Dana Cowin’s Little Secret
As the editor-in-chief of Food & Wine since 1995, Dana Cowin has her finger on the pulse of the food world, harnessing this country’s obsession with food and celebrity chefs, while setting the bar for quality, relevant journalism. Yet she harbored a secret: while she loved to entertain, she lacked confidence in the kitchen. Her brand new cookbook Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen chronicles Cowin’s quest to fix her culinary mishaps by cooking with some of the world’s most accomplished chefs—people like Batali, Keller, Chang and yes, even me. Here, we talk with Cowin about her path to the top and the biggest challenges along the way, dining with Julia Child, and what she learned from writing her new book.
AndrewZimmern.com: You’re the Editor in Chief of Food & Wine magazine. Tell us about your path and the milestones along the way.
Dana Cowin: I knew I wanted to be a writer ever since I was 8 years old and routinely took my cat to the park in a baby carriage and sat beside her writing poetry. I got a job working as an editorial assistant at Vogue magazine right after graduating from college and have been in the business ever since. After Vogue, I went to House & Garden for a good long time, then Mademoiselle for a short amount of time, then I arrived at Food & Wine, where I’ve been for 20 years. The link that connects all of my jobs is a fascination in the way people live and how they enjoy their free time, whether it’s dressing well, decorating well or eating well.
AZ.com: You are one of the most elegant, graceful, cool cucumbers in the business… so what were the three biggest challenges you faced over the years and how did you overcome them?
DC: Though my path to editor in chief of Food & Wine seems straight-forward—I’ve been involved in creating content for almost 30 years—the reality is far messier.
After I’d worked at Vogue for four years, I still hadn’t progressed much. I was writing up expense reports (very junior work), though I also got to do a little editing on manuscripts (more senior work). And I just wasn’t very good at it. I had to admit this to myself, which was painful. I woke up sad, was sad during the day and went home sad. So I quit. I had no idea what I’d do next, but I knew I wasn’t on a career path that involved fixing copy word-by-word. Facing facts proved better than ignoring them.
At my next job at House & Garden, I was almost fired when the person who hired me left for a job at another magazine. The editor-in-chief urged me to leave with the departing editor, but I felt I was in the right place. I loved the magazine, the editor-in-chief, the content. I fought to keep the job by enlisting a few people to help me make my case. Instead of being fired, I was promoted. Determination and action, instead of acceptance and resignation, were the keys to success here.
At Food & Wine, after two years into the job with positive feedback, I learned that the redesign that I’d overseen wasn’t successful. In fact, I was given six months to fix the problem. There’s nothing like the ticking clock as a motivator. I hired a new creative director, who helped turn the magazine around with a fresh look.
AZ.com: You’ve met, cooked and dined with some extraordinary culinary talent. Who’s surprised you the most and why?
DC: Julia Child, who was a contributing editor to Food & Wine, surprised me the most. I was quite intimidated by her since she was the Most Important Woman in the Food World at the time and, when I met her, I’d only recently discovered the difference between beef and pork (I’d filed both under MEAT). She was chatty, funny and hospitable and she gave me a tip I’ve remembered ever since: when eating in a restaurant, if you didn’t like the meal and the chef comes out to ask your opinion, just say, “We’ve had a marvelous time.” And leave it at that.
AZ.com: Our country’s growing obsession with food has married up perfectly with the ascent of Food & Wine magazine’s popularity. Can you explain our hyper fascination with food?
DC: There are many trends that have collided to make food the most fascinating topic of the day: the emergence of reality TV cooking shows, the availability of stellar diverse ingredients, the explosion of smart and delicious restaurants and bars that are affordable, the greening of America that propels people to farmers markets. The democratization of food has transformed eating and drinking.
AZ.com: The rise of chefs as celebrities has been derided by some. Many who are labeled that way don’t agree with the moniker. How do you see it?
DC: In my world, chefs are indeed celebrities. Our readers want to know everything about them: how to make their signature dishes, tips on where to eat and insight into what’s in their fridge. These chefs have huge followings, just like Leo Di Caprio or Cate Blanchett, and the smart chefs are using their fame to help others, like Andrew does with his favorite charities, or Tom Colicchio does with Food Policy Action group.
AZ.com: Where are you eating in NYC after a busy work day, just you and a pal?
DC: I wish I could say that after a long day at work, I have a low-key hangout that I return to, but I don’t. I’m always on the prowl for new experiences. My latest discovery: Dirty French from the Torissi-Carbone-Zalaznick trio. I love it!
AZ.com: We know you love restaurants, but you are a working mom! What’s your food life like at home with your husband and kids?
DC: I cook on the weekends, never during the week. On Saturday night, I love to have friends over and often make roasted vegetables and fish, grain salad, green salads. It’s very simple food. My 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son and I love pulling out baking ingredients and making “inventions,” which means combining flour, sugar, butter, milk and eggs without following a recipe.
AZ.com: We got a sneak peek at your very first cookbook, Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen. We love it! What inspired you to write this book?
DC: I have never been a very good cook, but I’ve always been a passionate entertainer. But the more I entertained the more mistakes I made, the more frustrated I became until I decided one day to fix the problem. I realized that being a bad cook was not like being short; it was not a genetic condition. I could become a better cook if I focused on it and had the right teachers. So I enlisted some of my favorite chefs, including Andrew, to teach me. Andrew gave me advice on how to make a terrific chicken stir fry. It rocked my world. And I’m not just saying that. It is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever made.
AZ.com: What’s the biggest cooking epiphany you’ve had now that the process is complete?
DC: After months, taking notes on my frequent failures in the kitchen, I realized that most of my mistakes were not caused by technical problems, but human ones. In order to become a better cook, I needed to become a better person—more patient, more focused.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
DC: My fridge is jam-packed. I’m not like one of those chefs with nothing in the fridge except Champagne. I have everything from excellent Jasper Hill Moses Sleeper cheese, Fra Mani Mortadella, Cambell fresh ricotta, kimchi, Wallabee Greek yogurt, uncured hot dogs, three kinds of lettuce, six vegetables, pickles, leftovers, white wine, coconut water, and on and on.
Get Dana’s recipe for Chicken Stir-Fry with Celery and Peanuts.
About Dana Cowin
Dana Cowin, Food & Wine’s editor-in-chief since 1995, has been covering the world of food, wine, style, and design for more than thirty years. She sits on the board of directors of City Harvest, a New York City hunger-relief organization; Wholesome Wave, dedicated to providing access to sustainable foods; and Hot Bread Kitchen, an organization that helps train low-income men and women to join the culinary workforce. In 2012, she was an inductee into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. She is an alumna of Brown University and lives in New York City with her husband and two children. To read more about Dana’s adventures, follow her at @fwscout on Twitter and Instagram.