Interview: Dana Cowin

Editor-in-chief Dana Cowin has served up Food & Wine Magazine since 1995, expanding its coverage to include elements of lifestyle, entertaining, and trend-spotting.

Interview: Dana Cowin

Editor-in-chief Dana Cowin has served up Food & Wine Magazine since 1995, expanding its coverage to include elements of lifestyle, entertaining, and trend-spotting.

PRWeek: How did you come to work for Food & Wine (F&W), after years of working for more lifestyle-oriented magazines?

Dana Corwin: I was working first at Vogue, and then House & Garden, and then Mademoiselle. And, after working at these fantastic magazines about this great luxury lifestyle, there was an opportunity here at Food &Wine. I said to the president of the company, at the time, “I think that Food & Wine Magazine could be much more than a magazine about recipes and wine recommendations. It has the seeds of something that embraces the whole lifestyle of food, wine, entertaining, travel, design style.” And, he liked that idea. And, I came to Food & Wine [as editor-in-chief] because I thought I could bring the lifestyle sensibility here and that's what I've been doing since I arrived.

PRWeek: Were you always a foodie?

I come from a very long line of non-cooks, as far back as anyone could remember the best thing probably anyone made was gefilte fish, not a best seller in my mind. So, I wasn't a foodie in that way. I was a foodie in that I was interested in going to the best restaurants I could afford, at the time, and always going to new restaurants. So, still a huge part of the Food & Wine lifestyle I talk about here. Maybe, I'm not the best cook. I wasn't, and I'm still not, but I always loved restaurants, and the way that the restaurant culture has evolved since I got here, or in college. There's so much interesting food you can eat and you can become a die-hard foodie just by eating out.

PRWeek: How has Food & Wine evolved since foodie culture has taken a firmer foothold in the media, in the past five years?

We believe that it's a fantastic thing that the general media have caught up with how fantastic the world of Food & Wine is. I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One of them is that if you think about chefs, who are the stars you can meet. Celebrities in Hollywood you can't really meet them too much. You might stumble across a movie star eating in a restaurant in New York or LA, but in general you see them on the screen. Stars that are chefs will come out of the kitchen, and they'll talk to you.

[As in the feature “Best New Chefs 2008”], we're most proud of our ability to spot talent and find trends, because one thing that happened with food becoming a general interest to more and more of the population is that people are interested in newer things faster. It used to be you'd use to have a trend be on slow-burn, but now, with people so hungry for news every minute, you can't just stop at herbes-de-provence. You have to branch out into surprising ethnic cuisines, like Marcus Samuelson, who is a fantastic chief, who is best known for Aquavit [the Scandinavian restaurant] has just done a Pan-African restaurant downtown called Merkato 55. There are fantastic things there that I've either only read about or had at small, ethnic restaurants, but now a big, fancy restaurant in [New York's Meatpacking District] can have anjero, which is spongy Ethiopian bread.

PRWeek: How does Food & Wine keep up with trends, particularly in wine, which requires a high degree of expertise and localized focus?

[Wine is] another thing we're incredibly excited to cover in depth. If you want to be connoisseur and know more than everybody else it takes a huge amount of study and not just about words on paper, you have to drink, drink, drink. By drinking, you'll know what wines you like, understand the characteristics of different varietals, and how varietals have different expressions in different countries where the climates are different, and could go even deeper because could find out in burgundy why one plot of land right next to another plot of land could give you different pinot noirs. But, the thing to remember with wine is, trying to explore something that tastes great, you could know nothing.

At the magazine, we're very specific about good wines paired with different dishes, because we know readers like to do both of those things. [It's] equally fantastic to buy five different affordable pinots and pair them with different dishes, and don't be intimidated by how much you don't know if you like what you're drinking. It absolutely doesn't matter what you know about it. The only thing you need to know is that it's fun and [you] should experiment, and don't worry that you don't [know] about the great wine makers [or that] you haven't had 1979 Cheval Blanc. Most people haven't. So, yes, we do have good expertise, an incredible wine department, and that's great for us and great to share that knowledge with the readers, but for the average drinker, I say just drink.

PRWeek: Do PR professionals assist in finding these new trends for Food &Wine?

