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Adam Rapoport on the Bon Appétit Relaunch and Future Plans

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[Photo: Eater.com]

The much-anticipated May issue of Bon Appétit hit the newsstands yesterday — it's the relaunch issue of the magazine under new editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport. The magazine's website is also relaunching today with new blog posts from the editors and the Test Kitchen team.

Although there are changes, "the core of what has made the magazine so strong for 55 years won't change," said Rapoport. The magazine offers a lot to look forward to: a new column from Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, an essay from Gabrielle Hamilton, a backpage from comedian Aziz Ansari, and a primer on pasta-making from Oliver Strand. Here now, an interview with Adam Rapoport:

So tell me about the magazine.
One element of this whole process has been having to do a lot of talking about the magazine. Which in one sense, you just get so sick of hearing yourself talk, but on the other hand it really does make you think about, well, what should this magazine be. How to explain it to the corporate brass on the 11th floor, to have to explain it to the ad sales team, to have to explain it to your staff — you hate to admit it, but that's actually a good exercise, because it helps you sort of distill well what is it that we're trying to do, and what magazine we're trying to make.

And part of it is what makes an exciting magazine and what makes a balanced magazine. And all the notions like, well let's make it more topical and more timely, let's get Aziz Anzari in there, let's get David Chang for a look at his app, let's get Gabrielle Hamilton with an exclusive essay... but at the same token let's also make sure that the recipes are as great as they've ever been, make sure we have great photography, let's get all that basic, fundamental cooking advice that any food magazine should have. And then let's make it look beautiful. After all this talk and thought, these are the three pillars that we looked to: Let's make it look good, let's make sure the service is spot-on, and let's make sure it's very right now.

bon-appetit-may-2011-cover.jpgIs that what you wanted and what you needed, or is it you trying to fill this need that was out there?
I guess that was perhaps that was more personal in terms with what I wanted to do with the magazine, but also certainly conscious of what the point of this magazine is. You can talk all you want about making cool, creative edit, but at the same time, this a magazine with 1.5 million circulation, it's a big, big brand for Condé Nast. Let's not screw it up.

There are certain expectations.
You've got 1.5 million loyal readers, so you want to keep them happy. And you also want to attract new readers, and you know, let's do something that's gonna hopefully attract an advertiser that's not been coming to the magazine. You definitely have to be conscious of a lot of different interests at play. But ultimately, and I kind of write this in the editor's letter, you have to edit from your gut, it's gotta be something that you feel strongly about and care about, because if you don't then the readers aren't going to care.

I think you do stuff that excites you and that you're passionate about while keeping in mind who the reader is, who the advertiser is, and what Condé Nast stands for. It's definitely been an exercise and a learning experience in terms of balancing all those things. I don't know if you bat a 1.000 always,, but you're constantly adjusting and evolving with tweaks, but I do like the balance of this issue.

And coming from GQ, with my ten years there, what I loved doing was taking something that I think a lot of readers felt was a little esoteric or a little beyond them or perhaps a little intimidating, be that fashion or food, and breaking it down and explaining it, making it relatable and fun. If you just document what's cool and hip, then it feels unfriendly and a little too cool for school, and that's never the type of editor I've been, I've always tried to make it things that I myself could relate to and the reader by extension.

And what about the role of print vs online?
You have to offer more than recipes. If all you're offering is recipes, then just go online. But I think with print, there's got to be a lot of point of view, there's got to be a lot of opinion, with things like 30 reasons we love Italy, that pasta primer? Let's not just give recipes but let's explain how to cook.

Right, the visual presentation—
That's the sort of thing I kind of did a lot at GQ and I'm trying to integrate that more sort of packaging and format for the magazine. But if you just get a recipe off of a recipe website, they don't often really explain or teach you how to cook a dish, they just give you a recipe. And what I'd like to do is explain and teach a lot each issue. That's kind of what's important to me. There's gotta be great explanation and advice and it's gotta be fun to read.

