The latest trendy food and lifestyle magazines, ubiquitous in urban havens of cool college towns and wealthy suburbs, are driven by a desire to exist outside the mainstream food world and all that goes with it — fads, corporate tie-ins, and celebrity chefs.
The look of these publications varies, but each is meticulously art directed, printed on heavy matte paper, and styled to look as unstyled as possible. Publications such as Kinfolk, Gather Journal, and Diner Journal, which are largely ad-free, are not news-based, but rather seasonal. Their ambition is for a longer shelf life than regular monthlies (the high prices reflect this), to be kept around with treasured cookbooks.
Take the last issue of Kinfolk, a minimalist quarterly from Portland, Ore., filled with photos of indoor and outdoor picnics, food-splattered aprons, cast iron pots on the cookstove, lavender and chamomile drying in the barn, and hands kneading bread — a dream come true for the hipster outdoorsman.
Or Gather Journal, from Brooklyn, N.Y., slicker and more urban than Kinfolk, targeting food nerds and culinary thrill seekers with high concept stories like “Smoke & Ash,” complete with recipes for roasted tomatoes with ash cheese, a hazy whiskey cocktail (rye, cloves, cinnamon, B & B liqueur, orange rind, Angostura Bitters), smoky black lentils and radicchio, a charred poblano and chipotle soup garnished with creme fraiche and toasted pumpkin seeds, and tarte Tatin.
Everyone seems to want to get in on this culinary reality. Even Bon Appetit, the aging stalwart, has been reimagined as a trend chaser with a particular affinity for the authentic and do-it-yourself.
Part of their appeal is the way they celebrate ordinary people. Gather, published twice a year by Fiorella Valdesolo and Michele Outland, editor and art director, respectively, strives to be relevant to the mainstream but inclusive of the fringe. Valdesolo and Outland met working at the pop culture and fashion magazine Nylon, so they’re focused on the look as much as they are on cooking.
The magazine, which recently published its second issue, costs about $20, and cultivates an edgy, conceptual, high-art style often shot by fashion photographers. “Fashion people respond to what we do,” says Valdesolo. “We set things up, but in the end, the way that we shoot our stories is a reaction against all of that perfect stuff where even the drips and crumbs look stylized.”
Kinfolk has been out since July 2011, and recently ran a story on a surfing sojourn along California’s Lost Coast, and a guide to the fall pantry (beeswax candles, quince, farro) by “101 Cookbooks” blogger and author Heidi Swanson. Issues cost $18.
“We started Kinfolk because we felt that no publication resonated with us,” says 26-year-old publisher Nathan Williams from his office in Portland. “We would not have picked up Martha Stewart for ideas on how to entertain. We have our own style but it is nothing innovative or new. Actually, we are usually looking back and putting a slight twist on the classics.
“We want it to be slow and comfortable,” says Williams. “There is a lot of white space, nothing is cluttered or competing for attention. We hope the reader flips through and feels relaxed.”
The 6-year-old Diner Journal has a similar affect, this one grounded in the restaurant community. The journal is published three or four times a year by Andrew Tarlow, the Brooklyn restaurateur behind Reynard, Marlow & Sons, Roman’s, and Diner. “The culture of the restaurant informs the journal,” says editor Anna Dunn, 32, a poet and former bartender and barista in Tarlow’s restaurants.
“People work here to make a living, but they all do something else as well. They are artists, they write, they paint, they dance. Restaurants on the surface don’t feel like meaningful places to work, but if the place has a life of its own, then it can transcend just cooking and serving food.”
Dunn says that in the beginning they wanted to do a cookbook but did not have the money or time so did a journal instead. “Food is the key component. There are still recipes, but now more poetry, prose, and art.”
A Diner Journal subscription of four issues costs $50; each comes with a three-hole punch so you can slip it into a binder. It’s lavishly illustrated, full of whimsical stories, snapshots of road food, communal meals, and recipes like grilled sardines and eggplant with bone marrow agrodolce, spit-roasted lamb, and stone-fruit panzanella.
