started with a lot of processed ingredients that was basically a lot of food combining, it wouldn't be a natural fit.

On the other hand many of the personalities who are associated with the brand through events do use processed ingredients, maybe like 70% processed and 30 percent fresh.
I guess with each of those people they are teaching you how to cook and that is all embracing.

It's a sticky wicket because telling people to cook, there's a lot of motives behind that. When Food & Wine is saying "Cook!" you are not motivated by much else but the food and joy of cooking, (not to say Amex Publishing isn't in the business of making money.) But when other people say "Cook!" if that message is coming from a place of late-market capitalism or of product deals, it is a completely different message.
You're saying some of these people's deals would get in the way of them creating healthy and good food. I don't come across that. Maybe I have blinders on but I feel like at the end of the day, all of the people who are trying to get their audiences to cook are trying to get them out of the habit of going to McDonald's, or grabbing a Coke. So I feel like at one level, all the way to the extreme of instead of eating at Daniel tonight, let me show you how to make his incredible crab and avocado frisee salad. If somebody has a deal with a high fructose corn syrup manufacturer that could be a problem but there's even a brighter side to that. As I said, I have a very cheerful view of things.

· Dana Cowin on the Lack of Female Best New Chefs [-E-]
· All Dana Cowin Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eaterrogations on Eater [-E-]

[Photo: Bravo]