Like I said, if it's just recipes, then, yeah you might as well be online. We're trying offer a lot more than just recipes, we're offering voice, we're offering point of view, and yeah, it should be fun. But also something you can use. It's ruing to strike that balance between something you use and something you read. And I do think in the magazine, and it always has been, that it's something you use. For years, it's had so many readers because they trust the recipes and they cook from the magazine. I keep going back to the recipes work. So we can't get away from that. You cannot screw that up. The test kitchen team is such an important part of the magazine.

Who's on the test kitchen team?
We hired Hunter Lewis who used to run the test kitchen at Saveur and he was recommend to me by the Lee brothers, he worked with them on their cookbook, and Hunter's great just because he has a strong cooking background having worked at Saveur, having worked at Jonathan Waxman's restaurant in the kitchen, worked on cookbooks, but was also a reporter on the metro beat down in North Carolina after he graduated from UNC, so he's got a strong editorial background.

So that was important, I wanted more input from the test kitchen, I want them to be an editorial presence, I want the reader that he or she gets to know Hunter and Janet McCracken and they should be voices throughout the magazine. Because they are the authority and they have so much knowledge, so let's get them on page. And Janet McCracken, who's the number two in the test kitchen, she was the one person from the test kitchen from LA to come over, and that was important to me just because to have that torch bearer, that continuity, because it's such a special part of the magazine, let's make sure we continue that success and we can all learn a lot from Janet, so it was important to get her on staff.

Do we find you a lot in the test kitchen?
It's funny, the test kitchen is one floor down. We have yet to build a bat pole to get down there, you still have to take the stairs or the elevator. If and when we move down to Wall Street, we'll have some fancy new test kitchen that is very accessible to us. I get down there when I can or when it's stories I think definitely matter. Problem is, recipe tasting is usually at like 2:30 or 3, so you kind of already had lunch, you know, I'm not really hungry right now, but I kinda feel like I should, but then I have an early dinner I don't want to spoil my appetite, so it's one of those conundrums.

One thing that's really important to me is that the editors are very involved in the testing process. If you're editing a story, you need to be down there, tasting the food, talking to the test kitchen. If it's a travel story or something you tasted elsewhere, you need to let the test kitchen know, you know what, it's like this but it should be a little bit crispier or the sauce should be a little richer.

Or, if it's something that they're developing, you should be talking to them and learning from them, like what techniques are involved, so you can then highlight them in the text. It's hugely crucial that there is a constant open-door policy between edit and the test kitchen and art also, we should all care about the food on page, both explaining it and photographing it. And that's another thing: making sure the food looks right.

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What's your philosophy on photography?
I want the food to be graphic and beautiful. But you know what? Great if there are crumbs, great if there's parchment, great if there's a kitchen counter. It should feel real with natural light. I do want it to look graphic and beautiful, but it has to look like it's something that was cooked by an actual, home cook. It's the magazine for home cooks. I want there to be a beautiful realness to it. Look at the page with the affogato on it, it's a very simple coffee with an espresso, but you can see the espresso is on the bottom of the cup. You can see the bottle caps. You can taste the glaze on that salmon. It's beautiful but it's real. And I think that that's what I'm going for, I am a fan more of natural light and more authentic style.

If you look at one of our columns, Stock Market with Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, who do that cookbook series Canal House Cooking, and they helped found Saveur, and Christopher, she was the one who kind of defined the Saveur look back in the 90s, photographing food in a natural, real style, and not overly-styled, just good food shot naturally and beautifully.

As someone growing up in the 90s and moving to New York, that was hugely influential on me, and I would buy the magazines and I would hold on to them, and I still have the first two years of Saveur still stacked up at home. They were such beautiful perfectly-made magazines I felt bad throwing them away. That influences the way I sort of like to see food, and then to be able to get Melissa and Christopher to do a monthly column for the magazine which was so cool and exciting. And then oddly enough, her sister Gabrielle Hamilton happens to have an essay in this issue as well. That's just pure happenstance. As I say, she's an annoyingly good writer. But it was great to have her in the issue.

