Industry Insights from Dana Cowin
The former editor-in-chief of Food & Wine discussed food media, restaurant industry crisis response and advocacy, and women in food with us on Instagram Live.
Food media legend Dana Cowin is best known for her 21-year tenure at Food & Wine, where she was the editor in chief. Her food industry resume has since included curating guest chefs at Chefs Club, writing a cookbook, judging on "Top Chef," and hosting the Heritage Radio podcast "Speaking Broadly."
Most recently, Dana's involved with restaurant advocacy through ROAR, which she shared more about along with insights from her culinary career and her outlook for the future. Here are some of the highlights.
You’ve interviewed thousands of food professionals over 25 years, how is the industry essential to you?
When I think about it, when I came to Food & Wine, which was about 25 years ago, the industry wasn’t essential to me at all. I was pretty good at making reservations and that was my connection to the industry and now I feel like I absolutely can’t live without it. It is my lifeblood. It kind of means everything.
This morning I went online and bought a Blue Hill at Stone Barns vegetable box, and I experienced a joy that I actually haven’t experienced in the last month because I was connecting to a farmer, I was connecting to a chef, I knew that the food that I was going to make from that box was going to be incredible just because the ingredients were so great.
The industry has given me a whole new view of how to live and the connection to the earth and connection to others, pretty much everything.
After a 10-year magazine career before landing at Food & Wine for 21 years, can you talk to aspiring chefs and industry professionals early in their careers about longevity and how that evolved?
I discovered if you continue to change with the job and continue to be fresh and interested, your job kind of is new all the time, and that way you have a great sense of longevity … At Food & Wine we changed so much and it was this notion of always trying to stay current and trying to move ahead and trying to live inside what was true at that moment rather than what we had thought in the past. That’s what made it interesting to me for 21 years, but also what made me grow. Longevity is for curiosity.
Do you see a correlation between the way journalism had to evolve from print to digital to multi-platform and the way food businesses are modernizing and diversifying to survive?
One of the reasons that Food & Wine was a success for a lot of the time that I was there was that we really were multi-platform at the time. We got revenue from consumers who had subscriptions, we got revenue from advertisers, we got revenue from events and partnerships. We had already found a way to diversify income streams, and for restaurants it’s the same thing. Restaurants aren’t waking up today and saying, “Oh, you know, instead of only doing people eating in my restaurant...” They’ve already said, "What can I sell online? What’s the merch I’m going to sell? What’s the cookbook? What’s the TV show? What are the other revenue streams?" It will continue to be an evolution for restaurants the same way it absolutely continues to be an evolution for journalism.
Where can you find the money and how do you stay true to who you are? What is the core mission? At Food & Wine the idea was, we’ll do everything that seems right to fit our core mission. We’re not going to go outside of that. I hope that restaurants are able to do the same. Iteration is so important, as I was saying, my career is based on iterating in a way and restaurants will have to iterate to survive. They’re going to have to look at so many of the ways that they’re doing business and rethink them.
Why is the food and hospitality industry worth waiting on with this kind of volatility and uncertainty?
First of all, a lot of people follow this career path because, like writers or artists, it’s such a seed deep within them that needs to be nurtured and needs to bloom, and I think for that, you can’t turn away. If you feel that this is your gift, of course you can’t give up now. It is always worth it if it’s the most important thing to you.
I actually know that on the other side, we’re all going to be eating. Everyone needs to eat, and not everyone can cook for themselves, and there’s such a pleasure in being in an environment or being cooked for. What’s great about a culinary education is that it can lead you into 100 different directions. We’re not talking about leading in a single direction. It’s not as though someone is being trained to be a cook in a restaurant, although that’s certainly one outcome, but cooking is discipline. Cooking is joy. Cooking is connection. All of those things will be ever more important rather than less important. To have grounding and structure and a framework in which to grow from there is fantastic. You’re not training for one thing, you’re training for life.
What’s great about a culinary education is that it can lead you into 100 different directions.
What’s your advice for industry people during this time?
Right now our focus is on advocacy, like what are the five to seven things that the government can do that can help us get to the other side. It’s extremely important, and if you’re interested in this topic and you’re listening, you should look at what the IRC is doing, look at what ROAR is doing. There are a lot of organizations around the country that have a list of demands for congressmen and you have to participate. You cannot just guess someone else is going to do it. You can do something. Congresspeople listen — very important — but on the other side, I think it’s also important to realize there’s something that we each individually can do to band together to make sure that the future is a great future for all of us.
I would put advocacy at the forefront, also looking around you and helping your neighbor, whatever that is, whatever the thing is that’s closest to you. Some things are actually just, you know, make your bed. I think what can get lost in all of this, what can we do!?, is well, we first need to take care of ourselves and we first need to do small things so we feel good when we wake up and we don’t feel panic-stricken or anxiety. It’s important to reroute fear into courage. That’s the most important thing to do that allows you to do more. When and if you can do more, it depends if you feel safe, helping organizations like Rethink Food, which is doing an extraordinary job through the Lee Initiative.
What about professional development?
What could you do that might build your skills for the future, which is a great opportunity. That’s where I come with the silver linings. If you have a cooking skill, I don’t recommend that everyone go off and do Instagram Lives, but it can be fun and you can build an audience, and you can play with it. This is a time when you can play, and the expectation of the perfection of what you put out in the world is lower. There’s also more so-called competition, there are more people doing it, but they’re doing it because it’s fun, it’s a creative outlet. There’s actually freedom to express yourself right now that’s great to take advantage of. Find out who you are.
Cook what you have and find out what happens when you don’t have constraints, when you’re not taking a class, when you’re not doing it for someone else. What happens when you do it all on your own? On the other side of this, and there will be another side, your success is tied to knowing exactly who you are in the kitchen and who you are as a person. If you can figure that out, who you are, you’ll be much stronger in whatever you do.
Your success is tied to knowing exactly who you are in the kitchen and who you are as a person.
You’ve hosted nearly 130 episodes of the “Speaking Broadly” podcast, which has featured ICE alumni like Kerry Brodie, Adrienne Cheatham and Adeena Sussman. What has that experience been like and how is the world changing for women in food?
I love doing “Speaking Broadly,” I love having conversations with women that are both deep and broad, and the notion that we start with a foundation of caring about food and wine, which is also essentially caring about others, caring about other people. I love the insights that they bring. I love learning from each and every one of these women.
When I began doing “Speaking Broadly,” which was about two and a half years ago, one of the reasons I did it was I felt like we needed more women’s voices and we needed a greater diversity of women’s voices so the idea was to spotlight women, and there are a whole lot of places that are trying to spotlight women’s voices. One of the things that I noticed is that it’s often the same women over and over again, and what interests me is broadening the zone. It shouldn’t be the same. I love hearing from the powerful women whose stories are out there and finding something deeper within them, but I also like finding completely different stories from women.
I think that things have gotten better. I think that there are more women who are running their own businesses, there are more women chefs, there are more women of color, there are more queer women running their businesses and who are true to themselves and sharing that, but I have to say, there could always be more.