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Food & Wine Magazine: Celebrating 40 Years With A Fresh New Approach To The Deliciously Appetizing Content – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Hunter Lewis, Editor In Chief…

March 1, 2018

“I think you create for audience first and platform first, so the intention for this issue was to celebrate print for print’s sake, and to celebrate how print as a medium can frame photography. So, absolutely, this is a celebration of print and we’ll continue to embrace and celebrate print as this year evolves. In this age of multiplatform brands, you have to honor print and you have to celebrate print, because it is very much the opposite of Google. When people are typing in a recipe or an ingredient they’re looking for, they’re trying to solve a problem. When people are coming to print, sure, they’re looking for dinner tonight, but they’re also looking for points of discovery. And they’re looking for an escape and to lose themselves and to learn. And that’s what a magazine in the print format can do best.” Hunter Lewis…

Food & Wine has been tantalizing us with delicious recipes, decadently robust wines, cooking tips, restaurant reviews, and some of the best chefs around and those that are up and coming, for 40 years now. And with its 40th anniversary this year, Editor in Chief, Hunter Lewis, has a few delicacies up his sleeve when it comes to a fresh new approach for the legacy brand and for all of us eaters and drinkers out here who love the magazine and the brand.

I spoke with Hunter recently and we talked about the March issue, which is dedicated to honoring and celebrating food photography and its creators, and is dubbed “The Photography Issue.” According to Hunter, it’s also a testament to print and how the medium can frame photography beautifully. So, while the March issue celebrates food in all its framed glory, it’s also a celebration of the ink on paper that complements those glorious frames so wonderfully.

Hunter is leading two of the country’s top food magazines, Food & Wine and Cooking Light. And while the two are both epicurean delights, Hunter said they’re also totally different when it comes to focus, which makes his job as editor in chief of both of them a tremendous amount of fun. So, as Hunter gives credit where credit is due, his teams in both New York and in Food & Wine’s newest home, Birmingham, the brand continues to flourish and spread its culinary and wine-wonderful wings. It’s a tale of two cities, maybe, but mostly it’s a tale of one great brand, celebrating 40 years of excellence.

And now, please enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Hunter Lewis, editor in chief, Food & Wine magazine.

But first the sound-bites:

On being the editor in chief of both Cooking Light and now Food & Wine and how he shuffles the two titles: Frankly, I’m still learning how to shuffle the two. Certainly, Cooking Light is now a well-oiled machine and so I’ve been spending a lot more time behind the scenes with Food & Wine over the past few months as we staff up and as we have created the base of our operations here in Birmingham. We have an awesome team here and in New York, so it’s really about learning how to communicate in two cities and how to create and collaborate with the team.

On creating in two different cities and whether that makes for the best of times or the worst of times: No, it’s to our advantage. In regards to our New York City-based talent, I want to iterate strong the team is. When we moved some of our editors and staff and the base of operations to Birmingham, we were strategic about keeping a core group of editors in New York City to maintain our presence there and proximity to the digital edit team, the Food & Wine test kitchen, and the sales, marketing, and events teams. The power of the new Food & Wine is that we’re in two cities. We’ve got our finger on the pulse of the new and the next via New York, and in Birmingham, we shop, cook, and entertain more like our readers. Tapping into both will create a product that better serves sophisticated food and drink consumers everywhere.

On the 40th anniversary of Food & Wine, the March photography issue, and his vision for the title moving forward: We are very fortunate in that this is the 40th anniversary year and we’re going to take advantage of that and celebrate that. And so we’ve keyed this year and this March issue with the 40 photos that changed the way we eat. You’ll see a story in the April/Spring wine issue, which is 40 wines that changed the way we drink, and you’ll see this in the way that we cover recipes in the future. So, we’re playing with the number 40 to create big, impactful lists that can run across both print and Food & Wine dotcom and generate evergreen traffic. So, it’s really about maximizing the moment four decades into this awesome brand.

On whether he can imagine a Food & Wine issue like March’s without a print component: I think you create for audience first and platform first, so the intention for this issue was to celebrate print for print’s sake, and to celebrate how print as a medium can frame photography. So, absolutely, this is a celebration of print and we’ll continue to embrace and celebrate print as this year evolves. In this age of multiplatform brands, you have to honor print and you have to celebrate print, because it is very much the opposite of Google. When people are typing in a recipe or an ingredient they’re looking for, they’re trying to solve a problem. When people are coming to print, sure, they’re looking for dinner tonight, but they’re also looking for points of discovery.

