Bon Appétit, with a new editor-in-chief, sets out to change how we think about food
Dawn Davis, a former book publishing executive, is the new editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit magazine and will oversee its food brands, including Epicurious and Healthyish. She began her new role as head of the 64-year-old magazine last month. Bon Appétit is a food culture behemoth, with 6½ million monthly readers, almost 8 million unique digital users, plus videos and hosts that have gained cult followings.
Davis takes the helm at a critical time in Bon Appétit’s history, in the wake of several high-profile resignations and calls for the magazine to be more diverse and pay its employees more equitably. Davis spent much of her book-publishing career printing works by authors from diverse backgrounds, and she’s planning to do the same in her new role.
The following is an edited transcript of Davis’ conversation with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio.
Listen to the full interview here:
David Brancaccio: Now, people may know your work at Simon & Schuster and before that at HarperCollins, where you were, for instance, editor on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Known World.” But your relationship to food, cooking, restaurants is not casual. There’s food on your resume, right?
Dawn Davis: Absolutely. I actually wrote a cookbook called “If You Can Stand the Heat: Tales From Chefs and Restaurateurs.” And that really grew out of conversations I was having with friends. We were all obsessed with food, with restaurants. And a couple of them were Ph.D.s in economics or, you know, lawyers. They wanted to open a restaurant. And I said, “You guys, this is much more complicated. I’m going to talk to some chefs.” And the stories that they told were so interesting I actually was able to publish them. So this job is new for me, but my thinking about food goes way back.
Brancaccio: The magazine part of it is new to you, though.
Davis: Absolutely. I have never even worked in a magazine. I was a book publisher, quite happy being a book editor. And then Bon Appétit came calling. And as I’ve said before, it’s just such an iconic brand, it was really hard to resist the conversation. And as I immersed myself in the conversation, I realized that this was a chance to unite some of the things I love: food, editing, idea creation, and just kind of do it in a different format.
Brancaccio: Now, the abrupt departure of your predecessor pointed to the need for cultural change over there. What are your early priorities for, indeed, doing that?
Davis: Well, some of the work had begun before I even arrived. The team that remained have been introspective about this and they’ve thought about it. But what I will kind of build on is a diversity of voices and perspectives. We had this editorial conversation about, what does care look like? And care in one community looks very different than care in another. So I have, you know, a Rolodex to draw from in terms of perspectives and different voices.
And I want to change the way we even think about food. I want to be the premier destination for recipes, but I also want to be a place where we gather to talk about how culture is related to food. You know, the pandemic has shown us how we are all connected, how everything is connected. Who’s growing our food? How does the pandemic affect them? What about these fires in California? How does that affect what’s on our table? So I hope that by broadening the cultural lens, not only in terms of racial and ethnic diversity, but also in terms of how we even discuss food — and it’s not like a silo, like, “Oh, I need a recipe, and I’m done.” I want us to think about it 360.
Brancaccio: And as I understand, it’s, you know, it’s not just about who you hire to change your culture. But to pick up on what you were just saying, it’s also about the actual coverage dealing with — I mean, you mentioned the fires. That would imply the environment, but also inequity in the coverage of food?
Davis: Absolutely. I want us to even think broadly about who we call to be allies in the kitchen, to be partners. Like, when I was publishing books, I didn’t think you necessarily had to be Black to write a Black story. You had to have the writing skills, the perspective, the sensitivities to do it if you weren’t. And likewise I don’t think Black people should be limited to writing about one perspective. So I hope that there’s some way to kind of bring that lens over to Bon Appétit. But absolutely, this question of equity is important and something that I think about.
Brancaccio: Yeah, but as a practical matter, I mean, we’re in a newsroom ourselves, right? If someone now moving forward pitches a story about, for instance, food deserts in some communities, it’s possible that the old Bon Appétit might say, “That’s not our story.” But your team would be more likely now to say, “No, no. We can do that.”
Davis: Absolutely. Some of that work was already being done before I got there. You know, I think they really kind of internalized the lessons and did some thinking about their own perspectives. And, they range, they’re not a monolith, they’re all different. But those conversations are already going on. And I will continue those conversations and hopefully add some dimension to them.
Sonia Chopra, I want to give a shoutout to her. She is the new executive editor. And she brings that way of thinking to every discussion we have. We have different perspectives, again, not just racially, but also generationally. So that kind of also colors how we see things, how we talk about things.
Brancaccio: You know, I think in terms of workplace culture. But also do you think your audience, your readers, are along for this ride?
