Dana Cowin spent 21 years at the helm of Food & Wine magazine. During her decades-long tenure as editor in chief, she was instrumental in shifting the way people think about and interact with the food world. Cowin sat down with Eater Upsell host Helen Rosner on a recent episode to discuss how Food & Wine contributed to the rise of the celebrity chef.
In the early 2000s, Cowin and Rosner estimate, food became not just something to eat, but an experience to have. “You wanted to think about what to eat not just for breakfast, but lunch, [and] dinner; you wanted to plan your vacations around it. You wanted to really get to know the chef who'd come out of the kitchen, and it was all kind of sexy and great,” Cowin says.
And as casual restaurant experiences started to become the best kind of restaurant experiences (a change Cowin attributes to David Chang’s groundbreaking NYC restaurant Momofuku Noodle Bar), the appetite for content around food reached a fever pitch. “There was more and more connection to the places we were writing about and the chefs,” Cowin says. “[Readers’] rabid interest in what's new and what's next — we could never give [them] enough of that, nor insight into the interior life of the chefs.”
To respond to that interest, Food & Wine included more and more coverage of chefs’ lives outside of their restaurants, with interesting results. “It was always funny when you tried to expose the real life of the chef, because you'd want to go home with them,” Cowin says. But, back then, going to a chef’s home wasn’t nearly as glamorous as readers might have imagined. Cowin explains: “This was at that moment where the chefs didn't have any money to have a nice kitchen. They had a crappy stove that came with the rental.”
Over the decade-plus since then, Food & Wine partnered with Top Chef (Cowin herself a frequent guest), which has skyrocketed chefs to celebrity status, and the kind of “chef off duty” coverage the magazine helped originate has been done nearly to death. “It's such a cliché zone: ‘Where do the chefs go for dinner?’ I see that, I have to close my phone,” Cowin says now. “We've been on that topic for way too long.”
But, when modern-day celebrity chefs do take photographers into their homes, their kitchens are sure to be camera ready. “The kitchens are gorgeous. Even if they don't cook in them, they certainly can heat up foods from the restaurant really beautifully,” Cowin jokes.
Hear the complete interview with Dana Cowin below, as she muses on meal kits, ugly food, and why it’s an exciting time to be a woman in the restaurant industry. Subscribe to the Eater Upsell on iTunes, or listen on Soundcloud. You can also get the entire archive of episodes right here on Eater.