For nearly 20 years, as editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine, Dana Cowin has taken readers inside a lifestyle built around beautifully prepared food. At the same time, Cowin maintained a secret that the readers didn’t know: Despite being one of the leading voices in the world of food media, she was not an accomplished cook.
While Cowin says she wasn’t catching the kitchen on fire every night (“I did catch lamb on fire once,” she admits), her mishaps were well known around the magazine. Some of her kitchen problems, which she describes as ranging from “lumpy crepes to hopeless beef stews,” even appeared on the pages of Food & Wine. Cowin would write in for help under the pseudonym Irma, an inside joke referring to “Joy of Cooking” coauthor Irma Rombauer.
To conquer her kitchen failings, the New York-based writer looked for insights from some of the great chefs she has worked with over the years, including David Chang, Eric Ripert, and Mario Batali, collecting their wisdom and recipes in “Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen: Learning to Cook With 65 Great Chefs and Over 100 Delicious Recipes.”
Q. How is it possible that the editor of Food & Wine is not a great cook?
A. To be a great editor you need to know a couple things. You need to know what your readers want and you need to have an understanding of your subject matter. But you don’t actually have to do it. At the magazine, I think I’m a perfect proxy for our readers, who aren’t all star chefs or great cooks. They’re people who want to cook and to have food as part of their lifestyle.
Q. How did the staff find out about your shortcomings in the kitchen?
A. My team has known for a long time. I would come in every Monday after having cooked over the weekend and say I made something or the other thing and it didn’t work out. I’d ask, can you tell me what I did wrong?
Q. Like what?
A. I was trying to fix my chocolate chip cookie recipe. The first thing they said is maybe your baking soda is old. So I went and got new baking soda. It still didn’t work. They would come up with very logical reasons why things were not working for me, but always be incredibly generous. The groups I was much more concerned about sharing this secret with were the readers and the chefs.
Q. How did they respond?
A. I’ve gotten the opposite response from what one might have expected. Instead of saying now I trust you less, readers say, “You’re like me.” The chefs say, “Bravo — that’s really brave.”
Q. Were all of your attempts in the kitchen a disaster?
A. I cook food that’s very, very simple. So there are plenty of things I’ve made that I have not messed up. But I was making mistakes that were avoidable if I knew a little bit more or was more focused.
Q. What did the chefs teach you?
A. That the most important thing is focus. Sometimes we think of chefs as doing 95 things at once. But when they are in the kitchen, they are very, very focused. I was cooking with Eric Ripert and was holding a spoon and stirring a sauce. He just said, “You have to hold the spoon. You need to really take control.”
Q. What techniques did the chefs help with?
A. Many chefs suggest that you air-dry chicken or duck before you cook it to take the moisture out so you get a crispy skin. A number of chefs also suggest doubling up your sheet pans, which I thought of as so smart, because it helps to avoid burning. Others talked about how important it is to know what your oven temperature is and not to trust the dial on the outside. You should have an oven thermometer that is reliable and accurate. Some of these are things that I was too lazy in the past to do. But these simple extra steps make all the difference.
Q. You recommend that home cooks not follow their instincts until they are fully formed. Are you talking about yourself?
A. Oh, my gosh yes. When you make a bechamel sauce, you have flour and butter and warm milk. I did that, but it looked way too thin to me, so I tried to reduce it. I went into the office the next day and told the test kitchen cooks my bechamel wouldn’t reduce. They looked at me like I had two heads. They said, “Dana, you don’t reduce bechamel. You just make it thicker by adding more flour.”
Dana Cowin will host a cooking demonstration and talk about her book “Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen” with Ming Tsai, Kristen Kish, and Joanne Chang on Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. at Northeastern University’s Blackman Auditorium, 342 Huntington Ave., Boston, 617-373-2472.
Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at email@example.com.