Eating With Ed: On the New Food Media and Why Quiet Restaurants Deserve More Love

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Editor's Note: Welcome to Eating With Ed, in which we head to a great New York restaurant with Serious Eats founder Ed Levine to see what's on his mind.

The Date December 18, 2015

Where We're Eating
Parigot: Located on a quiet corner in Little Italy, this French bistro serves classics such as French onion soup, endive salads, and some of the best profiteroles NYC has to offer.
What We're Eating Ed: Parisian omelet, French onion soup, iced tea, and profiteroles Keith: Endive salad with blue cheese, walnuts, and apples; country pâté with toast; Perrier water; and—how could I resist?—profiteroles
What Ed's Thinking About The state of print food magazines, noisy restaurants, David Simon, digital media, and why podcasts are the new food blogs

KP: With Chris Kimball leaving Cook's Illustrated and Dana Cowin leaving Food & Wine, there have been some pretty significant power shifts in the food magazine world as of late. What's your take on all of this?

EL: I started Serious Eats nine years ago, when all the people in senior positions at the big food magazines were seemingly in place in perpetuity. But let's look at what's happened in the past year. Maybe it started when James Oseland left his job as editor-in-chief of Saveur in about 2014. Even though James wasn't one of the founding editors, he had a very strong association with that magazine. Like James at Saveur, Dana Cowin really developed and established the voice of Food & Wine. It's something even more pronounced with Chris Kimball, who founded Cook's Illustrated in 1980 and has long been the face of the magazine.That last one is particularly interesting to me, because Cook's Illustrated is such a strong brand. It means something very specific to cooks. Chris is the ultimate no-nonsense, just-the-facts kind of cook. I think his whole thing has always been, "People don't cook 100 recipes—they usually just cook 20, so let's make those 20 as good as they can be." I just think it's a sign of the times. Editors and the magazines themselves are moving on, and the foodscape is changing rapidly. As in many other industries, things that were considered lifetime jobs just aren't anymore.

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[Photograph: Courtesy of America's Test Kitchen]

KP: But how will this change the collective voice of these magazines? Of food publications in general?

EL: You would assume, with Cook's Illustrated, that there are so many people who came up under Chris—John "Doc" Willoughby, the executive editor, and editorial director Jack Bishop—that the voice will stay the same. Still, Chris is overwhelmingly the principal image that comes to mind when you think of Cook's Illustrated. The bow tie and the suspenders, the whole bit. They might have a hard time forging a new identity for themselves.

As far as those other magazines go, there is a large generational shift going on right now. If you think about people like Saveur's current editor-in-chief, Adam Sachs, or Bon Appétit's EIC, Adam Rapoport—"the Adams," I guess—they're younger than their predecessors, and they're probably more focused on digital media. That said, there's nobody who has figured out the roadmap for the continued growth and success of print food magazines, and print magazines in general. I mean, you can put out a magazine like Lucky Peach, which has a very niche audience, and has this very strong point of view, and is obviously geared toward a younger audience. But if you just think about magazines as a whole, no one knows what's next.

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Screenshot from Serious Eats, circa 2007.

KP: What's interesting to me is how much websites like Eater, Epicurious, and, yes, Serious Eats are moving more toward long-form writing, while many print magazines are moving away from it, focusing more on service and recipes than long-form writing.

EL: Yes. What's fascinating is that what digital publications like ours are doing is moving forward and, at the same time, hurtling backward. By "hurtling backward," I mean we are taking the time to do stories right. Remember, Serious Eats, in its first five or so years, was still observing blog orthodoxy. We had to publish every 20 minutes. When you have to do that, there is no way you can have any visual style, or the stringent editorial standards that we have now. It would have been impossible. We would have had to have 20 editors. We are really upping our game in terms of editorial rigor and design, things we learned how to do from print magazines like Gourmet and Saveur. I often think about how far we've come from the old days, when I would put up a really crappy photo along with a recipe I took from a friend's cookbook. I didn't hand it in to anybody to look at or edit. I just hit "Publish." But that's what Serious Eats was back in 2006 and 2007.