On why he decided to start the 40th celebration with the March photo issue: I think it starts with wanting to do something different and wanting to make a statement to our readers that we’re heading in a different direction, And if you think about the covers in particular, using a cover to make a visual statement in a way that expands beyond your print readership, something that is a branding of the magazine, but also something that is highly social and shareable and that looks really good on Instagram and can be shared to more and more people.

On whether the March issue was a walk in a rose garden to create or there were some challenges along the way: This issue was a total blast, because we threw out a lot of conventions and departments for just this one special issue, and made it more about the process of creation and more about the process of shooting and cooking in the moment. And that’s why Eric Wolfinger was our guest editor for this edition, because he does that very well. And I write about that in the editor’s letter. Eric came down for a week and we all collaborated together and we kicked it off with a meal at my house, where we cooked together and shot some photos.

On whether he thinks food is the new sex when it comes to the fact that food magazines are the largest category in the marketplace today, compared to the 1980s when sex magazines were the largest: Food is certainly very sensual, but I think what it really speaks to is the rise of interest in the American food culture. And how many people out there love food and how many people out there are finding different entry points into cooking dinner or eating out. I think it speaks to the rise of our drink culture. So, it’s absolutely about a national hunger for more information about food.

On the food culture in America today: Look at the ingredients on the American supermarket shelf. Look at the quality of our restaurants. Look at the quality of our chefs, and look at what’s happening on television. Look at Instagram as a medium and how we consume food through social media. There’s been this explosion in the past four years, so it makes sense that there would be more publications, be they digital, social, video-first or print, than ever before.

On the wine culture in America today: I think we’re in a new era. And that’s going to be part of the new Food & Wine, of building on the expertise and the DNA of Food & Wine, of expanding Executive Editor Ray Isle’s role at Food & Wine. And to really capture and to cover and hold a mirror up to this new modern wine culture. We’re moving past the snobbery around wine and realizing that it’s not about how much you know, it’s not about being exclusive; it’s more about bringing wine to the center of the table and building experiences and stories around it.

On a litmus test for either magazine when it comes to content: If you look at it, about 85 percent of Cooking Light is recipes and our mission at Cooking Light is to empower people to cook more at home for good health. So we’re absolutely looking at potential content, and looking at Cooking Light on every platform, through the lens of what healthy means now. When it comes to Food & Wine, we can go as broad or as narrow as we want. The brand name gives us an amazing license to go deep on any topic. And that’s a lot of fun.

On when he has time to edit with everything that’s going on around him with the brand and all its platforms: Well, the editing is the most fun part. You make time for that. That used to be one of the central duties and now it’s gravy. So, you enjoy the gravy when it comes.

On what he enjoys the most as an editor: What I enjoy the most as an editor is recruiting a team, helping to shape the team, finding out what makes people tick, working with them to get the best work out of them, and then shifting into second and third gears with that team and really finding out what we can do together. And I think the words creativity and collaboration, as we figure out what we can do together, is the most important thing. We’re just now shifting into second gear as a team with the new Food & Wine, and I’m really thrilled about what we can do together down the road.

On whether he still hears any negative comments about Food & Wine moving to Birmingham: Not lately. It’s still bubbles up here and there on social media. I spent eight years in New York and some of that was working in restaurants and some of that was working food media. I know what it’s like to create food media in New York. I’ve spent about five and half years here in Birmingham, and I can tell you that it’s an advantage doing this in Birmingham. And I think the naysayers are thinking too provincially about the media bubble that is New York. We have the best of New York at 225 Liberty Street and we have the best in Birmingham.

On his favorite food: My favorite food is whatever is at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning. And thankfully, spring in Alabama is coming and what I’m looking forward to most is strawberries, asparagus, and rhubarb. I just got a call from my fish guy up the road and he said that the shad roe is starting to come in. So, that means spring is coming and that’s what I’m most excited about right now.

On his favorite wine: My favorite wine is probably the one I most recently had for dinner. And that’s one of the things I’m most excited about with Food & Wine; I get a daily education from Ray Isle. My favorite wine this week, because it changes every week, is an Etna Rosso from Valenti Winery, Norma Opera V. Bellini.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Hunter Lewis, editor in chief, Food & Wine magazine.

