Barbara Fairchild has had a busy year, which is something of a vast understatement. She's in the process of leaving Bon Appétit, the magazine she'd been with for 32 years, has just come out with another cookbook, is developing a website and has just joined Twitter.
We called her up the other day to chat about all this, starting with the cookbook, which weighed in at 6 1/2 pounds on our kitchen scale and is about the size of our unabridged Random House dictionary. It's an impressive book — which has already made it onto The New York Times best-seller list — which we'll be reviewing later on today or tomorrow, with a recipe for Fairchild's favorite tres leches cake.
Turn the page for the interview…
Squid Ink: So, can we talk about your new book? It's really, really big.
Barbara Fairchild: It's really big and it's really beautiful and it's really useful. So it's all of those same things that you like to have in your home all at once. Because I think it's usefulness is what speaks to the people who buy it. Really it is approachable and what I really like about it is the whisk ratings that we did. I've been telling everybody that you can do a Julie & Julia thing and start with the ones and work your way up to the most difficult ones. And the first chapter with all the techniques and the tips are worth the price of admission alone. I'm very proud of this book. It's doing very well and it seems to have a life of its own beyond my life at the magazine. It's got legs, as they say.
SI: Legs and whisks. How long a project was this?
BF: It took about 2 1/2 years altogether. We made the proposal just as Fast, Easy, Fresh was coming out in 2008, because the best time to pitch a book is when you've got a winner already in the marketplace. We had talked about doing this because we had such a wealth of information and it seemed like a nice subject because there didn't seem to be anything in the marketplace with this breadth and variety. You really don't need another dessert book for a very long time if you buy this one, because it runs the gamut.
SI: These were all Bon Appétit published recipes. What percentage of the published dessert recipes would this enormous book comprise, more or less?
BF: Gee, that would be hard to guess, because we run a dessert story in every single issue. That was something that I was very keen on doing because we knew that our readers are very keen dessert makers, and everybody likes to look at the pictures, whether you make desserts or not. So, twelve issues a year, 6 or 7 recipes each time, sometimes more, you know, there was really a wealth of information to draw from. We didn't go super far back, because I didn't want it to be so old fashioned that it seemed musty and dusty. Because I think one thing that's happened to desserts, certainly over the last 10 years, is that we have desserts reflecting different ethnicities, which is certainly something that we never had before. You know, it was all apple pie and chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. Now you have things that are flavored with chile and pepper and lavender, and I wanted the book to speak to some of these more modern elements. Because people taste them in restaurants and it makes them more interested in making them at home.
SI: And all those things are more readily available now.
BF: Absolutely. And of course with the internet, if you're willing to wait for the ingredient, it's changed the entire world of ingredient purchasing. It's so different from when I started at the magazine. We had to either go to someplace across the town or you just couldn't get it. Now there are no seasons, technically.
SI: So much has changed recently in food publications. You've left, or rather moved on; Ruth Reichl has left-and-moved-on. The food world seems to have changed pretty dramatically pretty quickly.
BF: It has, hasn't it? I'm obviously completely aware of that; I was aware of that even before Bon Appétit got moved to New York, or the announcement was made. I feel that really the internet and television have really taken over in the last 5 years. They've taken over in a good way, in that they have expanded the audience and the appreciation of food and really made it a part of the national conversation.
It's effected it in a negative way because now everybody all of a sudden is now an expert, especially on the web, and you know, I think there are some people who have a lot of influence who don't necessarily deserve to have influence.
I completely like the fact that food has grown on television, but I'm sort of sitting back sometimes in shock at the people who are actually talking about it and are considered the new experts.
SI: Yeah. And many people and publications don't test recipes anymore either. It's kind of a similar problem.
BF: Right. And the consumer doesn't know that. That's one of the reason why we have always been so successful: everybody knows that we test every single recipe and that we have a team of experts in the kitchen. There's just no question. But, you know, I can't speak for every blogger or every food person out there — everybody has a website, I'm going to have a website, so I shouldn't necessarily slam it — but I know my expertise. For me, personally, it seems to be the next logical step in what I want to do, is create my own website and do my own writing every day. I love to write, and sometimes when you're the editor in chief, you don't get to do a lot of writing and editing. A lot of it has to do with the business side of things.
SI: When is your website launching?
BF: Probably right after the first of the year. I'm not going to even try to do anything this month. You know, everybody is stopping work [for the holidays]; I think everything in the country is going to shut down. And you know, I want to take time to do it right. I'm already tweeting. People can follow me on Twitter.
SI: What will the website be like?
BF: You know, that's something I'm noodling around with. It's not going to be a recipe site, because I feel that my areas of interest are more along the lines of chefs, restaurants and travel, as well as the food industry as industry. But I'm not a recipe developer or a recipe creator. I'm certainly a recipe eater, but I'd like to really concentrate on 3 or 4 different things. One would be consulting; I'd love to consult for hotels and restaurants that are revamping their menus, because I think a lot of times I go to a lot of openings and I think in a lot of instances, it would be nice to have helped or offered my opinion. And I also want to do some teaching. I have a lot of fantasy ideas about where I'd love to teach: the CIA in Napa, NYU has a campus in Paris. I'm hosting chef dinners at the Ahwahnee in Yosemite [the week of January 24th]. I'm really excited about a lot of it: there's an L.A. night. Neal Fraser will be there. And then I'm going to be doing a class in Westlake Village [December 18th at Let's Get Cookin']. We'll be making some of the desserts and I'll talk about the book, about life before, during and after Bon Appétit, I suppose.
SI: Speaking of which: what do you miss the most about Bon Appétit? And the least?
BF: Well, obviously I miss the comaraderie of being part of a large staff. We had, have — they're still there but they probably won't be after a couple of months. We had a wonderful team; we built a great magazine. One of the things I'm most sad about is that it's another national magazine that's leaving Los Angeles. That's the thing that's sad for the city.
SI: Do you have any sense of how Bon Appétit will change in New York?
BF: I have no idea. I don't know the new editor, and that's probably a good thing. I really don't know.
SI: So, the good thing about having left?
BF: Having more time to write. I really do like to write and the more you do it, the better you get at it. And I really love going out and being around chefs and in restaurants and traveling, so I'm looking forward to all that. I really admire those people who own restaurants and create restaurants; it's such a difficult field to be successful in.
SI: It's probably liberating, to go out these days.
BF: Yeah, I'm looking forward to going out and about more around the city, now that I have the freedom of my own schedule. I've been very remiss in checking out some of the new places downtown and in Santa Monica — because of the traffic factor.
SI: Anything else you'd like to talk about?
BF: Well, it would be nice to have people follow me on Twitter.
SI: We just did.
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