The Fine Art of Making Mistakes

An Interview with Dana Cowin

by Hans Rollman

21 January 2015

Food & Wine's editor-in-chief Dana Cowin talks about gender, politics, and mastering your mistakes in the kitchen.
Photo: Michael Turek 
cover art

Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen: Learning to Cook with 65 Great Chefs and Over 100 Delicious Recipes

Dana Cowin

(Ecco)

Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, may be successful, but she wants to tell you about her mistakes. Her mistakes in the kitchen, that is.

It’s an unusual way to open a conversation with someone who makes her living by bringing food and wine to almost a million American households a month. But is food and wine about more than just food and wine? Does it teach us about life? Philosophy? Even politics?

Cowin began her career writing for Vogue. After taking a hiatus to focus on her own writing, she returned to the publishing industry and found a position at House & Garden magazine, eventually moving up to managing editor. From there she became managing editor of Mademoiselle, and then moved into her current position with Food & Wine where she has been editor-in-chief since 1995.

It reads like a true success story. But her new book is titled Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen, and reveals she was no master chef herself when she took on the role. “I am going to be honest,” she writes in the introduction, “I am not a great cook.” Her publicist is even less forgiving: “For years, Dana Cowin kept a dark secret. From meat to vegetables, broiling to baking, breakfast to dinner, she ruined literally every kind of dish she attempted to make.” So who better to teach her than the top chefs in America? Drawing on the skills of 65 chefs who took on the task of tutoring her, the cookbook features recipes as well as tips and advice from these master chefs for those who, like her, find themselves frustrated with their early efforts at cooking.

Life Lessons Through Food

The book itself took about two years to put together. “I did it all in very digestible pieces,” Corwin recalls, laughing.

While working with her celebrity tutors, Cowin discovered she learned as much about herself as she did about souffles and pesto—advice she shares throughout the book. David Chang of Momofuku teaches her to make kimchi, but takes her to task for making assumptions and not actively listening to his advice. Kristen Kish, from Top Chef, helps her make braised chicken but also to realize that “impatience was my downfall.” And Eric Ripert, chef at Le Bernardin, reveals why she has trouble shelling lobster, “... he sensed my mind wandering as I thought about the finished dish, work that wasn’t getting done and fifty other things. He made it clear that one of the most critical skills in cooking is learning to focus,” she writes.

These lessons, she found, extended beyond the kitchen. “The chef lessons turned into life lessons,” she writes. “I apply what I learned from them in the kitchen to every aspect of my life: be present, pay attention, listen, have patience.” This, Cowin told me when we spoke, is “the biggest lesson of this book.”

“In the cookbook, there’s many actionable lessons that will save your falling soufflé or your burning lamb or your over-garlicky pesto,” she explained. “But the bigger lesson, when I stepped back at the end of the project, was definitely taking away a better idea of how to be present in the world. That was unexpected, I didn’t know that would be the greatest lesson of all. I thought the kitchen would teach me cooking skills, but it definitely taught me life skills. The bigger lesson is you should be present in everything that you do. I’m the million and tenth person to say that, but having that experience in the kitchen brought it through so clearly.”

The very premise of the book is an unusual one. Admitting our mistakes, and openly confessing our inadequacies, is something our society rarely encourages. And while Cowin says it’s important to be confident, she feels it’s equally important to be open to realizing what areas of our lives could use improvement. People often equate success with always being right, she says, but it’s important to use the confidence we gain from our successes to recognize the things we don’t do well, and be open to learning to do those things better.

“I’ve achieved a lot of my success through intuition, and not practice,” she continues, “and in the kitchen, I learned practice. In order to do that, I had to first admit mistakes. I think if people can stop and say: is there anything I’m doing in my life where I’m tripping up, and instead of glossing over it, could admit it and say ‘who around me is best to teach that?’ I think that we’d all live more full lives.”

Food, Wine, and Politics

Just as historical stereotypes often associated women with the kitchen, popular stereotypes still tend to associate famous restaurants and wines with men. Food & Wine has been working on dispelling that stereotype, and on providing coverage to the many women who are achieving success and innovation in the industry. In a September collaboration with Fortune magazine they produced a feature on the Most Innovative Women in Food & Drink. After reviewing hundreds of women who are achieving success in the field, the two magazines produced a focus on their Top 25, ranging from Ruth Oniang’o (Rural Outreach Africa) to Kim Jordan (New Belgium Brewing).

They’re not stopping there. Food & Wine is planning a campaign for January 2015: the entire month’s issue will be dedicated to talented women in food and drink, and they’ll also be launching a hashtag campaign: #foodwinewomen.

“Women are underrepresented in media in the upper echelons of the cooking world,” Cowin explains. “I think that in the food world there are a lot of talented women who are doing inspiring work. There are many women who are chefs, there are also women who are artisans, sommeliers, winemakers. One of the things that’s very important is to ensure that the women who are talented are seen and heard. Sometimes one feels that the women are not present. They are present, but they need a bit more pushing into the limelight.”

One of the things that has characterized Cowin’s work in the food and wine world has been an attention to the systemic issues that determine who is able to access that world. This includes not only the representation of women as chefs and winemakers, but also broader issues of hunger and poverty. Cowin sits on the board of directors for City Harvest (a hunger relief organization based in New York City), the Hot Bread Kitchen (which helps train low-income women and men to join the culinary workforce) and the Wholesome Wave Foundation, which is dedicated to providing access to sustainable foods. Her dedication to the cause of increasing access to good food dates back to the very week she was hired at Food & Wine, at which time she was also invited to attend a support event for City Harvest.