PR people can be incredibly helpful to us. And the most helpful ones we find are very excited about their own restaurants or own piece of cheese or wine. But they realize that often, in order for a story to happen, we need to have three, because magazine editors always like to have things in threes. One doesn't make a trend. Two doesn't make a trend. But, three does make a trend. Just enough of critical mass to say that there are probably more out there, and probably more to come.

Often PR people are really involved in this world, and can say, ‘Here's the thing I can tell you about my clients, but have also noticed a trend in goat cheese, that's goat-cow mixes, go take a look into that.' And, we'll follow their lead. Also, PR people who know what's truly new, and what's been covered endlessly, [are helpful] because we are deep, deep into this food culture and we're only interested in things if someone tells us something is brand new. We want them to be absolutely accurate because we're on top of a lot of things, but not everything. We love people who tell us things we don't know.

PRWeek: Food & Wine provides a platform for so many products, from flatware to appliances, [is there] any further advice you would give PR professionals who would like to develop a relationship with Food & Wine?

We cover so many areas: food products, restaurants, chefs, entrepreneurs, travel, [etc.]. We like to have some kind of food focus, whether [it's] a hotel, a restaurant, or a country estate. We're always looking to find out what is it, that's exemplary in the place of food and wine. So, you could tell us about a fantastic set of cottages, that's beautifully designed, but if there's no food angle at all, it will take us a long time to get to it.

In general, our readers are obsessed with food and wine, they wake up in the morning thinking not only about breakfast, but lunch, dinner, and maybe even breakfast the next day. So, when they travel, they are interested in all those things as well.

[Also, we're] interested in table tops, so anything that's for the home that relates to the way people eat or drink, so it could be kitchen design, including refrigerators, kitchen designers, floors, lighting, dining room, dining room table, art for walls, electronics, ways to compile recipes as well as what's going to go on top of the table.

[That's] not only what we cover in the magazines in terms of our New/Notes pages, but also our photo-shoots. Each one is styled from zero, and so we have to find all the flatware, bowls, plates, placemats, and tables for those photo-shoots, so [there is] opportunity there [to pitch].

Also, anything that has to do with wine, winery, wine making, those fantastic new decanters or glasses. Anything that involves in some way directly or indirectly eating or drinking will be inevitably of interest to us.

And, at the magazine, there are different people who would be responsive to different pitches. For example, Salma Abdelnour and Jen Murphy do much of the travel. Also, [Murphy] deals with style and design, as does Jessica Romm, who styles much of those photo-shoots and also does things inside the magazine. Michelle Shih, Kristin Donnelly, and Chris Quinlan handle kitchen, so that would [go to] appliances and kitchen design. And, for the wine, there's Ray Isle and Megan Krigbaum. Better off trying to direct pitches [to editors].

PRWeek: What does the demographic of your readership look like?

[Our] demographic is basically adventurous people who often live in urban areas, but as the food blankets the country, we have exciting pockets of people all across the country They're in mid-forties have a couple of kids, and I think about them really less in terms of their age and income, [as much as] in terms of psychographics. These are people who are excited to try something different and who define themselves by their love of food and wine. So, they might be fantastic travelers, sportsmen, chief executives, but the thing that gets them excited is food and wine.

PRWeek: As editorial advisor for Food & Wine's first international edition in China, could you explain how the Food & Wine brand remains consistent?

We had fantastic meeting with our counterparts on the Chinese magazine, and so we've worked with them on trying to bring some of the Food & Wine sensibility to China, understanding that a lot of what we cover is not exactly accessible to them. [It would be] as if trying to do Food & Wine recipes in Chinatown, you could find some ingredients, but can't find all of them, and also the palate is different. We try to help them with the overall look of the magazine and try to point them towards stories that we think would translate well. We work with them on the magazine line up a little bit. We really trust these editors to take the feeling behind food and wine and translate it to their audience because I would never pretend to know what would be exactly right for their audience.

PRWeek: Are you having dinner tonight with Thomas Keller or Jean-Georges Vongerichten?

[Neither]. Mario Batali. Tonight is a benefit for Food Bank of New York City and Mario is the honoree, so there you have it. Another great charity, another great chef, another great evening of food.

Name: Dana Cowin
Title: Editor-in-chief
Outlet: Food & Wine Magazine
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