Davis: I think that they’re along for the ride. I think that culture is shifting everywhere, and they want us to be more diverse, more inclusive. And you can get recipes in a number of different pages, blogs, you know, different media. So I think they want us to be more sophisticated in the way we think about food. Suddenly we were all cooking, right, in the pandemic? Everybody is more aware of what it entails. And I absolutely think that they’re interested in the new BA being more diverse in terms of stories, in terms of voices.
Brancaccio: You mentioned your new executive editor, but you’re bringing on some new people that you really think will have a stamp on the product.
Davis: Well, I’m bringing in new columns that I think will be interesting. So, for instance, when we did our introductory video, I talked about how every memoir, or even novel that I published by [first-generation immigrants], they would talk about the painful experience that was lunch. You know, it wasn’t just, “Oh, I’m going to eat and then go to recess.” It was, “I’m going to be bullied, people are going to make fun of what, you know, my parents have packed my lunch.” It was just so excruciating for them. And so I talked about our job at Bon Appétit turning kind of [a condescending] “What’s that?” to [a curious and interested] “What’s that?” And it’s so interesting how that has resonated for people, I got a lot of feedback. So we’re going to kind of introduce some new columns.
I think that there’s an opportunity to think about enterprise within the food world. I think we’re all thinking about how restaurants will pivot, how they’ll survive. And I do, I have great people reaching out to me — poets have reached out to me, writers, memoirists, essayists have reached out and want to contribute. So that, I think, is a really positive sign.
Brancaccio: People listening to this may be wondering about their own organizations needing to address diversity and inclusion with more energy. What do you think, as a manager, what are the signs an organization is going beyond good words on the subject and is serious about changing workplace culture, maybe the culture at large?
Davis: I think it’s the painful process of listening. You know, it’s easy to say, and then it’s up to people to listen respectfully to how are we doing, and maybe you have some hard conversations around progress, I think, to create a respectful environment. And that’s what I’m doing right now. You know, I’m going on a listening tour. I was literally the editor with a sharp pencil, as anyone who knew me would tell you, and everyone with decades of managerial experience would say, “You know, go on your listening tour first.” So that’s what I’m doing. But I don’t want it to stop just after I’ve listened to everyone. I want to keep listening.
Again, I read this article about people feeling they were only called for a certain kind of cuisine to be tested. And I sent off an email to the team: “Do we know this person? Have we extended the invitation for her to test something else?” So, you know, listening and then making some steps forward, and when you go backwards, kind of reassessing.
Brancaccio: Staying with your industry, but beyond Bon Appétit in particular, I mean, there’s a criticism from some social commentators that the food media are too white. Is that a fair criticism?
Davis: You know, I think that the power brokers in a lot of different media have been too white. I think, you know, our job is to broaden that perspective. And I think that’s what we’re doing, but to do it in a meaningful way, you know, I want to do more than just say, “Oh, you know, here is a Black chef,” and they get their highlight and we think we’ve checked the box. So really thinking about how we can augment our coverage, so it’s significant — significant for the chef, significant for our readers, significant for the business.
Brancaccio: It also sounds like you’re trying to have some fun because, you know, when you pick up the magazine, for instance, and also go to your other websites, the stuff needs to be engaging.
Davis: Absolutely. I think that the mission had been to be engaging and to be cheeky. I want to have it be accessible, have some literary sensibility, but also fun. Cooking, cleaning, shopping — it’s a lot of effort. So when you think about these issues, it should be fun. I’m working on something — I can’t say now — but a really interesting way to think about food for [the] April issue. I want to bring in different kinds of writers as well, not just people who’ve written about food, but if you’re going to talk about food and the environment, maybe I bring in, you know, an environmental journalist. I’m looking forward to keeping the focus on fun, but also educating our readers, educating our staff — all of us.
James Beard Award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson is an author, restaurateur, and television and audio host. Recently, he added a new feather to his chef toque — he’s Bon Appétit’s inaugural brand adviser. Samuelsson joined the magazine over the summer at the same time Dawn Davis was named editor-in-chief. He also guest edited this year’s holiday edition of Bon Appétit.
Samuelsson wants to use his role as brand adviser to help build change at the magazine that goes beyond recipes.
The following is an edited transcript of the chef’s conversation with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio.
Listen to the full interview here:
David Brancaccio: I’d like to talk about the joy of the holidays. And we can try that subject in a moment. But this winter is going to be — what would you say? Awful for restaurants and restaurant workers?
Marcus Samuelsson: Well, I think it’s by far the toughest winter that we’ve gone through as industry. And it’s very important as chefs and as community to support each other, support one another, and coming up with inventive ways for, how do we navigate? Because there’s definitely hope, you know, there is a little bit of light at end of the tunnel here. But it’s about how do we navigate through this tough time, and particularly for Black and [Black, Indigenous and people of color] businesses? Because, you know, historically, it’s always been harder for Black and brown communities to have access to finances and start a business. So I’m very worried for my friends and colleagues. But there is some light by the end of the tunnel.