“I thought that it couldn’t be a more perfect twinning of interests,” she notes. “As the editor of Food & Wine, what I’m focused on is helping people to eat well and enjoy life. And if I did that without the counterbalance of helping those less fortunate to live well and eat well, I don’t think I could get up in the morning. I think it’s very important that if one is celebrating the side of indulgence, one must also help the less fortunate.”

She’s aware of the dichotomy between these worlds, and notes that the monthly food budget of some people she knows could feed a hundred people for a month. But she feels that it is for this reason that many of those for whom food is a passion and a profession are working to expand access to it.

“I think that one of the great things about the explosion of thinking around food is that we’re trying to solve the problem for the future. This would be for people who don’t have access to food globally, or need to spend less money on food locally.”

North Americans love their food: the growing diversity and complexity of food culture attest to that. But at the same time, the challenges facing North America are also growing. Increasing income inequality, unemployment, and the spread of low-paying and precarious jobs threaten to take a bite out of many North Americans’ food budgets, and their ability to access food culture. But Cowin is optimistic this is a challenge that society can tackle.

“I think one of the things that’s quite extraordinary about the food culture at the moment is there’s many ways to access the food culture. The way the food culture is evolving is that some of the star chefs we know from their flagship restaurants, they’re developing restaurants for everybody. They’re developing fast, casual food. They’re developing fast casual vegetarian food. What’s happening in the evolution of the food culture is it’s developing in a way that will benefit everybody.”

She qualifies her comments: “I’m an optimist.”

Cowin may be an optimist, but her comments reveal a solid awareness of the political challenges involved in building a society where people eat well. I joke that in a country like the US where politics is so polarized, perhaps food offers a neutral common ground. But she responds very seriously: “I think food at this moment is less politicized than it could be. I think food needs to be a political issue.”

She points to the work of Food Policy Action, a lobby group co-founded by Top Chef Tom Colicchio whose mission is “to promote policies that support healthy diets, reduce hunger at home and abroad, improve food access and affordability, uphold the rights and dignity of food and farm workers ... treat farm animals humanely and reduce the environmental impact of farming and food production.” The group’s Board brings together an eclectic array of activists, from celebrity chefs to labour unions to the National Black Farmers’ Association.

“I think it’s all incredibly important work,” she says. “It’s about holding congressmen and lawmakers accountable for their choices in food.”

And what are the major challenges the world of food and wine will need to come to terms with? “I think sustainability, and the environment, are challenges.” But she feels the food and wine community will play a key part in finding the solutions.

“I think that it’s a very thoughtful, fluid group and I feel like they’re up to it.”

“You’re talking to an optimist,” she repeats, laughing.

* * *

Quick Questions with Dana Cowin

First date. You’re eating out. What sort of a place do you choose?

I would choose a place that was small plates. Someplace you could have a glass of wine, share a couple of things and be done with it. Or have more and more plates. That way, it could be cheap which is good for a first date, especially if you discover you don’t really like the other person. It could be short, it could be long. I like things that are flexible. I like tasting things, but I don’t like going deep. I don’t need to eat a roast.

Scenario: You’ve just had the day from hell in the week from hell. You’ve been at work since seven in the morning, you get home at nine in the evening, everything went wrong today, you’re exhausted and hungry and depressed. What do you go for to eat?

I would probably stand up in the kitchen, I wouldn’t sit down, and I would get a really gooey, drippy piece of cheese, like a camembert, and a really great cracker and an apple and a beer and stand and nibble. I would find that very relaxing.

What are your three favourite ingredients to cook with, and why?

Butter, because it’s magic. Particularly in baking. Brussels Sprouts, because you can shred them, roast them whole, make salads. You can slice and dice them any which way and they taste great with bacon. And bacon. Because bacon is amazing.

Favourite cheese?

Epoisses.

Top five pizza toppings?

Tomato sauce, ground sausage, broccoli raw, mozzarella. A fifth? Nope. Can’t do it. Five is too many for a pizza.

Favourite thing to put on a slice of bread (besides butter)?

Ricotta. With a little drizzle of honey. That’s one. Another: sliced under-ripe avocado with sea salt and a drizzle of soy sauce.

Favourite burger?

One super juicy patty, with gooey American cheese and ketchup. My childhood classic.

Favourite thing made out of, or with, chocolate?

The Pitch Dark 73 percent pinot noir salt and chocolate bar. Or Fran’s Chocolates with caramel and fleur de sel.

Favourite dessert?

Ice cream sundae.

Favourite sushi-related item?

Sake.

Favourite soup?

French onion soup.

Favourite cocktail?

French 75.

Best food experience you’ve ever had?

Going to Noma, in Copenhagen, in the winter.

Worst food experience you’ve ever had?

Eating clams that were “off” at a tapas place in Madrid just before going on stage to interview a star chef.

Best thing you’ve eaten in the past week?

Johnny cake at Chefs Club in NYC.

What is the thing that you make which is your family’s favorite?

Chicken noodle soup.

You’re at the office one day and the phone rings. It’s Obama. “Cowin, I need your help,” he says. “Vladimir Putin is coming for dinner, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is going to be there. This could be the only chance to reconcile everyone and bring peace and goodwill to Europe. But we don’t know what sort of a meal to make in order to increase the likelihood of happiness and peace. We need you to design the menu.” What would you put on that menu?

Fried chicken is universal. Biscuits. Ice cream. The dishes would bring everyone back to their childhood and make them feel indulged and comforted, rather than challenged. The perfect foundation for an open dialogue.

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