Samir Husni: You’re now the editor in chief of Food & Wine and the editor in chief of Cooking Light, does that cause any conflict for your brain, deciding what goes where? How do you shuffle the two? Or is it easy because they’re two separate entities?

Hunter Lewis: Frankly, I’m still learning how to shuffle the two. Certainly, Cooking Light is now a well-oiled machine and so I’ve been spending a lot more time behind the scenes with Food & Wine over the past few months as we staff up and as we have created the base of our operations here in Birmingham. We have an awesome team here and in New York, so it’s really about learning how to communicate in two cities and how to create and collaborate with the team.

Samir Husni: Since you mentioned collaborating in two cities, is it like a “Tale of Two Cities” a “Tale of Two Magazines?” Is it the best of times or is it the worst of times?

Hunter Lewis: No, it’s to our advantage. In regards to our New York City-based talent, I want to iterate strong the team is. When we moved some of our editors and staff and the base of operations to Birmingham, we were strategic about keeping a core group of editors in New York City to maintain our presence there and proximity to the digital edit team, the Food & Wine test kitchen, and the sales, marketing, and events teams. These talented editors include Melanie Hansche, our new deputy editor, executive wine editor Ray Isle, restaurant editor Jordana Rothman, associate restaurant editor Elyse Inamine, and culinary director Justin Chapple, along with digital director Danica Lo, senior engagement director Meg Clark, and deputy digital editor Alison Speigel and their team.

The power of the new Food & Wine is that we’re in two cities. We’ve got our finger on the pulse of the new and the next via New York, and in Birmingham, we shop, cook, and entertain more like our readers. Tapping into both will create a product that better serves sophisticated food and drink consumers everywhere.

Samir Husni: As you look at Food & Wine specifically, as we are now in March, which is the 40th anniversary of when the magazine was born as an insert in Playboy magazine back in 1978, what can we expect for this 40th anniversary year? Is the photo issue, the March photography issue, is that a hint of things to come; is it a change in direction? What’s your vision for Food & Wine moving forward?

Hunter Lewis: We are very fortunate in that this is the 40th anniversary year and we’re going to take advantage of that and celebrate that. And so we’ve keyed this year and this March issue with the 40 photos that changed the way we eat. You’ll see a story in the April/Spring wine issue, which is 40 wines that changed the way we drink, and you’ll see this in the way that we cover recipes in the future. So, we’re playing with the number 40 to create big, impactful lists that can run across both print and Food & Wine dotcom and generate evergreen traffic. So, it’s really about maximizing the moment four decades into this awesome brand.

So, this is not the anniversary issue per se, that will come with the September issue, where we’ll celebrate the 40th anniversary in a big and bold way, but more than anything this issue is a celebration of photography and food photography. And absolutely it marks a change in the visual direction of the brand.

Samir Husni: Can you imagine or do you think it’s possible to do what you’ve done with the March photography issue without a print component, if the magazine was digital-only? Can you bring that same food-for-the-eye impact with pixels on a screen or is this where you think print still plays a crucial role?

Hunter Lewis: I think you create for audience first and platform first, so the intention for this issue was to celebrate print for print’s sake, and to celebrate how print as a medium can frame photography. So, absolutely, this is a celebration of print and we’ll continue to embrace and celebrate print as this year evolves. In this age of multiplatform brands, you have to honor print and you have to celebrate print, because it is very much the opposite of Google. When people are typing in a recipe or an ingredient they’re looking for, they’re trying to solve a problem. When people are coming to print, sure, they’re looking for dinner tonight, but they’re also looking for points of discovery. And they’re looking for an escape and to lose themselves and to learn. And that’s what a magazine in the print format can do best.

Samir Husni: Why did you decide to start this 40th celebration with the photo issue?

Hunter Lewis: I think it starts with wanting to do something different and wanting to make a statement to our readers that we’re heading in a different direction, And if you think about the covers in particular, using a cover to make a visual statement in a way that expands beyond your print readership, something that is a branding of the magazine, but also something that is highly social and shareable and that looks really good on Instagram and can be shared to more and more people.

And also, when it comes to the photography, I’ve been in this business for about 10 years now and I got into the business through the kitchen door, when I ran the test kitchen at Saveur. And in those 10 years, I’ve had the great opportunity to work with dozens of incredible photographers and food stylists, prop stylists recipe testers and developers. The aim for this issue was to honor them and to celebrate the work that they do, as we celebrated the best of food photography. So, this issue is very much a tribute to those makers, to those creators.