Brancaccio: You’ve been calling for government aid to that industry since the dawn of the pandemic. Would some more aid help even at this juncture?
Samuelsson: Yeah, I mean, definitely. We worked together with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, we had a bill on the floor [of the Senate] in October. And then, obviously, a lot of focus was on the Supreme Court nominee. And then that led into the election. So the difference between having something that would go through Congress Oct. 30 versus getting something that might get through, either before Christmas or after Christmas — those eight to 10 weeks’ difference, that’s the death of small businesses. And it’s important to think about the numbers here. There’s between 11 million and 16 million people who work in an independent restaurant in America. And I would say 60% to 70% of them right now are, you know, those small businesses are all hurting, so 60% to 70% of them can be unemployed, with no guarantees from the other side. You know, that means that, you know, 7 million to 8 million people will be impacted or affected by this. This is not a small number. It’s the size of New York City.
Brancaccio: I mean, you have the restaurants in the U.S., but I think also in seven other countries for a total of eight countries. I mean, do you see other countries taking a different, perhaps more productive, approach to helping out this industry through this terrible period?
Samuelsson: Canada just did a big initiative, for example, where we have a restaurant, and I mean, every country, every place is very different. For so many different reasons, right? I mean, not having a health care system that supports the poorest and the middle class, for example, in this country has hurt us tremendously. So it’s not just that you’re impacted by what the government is not doing from that side. We’re also hurt by the fact that we have built a health care system that impacts, obviously, people in hospitality and business even more, because in many cases, through this pandemic, we’ve been first responders. So, you know, this has disproportionately impacted Black and brown people. And there are a lot of underlying issues there in terms of access to health care and so on. So it’s already a complex issue that I think, yes, the U.S. government’s handling of the totality of the situation has not been ideal from so many different issues. I think there’s many other countries we can look at as examples. But even there, there’s been changes. So I think I’m much more hopeful with the new administration coming in.
Brancaccio: You’re also trying to push for cultural change in the restaurant industry, the food media industry. You’re playing a new role at Bon Appétit magazine — among the roles, their brand adviser. What’s the problem that you’re trying to help them solve over there?
Samuelsson: Well, I’m telling you, one of the silver linings and one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had this year has been the pleasure of working with Condé Nast and being a guest editor on the holiday issue. You know, when I started in the middle of summer and got the support from Anna Wintour and her team, it was really to transform and to be part of the transformation. And it has been everything from the new chefs that are going to be on BonAppétit.com and Condé Nast, and we have a whole new roster of chefs coming there with much more BIPOC and so on. But also the leadership and how they had a part to work with Dawn Davis, Sonia Chopra and also Agnes [Chu], who heads up the entertainment side of Condé Nast. All four of us, we basically started at the same time. It’s been an incredible journey to transform the platform and add value to it and not just sprinkle diversity to an already established, incredible magazine and brand, but actually be part of the transformation. It couldn’t have been done without the leadership from Bon Appétit and Condé Nast.
Brancaccio: And you alluded to it there. I mean, there’s rethinking the content, diversifying the voices and the approaches in the content. But there’s also making sure that the potential audience knows that this is a magazine with something to say to them.
Samuelsson: Yeah, I mean, we feel strongly, and Dawn is a master in that and so is Sonia, and I’m a big champion of that. We want to make the magazine more reflective of how America cooks and eats and gathers around food. I think the December issue is a great example of that. I thought the November issue that was Sonia’s first big issue, you started to see different ways of approaching the holidays, our issue in December, the January issue. I have the privilege to know what how spring is going to look like on the magazine side. And I know the stories that we’re working on. We both want to navigate our audience, and chefs through this very difficult winter. But we do it through diverse storytelling and great cooking, and just reflect more the way the country eats and cooks. And it’s going to be through diverse voices. And that’s the beauty in American cuisine, that we have each other, that we are diverse, and I think the holiday issue is a great example of that.
Brancaccio: Now, your new book [co-written with Osayi Endolyn] just came out in recent weeks, “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food.” This is a cookbook, but it’s also, what, a reflection on the culinary achievements of Black people, which have often — well, you said before, often been written out of history.