So what's the story behind this month's issue?
The Italy issue was something that had been in the works for a while. A couple of these stories were something the ad side and the edit side were working on. Two of the stories in here, the Rome story, Hugh Garvey's piece on taking your kids to Rome, land of pizza, pasta, gelato, that story was shot last spring, as well as the Emilia story. There were four travel stories shot, and we held one, one wasn't working so we killed it, and a third one was working, but when you got Rome, and Emilia, and a Florence cooking school story, as different as Rome is from Florence perhaps, when you've got 30 pages of Italy it looks like 30 pages of Italy, it's a bit much, so we held on story. In terms of the Italy issue, that's how it came about.

And what about the design?
On terms of font and typefaces, you're gonna see some changes in the June issue, which comes out next month. It'll be an evolution. We're gonna be, let's see if this works, how about we try that. It's a big difference between what we do and what you guys do is that you can change things this afternoon at 2pm. We have to wait a month. You have to get it right, and see what you like. There is trial and error, and there should be trial and error, if you just lock it down for the first issue, then you're gonna have a boring magazine on your hands.

One of the things I learned at GQ and kind of stress is that there should be this constant state of reinvention, that you should constantly be trying to find the next best cool thing, and then once you find it, ride it for a little while. But after a while, you know what? Alright, we did that, on to the next one. We'll try something new. It's still part of the family and still connected to what your overall philosophy is, reinvent without tearing down.

I can talk here and sit here and talk about what the magazine is going to be like in six months but what's exciting is that I don't entirely know. I have an 80% idea but there are surprises that make a magazine interesting and our jobs interesting but not so predictable.

And the cover?
In terms of what to shoot, i love just a clean, graphic cover, and there's something simple and beautiful about pasta pomodoro and made the right way and it's glossy and luxurious and there's a luxurious simplicity to it.

Do you want to address the rumor about the celebrity covers and the one from the New York Post?
There might be a celebrity on the cover next month, I'll leave it at that. It's so speculative right now, but my feeling is that I probably want to do people on the cover a couple of times a year to sort of anchor a service package or a special issue. That's how I feel, I'm curious how the reader is going to feel. What I do think is that there are so many interesting people, tastemakers, personalities, and celebrities out there now who really do know food, care a lot about it, and practice what they preach, and we should be getting those people into the magazine and occasionally on the cover.

If you look at that Aziz Ansari back of the napkin page — the extended interview goes online tomorrow — Aziz is a funny dude who's got his eye on the scene, is at every party there is, but the guy really, really knows his restaurants and has an opinion and really cares. So the notion is, let's not just try to put some random celebrity on the back page, let's find the people who really know what they're talking about. And there are a lot of them out there, they're not hard to find now.

That's the thing, they should make sense within the flow of the magazine. Getting the Missoni family into the magazine, it's like yes, they're this fashion dynasty, quote-unquote, but you know what? Grandma still cooks dinner and they sit around as a family and eat at the table as only Italians do, and family is crucially important to them, as is eating.

Are you going to bring that in? Because you have a fashion background.
Yeah, I think it could be someone explicitly from the world of fashion, or someone sort of tangentially involved. It could be a fashion designer, or it could be a store owner, or it could be an interior design person. But the challenge is finding the ones who really have a passion for food. And then when you do those stories, and I mentioned this before, it's great that you've got cool, hip people in a magazine who photograph well, but you have to have recipes that work, and service needs to anchor those stories

So the people who subscribe to this magazine for what to cook tonight, what to cook this week and what to cook this month, they still need to get recipes out of those stories. So whether or not they've heard of that fashion designer, or care who that fashion designer is, or who that musician is, ultimately it doesn't matter. If they're interested about them, great, if not they've still got those really great recipes that are really well explained and there's a story behind those recipes. That how I kind of feel, let's make sure that the subjects of the stories are timely and interesting, but then let's also make sure those stories offers great service. So if you don't know or don't care who that subject is, you're still going to get your recipes. That's the strategy for those sorts of stories.

