Interview with Barbara Fairchild

Marc Matsumoto

Hi! I'm Marc, and I want to teach you some basic techniques while giving you the confidence and inspiration to cook without recipes too!

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We ask Barbara Fairchild, Editor-in-Chief of Bon Appétit ten questions on food, bloggers, and the future of food writing.

In this age of endless free content, citizen journalism and 140 character reporting, print publications have been having a rough couple of years. No one has written the definitive guide on how to successfully move a print business online, and it's still a swirling pool of primordial ideas and experiments.

Bon Appétit Magazine has shown resilience during a tough time, having survived a round of closures by their parent company, and I believe a large part of their success has been their ability to adapt to a rapidly changing market. Barbara Fairchild, the Editor-in-Chief of Bon Appétit has been there for over thirty years, yet her views on food, consumers, and publishing are anything but stagnant. I'm particularly encouraged by their efforts to reach out to the food blogger community, a group that a more shortsighted periodical might consider competition (or at least a group of inexperienced rabble-rousers)

I had the fortune of being invited to Bon Appétit's holiday blogger bake-off last December along with a group of very talented food bloggers. As luck would have it, I won the bake-off with my kabocha cream cake, and walked away with a trip to Bon Appétit's Vegas Uncork'd event.

Well, it's almost May, and I'll be flying out to Vegas next week for what will undoubtedly be a long weekend of overindulging in food and drink. Before I succumb to a calorie induced coma, I had the chance to interview Barbara Fairchild, who revealed her thoughts on food bloggers, changes in the American culinary landscape, and how Bon Appétit is going to take over the world.

Marc: When did you discover your passion for food?

Barbara: I think that I've always been interested in cooking. Food was very important in our house growing up - my mother is a very good cook. When I was in junior high, they still taught home economics, and that was my favorite class - the half the year they taught cooking—not the sewing! I was about 12 then.

Marc: Having been at Bon Appétit for quite some time, you have a unique perspective on the culinary world. What are some of the biggest changes in our nation's food scene over the past 30 years?

Barbara: I think we've seen more changes in the past five years than the last 25 before - or maybe it just seems they've happened more quickly. In broad strokes: We had the advent of the robot coupe/Cuisinart in the late 1970s that led to more ease in the kitchen in general. Then came the first wave of “New American Cooking,” with chefs like Bradley Ogden, Dean Fearing, Robert Del Grande, Jasper White, Paul Prudhomme, Stephan Pyles, and of course Wolfgang Puck. Certainly Jeremiah Tower cooking at Chez Panisse was very influential. Lots of new talent came up in the 80s and 90s; ingredients from all over the world also started coming into the supermarket, giving so many more people access and inspiring their curiosity to try new recipes; and there was the resurgence of farmers’ markets, too. And now in the last five years, the internet and food on TV has had a revolutionary impact.

Marc: When Gourmet closed, there was an Op-Ed in the Times that seemed to point the finger towards food bloggers and the Internet as a driving force behind the demise of the institution. Do you see food bloggers as a part of the problem or a part of the solution?

Barbara: They are not part of the problem at all. Bon Appétit has made it a point to embrace all aspects of new media. It's important for us to include it all in what we do - we're much more than a monthly magazine now - we're a multiplatform foodie resource. I'm actually very proud of the fact that Bon Appétit was the first epicurean magazine (and I believe still the only one) that has a blogger as a monthly columnist in the print publication (Molly Wizenberg/Orangette)

Marc: Times are tough in the publishing industry. What advice would you give to an aspiring food writer?

Barbara: Put yourself out there in as many ways as you can. Have a blog, go to conferences, read, eat, travel, and experience as much as you can. All that will pay off.

Marc: Where would you like to see Bon Appétit in five years?

Barbara:We're after world domination! Just kidding. But Bon Appétit has always been a leader in the field, and I only see bigger and better things for us in the future.

Marc: This is the fourth year that Bon Appétit will be doing Las Vegas Uncork'd. What kind of crowd typically attends? How has the crowd changed over the years?

Barbara: Well, typically, it's an upscale, involved, and engaged group of men and women who are very supportive of the magazine and what we do. I'm always delighted to see a real cross-section in age as well. We have guests who come to us through the magazine, but increasingly, we see (and meet) those who come to us through bonappetit.com and our social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare). This is so great and encouraging to me. The Grand Tasting on Friday night (May 7 this year) is an excellent overview—we had 1,200 last year, looking at 1,500 this time—I meet people from everywhere, all ages, all having a fantastic time.

Marc: Is there any event you are especially looking forward to this year?

Barbara: It's hard to pick just one. I really enjoy the dinner that I host on Thursday night at Guy Savoy—it's lovely to kick off the weekend in an intimate way like this, with Guy's superb food as the showcase. I also love the Grand Tasting because I get to see so many people and talk to them. I love that Alain Ducasse has two great events this year, Chef's Table and Better by the Bay. Both are a wonderful opportunity to meet him. I’m really excited about my one-on-one interview with Wolfgang Puck. And the Interactive Luncheon at Wynn is always a favorite of mine because people really get to have hands-on participation; unique and fun.

Marc: How would you compare the Las Vegas food scene to Los Angeles and New York City?

Barbara: Las Vegas has a lot more glitz, but the food always delivers. In LA, we’re more laid back, and experimentation is still alive and well. No rules, that’s why so many trends start in LA. The food is wonderful, and there is also a lot of ethnic diversity. New York runs the gamut from fancy to food trucks—to cater to the huge number of people who eat out as a matter of course there rather than cook at home.

Marc: It wasn't long ago when you had to be desperately enamored with food, or just desperate, to choose a life as a chef. In an age where chef's have rock-star status, more and more people are gravitating towards the profession. Do you think this is having a positive or negative impact on the quality of food?

Barbara: Neither, really—if you can't cut it as a chef, you'll lose your job. One thing some people don't realize is that being a chef is very, very hard work. It takes a long time and a lot of cooking to gain celebrity status that lasts. If you don't have the chops to back it up, you simply won't make a career of it.

Marc: You must spend a lot of time eating meals that others have prepared. When you are at home, what do you enjoy cooking for yourself?

Barbara: Even though I'm very busy, when I don't eat out, I make something every night. In LA I do a lot of main-course salads and things on the grill—things that I can prepare quickly. Even chopping a tomato and some onions or something, or doing some chicken on the grill, it takes me out of my day and helps clear my head. In NY, I tend to eat out a lot more, but when I'm in the apartment, again, I keep it simple: Soups if the weather is cold, salads if it’s not, and sandwiches—the bread in New York is so, so good everywhere. I make breakfast for dinner a lot there, too, because it’s a good excuse to eat another New York bagel.


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