“We want the journal to be an extension of the restaurant,” says Dunn. “We talk a lot about conviviality, how to greet strangers, how to welcome them, to offer them food and shelter, to find out their stories. We want people to be part of this moment in time and the journal is a way to bring that home.”
As for the photography: “We are terrible at food styling so we just shoot it the way that it is,” says Dunn. “I’m not drawn to food that looks fake. It is beautiful enough as it is.”
Before Bon Appetit was reinvigorated, it was the middlebrow alternative to Gourmet magazine; both were part of the Conde Nast empire. In 2009, the publisher shut down Gourmet and transferred subscribers to Bon Appetit. Bon Appetit was always a good source of chef-approved, but still practical, recipes. Today’s reinvigorated pages, under Adam Rapoport, a former GQ style editor, focus more on the intersection of where food and lifestyle meet.
In fact, it’s starting to look like its underground counterparts. Food and drinks editor Andrew Knowlton, 38, a 12-year veteran, explains the transformation: “The food culture changed and we lost sight of that. To be honest the magazine got tired and stuffy.”
To that end, Bon Appetit seems to have taken a long, hard look at other publications on the market. It directed its attention away from the overtly commercial, looking more to what Knowlton would consider “grass roots and old school.” But unlike Gather and Kinfolk, Bon Appetit is filled with ads.
While Knowlton admires the fact that Lucky Peach magazine, edited by Momofuku chef David Chang, can do a whole issue on ramen, you’re not about to find cover-to-cover ramen in Bon Appetit. “We could never do that,” says Knowlton. “But we can do a guide to sea urchins or a story with recipes about the Southern-style soul food that [New York Knick] Amar’e Stoudemire eats at home in the West Village.”
Knowlton says the magazine’s ultimate goal is to make beautiful food and to print recipes that work every time. “Young people are getting back into food and entertaining,” says the editor. “There are nouveau potlucks and canning parties. People making stuff with their hands is cool no matter what.”
But he is also a champion of restaurant culture. “Everything trickles down from restaurants,” he says. “It’s like music. I can sit down to play guitar all day long, but eventually I want to go out and see music, to see the best of the best, to be inspired by that and then to go home and pick up the guitar again.”
Since the re-design, Bon Appetit has devoted plenty of ink to up-and-coming eateries in out-of-the-way neighborhoods and rural outposts, coverage that may not interest some readers.
Eighteen years ago, Saveur was already searching far and wide for ordinary cooks in their own settings. Food editor Todd Coleman says that a lot of what’s in the current magazine looks about the same as it did in 1994, when it started.
But one thing did change. “Food is in fashion now,” he says.
Still, Saveur does not depend on invented trends. “There are 40 to 50 recipes per issue, some of them tested 12 times to make sure they are perfect,” says Coleman. “But they all come from real kitchens.”
The staff travels in search of good home cooks and authentic restaurants. “We try to show things the way that they are,” says Coleman. It is this kind of unstaged food reality that keeps the magazine relevant for other professionals. “Chefs already know what other chefs are doing,” he says. “For them it’s interesting to see what grandma is doing or what some home cook in Albania is doing.”
But cooking around the world is expensive, and for Saveur and other mainstream magazines, selling ads is a necessary evil. “People don’t like ads,” says Bon Appetit’s Knowlton. “But that’s what makes the magazine run. We try to get cool advertisers and cool ads.”
Gather and Kinfolk tap into this authenticity by shooting pictures of food that was actually prepared to eat, and by heading out into the fields to photograph where it grows.
In January, Bon Appetit will publish a story on the new food magazines. “I love reading them,” says Knowlton. “They inspire us. It is not a David and Goliath thing in any way. We are all celebrating food.”
Jonathan Levitt can be reached at email@example.com.
This story has been updated to reflect that Gather magazine does take advertising.