Samir Husni: Was creating this issue a walk in a rose garden or there were some challenges or opportunities along the way?

Hunter Lewis: This issue was a total blast, because we threw out a lot of conventions and departments for just this one special issue, and made it more about the process of creation and more about the process of shooting and cooking in the moment. And that’s why Eric Wolfinger was our guest editor for this edition, because he does that very well. And I write about that in the editor’s letter. Eric came down for a week and we all collaborated together and we kicked it off with a meal at my house, where we cooked together and shot some photos.

And I think that helped set the tone to say, look, this is not all about shot counts and creative briefs and emails, and making 100 different plans ahead, let’s also build in some moments here and some time and flexibility to catch some magic. When it comes to shooting food, you can say you’re going to shoot these six shots and you can say that you’re going to do them at these different angles and you’re going to use these different props and backgrounds, but until you get that food on set and that food is alive, you don’t quite know how it’s going to act. You don’t quite know what the best angle is going to be.

So, part of the point of this issue was to say that while of course we have deadlines and of course we have to plan ahead, let’s just relax for a week, let’s chill out, and let’s tell a story through the lens in a fun way.

Samir Husni: And needless to say, I’m not telling you anything that you don’t know, but food magazines have become the largest category of magazines on the marketplace. If we look back at the ’80s, sex magazines were the largest category of magazines on the marketplace. Now it’s food. Do you feel that food is the sex of the 21st century?

Hunter Lewis: Food is certainly very sensual, but I think what it really speaks to is the rise of interest in the American food culture. And how many people out there love food and how many people out there are finding different entry points into cooking dinner or eating out. I think it speaks to the rise of our drink culture. So, it’s absolutely about a national hunger for more information about food.

Samir Husni: Can you expand a little on the food and drink culture in America today? And since you have a magazine that covers both food and wine, how are you striking that balance and making sure that the DNA of the magazine is different than what’s out there?

Hunter Lewis: If you look at 40 years ago, it took the Batterberrys, the founders of the magazine, about three years to create Food & Wine, and the final push was to convince Hugh Hefner to publish it as an insert in 1978. Hefner himself was by no means a gourmand, but he understood the rise of this epicurean set, this audience, and smartly decided to help the Batterberrys publish. So, you’ve got 40 years, four decades.

And look at the ingredients on the American supermarket shelf. Look at the quality of our restaurants. Look at the quality of our chefs, and look at what’s happening on television. Look at Instagram as a medium and how we consume food through social media. There’s been this explosion in the past four years, so it makes sense that there would be more publications, be they digital, social, video-first or print, than ever before.

Samir Husni: What about the wine part; the wine culture?

Hunter Lewis: I think we’re in a new era. And that’s going to be part of the new Food & Wine, of building on the expertise and the DNA of Food & Wine, of expanding Executive Editor Ray Isle’s role at Food & Wine. And to really capture and to cover and hold a mirror up to this new modern wine culture. We’re moving past the snobbery around wine and realizing that it’s not about how much you know, it’s not about being exclusive; it’s more about bringing wine to the center of the table and building experiences and stories around it.

A good example of this is we sent Ray Isle to four different bottle shops around the country and he sold hundreds of bottles as an undercover wine salesperson. He got to know what these consumers were looking for in a better way and he got to teach them along the way. I think he learned as much as he taught. And that’s something different, that’s something different that we did, that we hadn’t done before. It’s listening more for what the consumer is asking or looking for and delivering them that information in a premium way. And that will be in an upcoming issue.

Samir Husni: Getting inside the head of Hunter Lewis; do you have any kind of litmus test for content when it comes to either magazine, Food & Wine or Cooking Light? How do you deal with that?

Hunter Lewis: If you look at it, about 85 percent of Cooking Light is recipes and our mission at Cooking Light is to empower people to cook more at home for good health. So we’re absolutely looking at potential content, and looking at Cooking Light on every platform, through the lens of what healthy means now. When it comes to Food & Wine, we can go as broad or as narrow as we want. The brand name gives us an amazing license to go deep on any topic. And that’s a lot of fun.