Samuelsson: Yeah, I mean, “The Rise” is a really great opportunity to celebrate Black excellence when it comes to American food. And there [are] actually four original cuisines that completely are tied to the African American experience when it comes to food. Southern food, that we refer to as soul food; barbecue; Creole, and of course, Lowcountry. These four incredible cuisines that we think about as American food all stem from Black experiences. And with “The Rise” it was important to highlight incredible people that brought it to us, that very often — before there was recipes through rituals and oral history — took care of it, and eventually led us into this generation of amazing chefs like Miss Leah Chase, Edna Lewis and so on.
And then what does it look like in a modern way, right? You know, Black food is not monolithic. It can be immigrant-driven, whether you’re Jamaican American or Haitian American or Ethiopian American, but it could also be impacted by the Great Migration. So, in the book, we focus about 45 different Black chefs in the country from Nyesha Arrington in Los Angeles to some incredible voices, not just chefs, like Miss Jessica Harris that has obviously given us so many great books. Toni Tipton-Martin. We also have a chef like Edouardo Jordan, in Seattle, for example. So these Black chefs and writers, not just in New York or Los Angeles, but across the country. And this is really, if you’re wondering, how can I help out, there are Black and BIPOC chefs in your community. Seek them out, support them in any way you can, whether that’s ordering, or buy merch from the restaurant, because they’re going to need you more than ever.
Brancaccio: Yeah, more than ever. Now, chef Samuelsson, there’s so much going on. You know, this pandemic, there’s this new energy in the social justice movement, but, among other things, you want us to cook?
Samuelsson: Yes, absolutely. The way we engage in race and culture hasn’t worked. Cooking could be this incredible, delicious way where we can talk about each other’s race, identity, culture in the most delicious way. How incredible to take this holiday season — and, you know, I’m not the only cook from “The Rise” — but ask curious questions around Black cooking in America. Why is it that these stories are not household names? How can we broadcast that? Because it’s America’s food. You know, when you think about pop culture, when you think of jazz, hip-hop, R&B, rock ’n’ roll, the Black experience is completely part of that, right? And I want Black food to be just as standardized and part of American repertoire as we’ve done with Black music.
Brancaccio: And you know, I appreciate that in a big commercial kitchen, maybe it’s not a moment for reflection. But if you’re cooking at home, that’s a place where you can kind of get into a zone and start thinking about bigger things.
Samuelsson: Absolutely. And, you know, I hear a lot from my non-Black friends, “How can we assist? How can we be an ally?” There’s so many people who want to be part of it. Well, cooking is one way, having that discussion in your family. What is gumbo? What are these incredible, rich stories? You know, what is the Lowcountry from the Carolinas? And having those dialogues and conversations, and seek out those stories. And that’s one of the things that I look forward to at Bon Appétit: telling more untold stories, so we work to a more equal food community, equitable table. Those are all big questions that I know we can take care of. I know we can do this together.
Try Samuelsson’s recipe for short ribs with piri-piri marinade that’s featured in “The Rise” and Bon Appétit magazine’s holiday issue.
Ingredients (8 Servings)
- 2 large shallots, coarsely chopped
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 Scotch bonnet chiles, stems removed
- 1 2″ piece ginger, peeled, coarsely chopped
- ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 4 tsp. paprika
- 2 tsp. Diamond Crystal or 1 tsp. Morton kosher salt
Short Ribs and Assembly
- ¼ cup sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
- ¼ cup honey
- ¼ cup plus 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
- Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
- 3 lb. boneless beef short ribs
- Pulse shallots, garlic, chiles, and ginger in a food processor until very finely chopped. (Alternatively, pound into a coarse paste with a mortar and pestle if you have one.) Transfer marinade to a medium bowl and stir in lemon juice, oil, paprika, and salt to combine. Do ahead: Marinade can be made 1 month ahead. Cover and chill.
Short Ribs and Assembly
- Mix vinegar, honey, ¼ cup oil, and half of marinade in a small bowl to combine; season with salt and pepper. Set piri-piri sauce aside for serving.
- Brush or rub each side of short ribs with remaining marinade and place in a shallow baking dish or large resealable plastic bag; cover with plastic wrap or close bag. Let chill at least 4 hours and up to 12 hours.
- Remove short ribs from marinade and scrape some of the marinade from surface. Let sit at room temperature at least 1 hour before cooking.
- Heat a dry large cast-iron skillet over medium-high. Coat short ribs all over with remaining 3 Tbsp. oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Cook short ribs, turning every 3–4 minutes, until deeply charred on all sides and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of meat registers 130° for medium-rare, 13–16 minutes total. Transfer short ribs to a cutting board and let rest at least 10 minutes.
- Slice meat against the grain ¼”–½” thick and serve with piri-piri sauce.
Recipe courtesy of Bon Appétit. Link to the recipe can be found here.
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