Where do you see the website going?
I'm never quite sure what the proper verbiage is. Yeah, the website will have a new look that will be more in step with the magazine visually. I think it needs to have more of a voice and have more content generated from the staff. There are so many people on the staff who are out every night, eating, and have opinions and know chefs and know what's going on, so let's get that and mainline it into the website.

It needs to have more of a pulse, just like Eater does. What went on today in the test kitchen, where did Andrew Knowlton eat last night, what is Christine Muhlke worked up about today. Let's get that on page so you can come every day and there'll be a more sort of a vital heartbeat to the website that you can check in once a day, twice a day, a few times a week, find out what's going on in the Bon App world. As well as there will always be those 6,000 Bon Appétit recipes for you, there will be chef videos, the library of recipes and cooking advice that the average home cook wants to go to.

So that's now the goal: that it can be a resource for the home cook, it can also sort of be entertainment and amusement for the person who's just sort of sitting at their computer in the middle of the day, bored at work and they want to log in and see what's going on. They can be occupied for ten minutes.

But I would like instead of once a month for a recipe, come back several times a week, find out what's happening at Bon App. And then about a year from now, depending on what's going on Condé Nast-wise, we should have a full, completely redesigned, relaunched new technology. It'll be a lot more in our hands in terms of design and day-to-day operation. Because Condé Nast is a big company and everyday the magazines themselves get a lot more autonomy when it comes to apps and websites and all of it will be done in-house. Which is exciting, and hasn't always been done that way here.

Are you thinking about branching to TV?
Listen, if you're a food magazine and you're not involved in TV, there's just no excuse. We should be having a project that's more ours. And that's something we're working on, we're developing, and I would really love to give you the details, but there's not really details to be given at this moment. All I can say is that yeah, that's a priority. As we're constantly reminded here, Bon Appétit isn't just a magazine, it's a brand. So there is TV, and there is websites, and there will be an app. There are cookbooks and ebooks and we have an HSN deal — Home Shopping Network — that's a big project that's going to be launching in late fall.

So you've got your hands full.
Yeah, it's funny, it's like those old days when you just put out a magazine, we look back at them longingly. No, it's exciting. I'd rather have too much to do than too little to do. And hopefully, obviously, the aim is you hire a lot of smart people who will love to take ownership of these various factions of the brand and run with them. It's exciting and it's a little daunting, but hopefully it's one of those things once you kind of start doing it and you get a handle on it then it becomes less and less daunting and more natural.

And where do you see it going?
What's important to me is keeping those one and a half million readers we have and building on that. There are a lot of readers who read Eater or read the Times food section who are going to Roberta's out in Brooklyn or this pop-up or that pop-up who aren't reading Bon App and I think they should be. I think we need to speak to them, those people who are obsessive about food and really on top of every day what's going on in the food world. As well as my mom who subscribes and my sister who subscribes and half my friends from high school who are already subscribers.

Why the divide? I mean, all those things are one and the same, right?
I don't know, that's a good question. I think for whatever reason, the magazine in the past was not speaking as much to the average Eater reader, for instance. And that's something where I was like, you know what, these people, people who are logging on to food blogs and websites everyday who really care about food and love to cook, they should be reading this magazine. We need to speak to them as much as we are already speaking to our core audience. And there is not as much crossover as I think there should have been in the past.

Food should always be about more than just food. There should be people, there should be travel, there should be style. There should be all of these elements. Food is sort of a fulcrum which we balance our lives on, whether it's going to meet friends for dinner or planning a trip around where you want to go eat, or what you're wearing to dinner that night, so much of it is around food.

Because you know what? Going to ruins is boring. And you have to plan your trip around something. But yeah, when I was growing up, I mean we weren't gourmands or anything, but when we were on a trip at breakfast we were talking about where we were gonna eat lunch, and at lunch we were talking about where we were having dinner, and at dinner we would talk about where we were having dinner the next day.

So yeah, maybe we were skiing or going to the beach in between, but the meals were always the pillars of the day. So you can do that, but let's get in all that stuff in between, before, after and during the meal. Because it's never just about the food.


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