What’s great about Food & Wine right now is that the brand DNA is strong. We’ve got a ton of opportunity. We’ve got the 40th anniversary to celebrate; we’ve got a redesign coming up that will refresh the look of the brand. We have Restaurants of the Year, which is a major franchise for us and that’s coming out in the May issue. We have the 30 year anniversary of Best New Chefs, which is coming out this summer. And we also have the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen coming up, and our first-ever festival in Venice, Italy. So, what this is all about this year is really capitalizing on every opportunity and maximizing the potential of every franchise in every anniversary moment to build the brand.

And then as we go, make the print product more fun and more easy to use. Bring food and drink a bit more to the center of the brand. And celebrate the joy of cooking and the joy of being at the table.

Samir Husni: With everything that’s going on, the move from being a magazine to being a brand that exists everywhere, on all of the platforms, when do you have time to edit?

Hunter Lewis: Well, the editing is the most fun part. You make time for that. That used to be one of the central duties and now it’s gravy. So, you enjoy the gravy when it comes.

Samir Husni: Is the “gravy” still your favorite part? Or are you enjoying the events, the digital, the print, as much as everything else?

Hunter Lewis: What I enjoy the most as an editor is recruiting a team, helping to shape the team, finding out what makes people tick, working with them to get the best work out of them, and then shifting into second and third gears with that team and really finding out what we can do together. And I think the words creativity and collaboration, as we figure out what we can do together, is the most important thing. We’re just now shifting into second gear as a team with the new Food & Wine, and I’m really thrilled about what we can do together down the road.

Whereas the Cooking Light team; I’ve been with that team for three and a half years, I know what they can do. I know when we need to apply more pressure or put our foot on the gas, and I know when we might need to take our foot off the gas a little bit. And so I think that team sync and that group sync is such a major part of the job, because what makes a really good product is a really good team. And it sounds obvious, but if that team is emanating a sense of joy; if that team is emanating a sense of passion for the subject matter, then you’re going to see that and you’re going to feel that on the page. You’re going to see and feel that on the screen. You’re going to see that through the videos. And that’s important and that’s what we’re working on and what we’ve been working on for the past few months.

Getting back to where the brand is going, where Food & Wine is going, as much as we’re focusing on creativity and collaboration, we’re also focusing on the words service and hospitality. As somebody who has worked in restaurants and as the editor of a brand, it complements restaurants to have unique relationships with chefs, unlike any other food brand. I understand that we’re not a restaurant, but how can we deliver better service to our customers, meaning how can every page have some kind of takeaway or some kind of tip that will make our audience become a better cook or pour a better wine or be a better host at a dinner party or be a better guest at a dinner party?

And when it comes to the hospitality, how do we make our customers feel in that interchange? As we’re delivering service, is there a sense of warmth? And that sense of warmth and that hospitality, combined with better service, is what will broaden our audience and keep them coming back for more. With Food & Wine, I very much look at it like serving your customers with warmth and hospitality.

Samir Husni: When the magazine moved to Birmingham, there was a tornado of media coverage, many of which wondered what the powers-that-be were doing to Food & Wine. Do you hear anymore comments like that about Food & Wine being based in Birmingham, Ala. or that’s history?

Hunter Lewis: Not lately. It’s still bubbles up here and there on social media. I spent eight years in New York and some of that was working in restaurants and some of that was working food media. I know what it’s like to create food media in New York. I’ve spent about five and half years here in Birmingham, and I can tell you that it’s an advantage doing this in Birmingham. And I think the naysayers are thinking too provincially about the media bubble that is New York. We have the best of New York at 225 Liberty Street and we have the best in Birmingham.

What I am thrilled about right now is tapping into both studios and that one larger staff. And I think it’s to our advantage. We are now much closer to the sophisticated food and drink consumer than we ever have been as a brand.

Samir Husni: What’s Hunter’s favorite food?

Hunter Lewis: My favorite food is whatever is at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning. And thankfully, spring in Alabama is coming and what I’m looking forward to most is strawberries, asparagus, and rhubarb. I just got a call from my fish guy up the road and he said that the shad roe is starting to come in. So, that means spring is coming and that’s what I’m most excited about right now.

Samir Husni: What’s your favorite wine?

Hunter Lewis: My favorite wine is probably the one I most recently had for dinner. And that’s one of the things I’m most excited about with Food & Wine; I get a daily education from Ray Isle. My favorite wine this week, because it changes every week, is an Etna Rosso from Valenti Winery, Norma Opera V. Bellini.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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