Now things have changed. For me, it's almost like a "be careful what you wish for" situation. Those stories I used to write up on the fly and publish—I can't do that anymore. I'm the victim of the way we're currently producing stories. They have to be edited by two or three people. They have to be arted. And while I might say it's annoying, I'm actually pretty proud of how far we've come. But I still gravitate toward hiring people who have a strong point of view, which has always been a way that I've sought to distinguish Serious Eats from our competitors.

KP: We've been complaining a lot lately about how noisy restaurants are these days. Are we just becoming cranky old men, or is it a real issue?

EL: I think this is a generational thing. As I get older, I have less and less tolerance for screaming in order to talk to my dinner companion. I don't think younger people think twice about it. I get it, though. Restaurants are trying to create a party, so they crank up the music because people like to feel the energy associated with loud music. But I prefer the energy of the restaurant we're sitting in right now. I like the subtle energy of people quietly conversing. It's an energy all its own. I wish this restaurant was in my neighborhood. I would eat here once a week. Places like this are surprisingly few and far between in New York these days. It's weird, because you would think it's just the kind of place New York would embrace. It's not trendy. It's just great. I guess people go to restaurants for different reasons. They go to have different kinds of experiences. When I go out to eat, I want to share a meal and have a good conversation with someone I know, or someone I want to get to know. To me, restaurants need to facilitate communication. And it's hard to imagine some of the noisier restaurants in New York accommodating that.

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[Photograph: Clay Williams]

KP: You mentioned that you wanted to talk about food politics and food insecurity. What do you think the food media's responsibility is there? What should we be doing?

EL: Food insecurity is an issue we should all be concerned about. Today people are obsessed about where their food is raised, how it is raised, and how it is grown. I think those things are really important. But isn't it more important that in the richest country in the world, we have so many people who literally don't know where their next meal is coming from? It bothers me that it's an issue that's not front and center, and maybe we should be talking about it more. I don't want us to scold the world. There are a lot of scolding food writers out there. We don't have to scold anyone to call attention to these issues. I just think that we, in the food media, have been at a loss to sustain interest in and coverage of the issues at the heart of food. Food touches everything, right? It's obviously political, and it's sociological. It's historical and anthropological—it's all those things. I think that's why we all do this, right? It's why we're all fascinated by it. Some people in the food world are already really involved in this stuff. I'm excited about Tom Colicchio's new nonprofit, which is inspiring people to start caring more about government food policy. His wife, Lori Silverman, also did a wonderful film about American families dealing with food insecurity in her documentary called A Place at the Table.

KP: Let's talk a little about food podcasts. After years of running a food blog, why did you decide to start producing Special Sauce?

EL: Even though people have been making them for a while, podcasts are still in their infancy. And that's the fun part. I've always loved telling stories on the radio (I had a radio show for a while on WNYC). I think, with regards to food, podcasts can be compared to the early days of blogging—just as the internet allowed food writers to do away with gatekeepers like The New York Times or Gourmet, podcasts have allowed radio producers to move into a less modulated or traditional space. Think about the state of commercial radio. It's very much oriented toward the lowest common denominator. With podcasts, though, the hosts often have as much to say as the guests do. A friend of mine named Brian Koppelman has a great podcast called The Moment. After listening to one of my Special Sauce podcasts, he said, "You know, it's really good, but don't be afraid to talk for a while yourself." We're trained as interviewers to ask discreet questions. To give the interviewees the room to roam and expand upon their answers. But one of the things I hope makes Special Sauce a little different is that the audience gets to feel like they are eavesdropping on a party conversation, something I hope they find both provocative and interesting.

KP: While Special Sauce has featured guests such as Gail Simmons and Rich Torrisi, your guests have also included people like The Wire creator David Simon (airing this week), not to mention his wife, the novelist Laura Lippman, who aren't necessarily known as food people. Is there a reason you choose to interview people from outside the food world?

EL: Food is always the point of departure, but this podcast is really about food and life. Saying that gives me license to have guests who aren't just food people—or to welcome guests who have become food people, even if they're known for something else. Take Phil Rosenthal, who created Everybody Loves Raymond, but has a show on PBS called I'll Have What Phil's Having. We just recorded David Simon. He loves food, and we've had a lot of really interesting meals together. In many ways, the least interesting part of those meals was the food. Maybe that's the point of Special Sauce—food as the departure point. I just want it to be a conversation, a conversation that's real.