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Dana Cowin—The Most Perceptive Woman in the World
Podcast host, former editor of Food & Wine magazine, thrower of great parties.
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ON FIRST LOVES: My love of magazines way preceded my love of food. The year I graduated from Brown, I got hired at Vogue magazine, all because of a professor I had; he knew I was interested in magazines, and he gave me the names of three people in New York and told me to go talk to them. One of those three people helped me get that first and incredible job, which set me on this phenomenal trajectory. I’m forever grateful to that professor.
ON GROWING UP IN NEW YORK: I grew up in sort of an anti-food family. My grandmother never cooked, my mother only made milkshakes, and my father made crêpes. That was the sum-total of the family culinary background. For some people, when the food at home is terrible, they’re like, “I’m going to cook!” And that wasn’t me—I just didn’t care about food. Instead, I was interested in lifestyle. I really loved thinking about the way people live—the books that people were reading, and movies and theater and architecture and design. Food and entertaining is a part of that, but it wasn’t until I went to Food & Wine magazine that I realized how truly fascinating it was.
I had a really wonderful childhood in New York City. My father was a bit of an aesthete, so he loved photography and objects. We would go to antique stores and photo galleries together, and he created this beautiful life of things for the family. Having grown up with someone who had such a great eye, it’s something that I’ve always appreciated.
“I grew up in sort of an anti-food family. My grandmother never cooked, my mother only made milkshakes, and my father made crêpes. That was the sum total of the family culinary background.”
ON FINDING HER INNER CHEF: When I had my first job and was living in an apartment on my own, I loved having people over. You need to feed people when you’re entertaining, and that’s when I started to understand the magnetism of food—it creates camaraderie. It wasn’t about how great my food was, because it wasn’t spectacular. It’s that food is for gathering. You don’t even have to cook anything, necessarily. I’m about to host an ice-cream social, which is such an easy way for people to get together. Just come and have a bowl of ice cream!
When I was learning to cook, I made mistakes at every turn. I ruined things that many people ruin, like soufflés, and I ruined things that many people don’t ruin, like roast chicken. Some if it was technique and genuine error: you can’t put hot soup in a blender, because it explodes. But a lot of it was just not paying attention, like anything else. With cooking, you have to pay attention. Sound and smell are hugely useful, and the more time you spend around food, the more you realize that it talks to you. You have to listen.
ON CAREER SETBACKS—AND BREAKTHROUGHS: I worked at Vogue for the features editor for a total of four years. I loved that job, but I was a terrible line editor. I had a natural instinct for story, but I was way too timid to talk to the writers because I knew I wasn’t going to improve their copy. It’s terrible to feel like, “Oh my gosh, I really like this, but I can’t do it.” I did a bunch of interviewing but I didn’t have the right skill to make it to the next level. And I had to accept that. I remember calling my father in tears, saying, “Will you help me if I quit?” And he was not happy about it, because he thought I was just giving up. I spent a year trying my hand at writing fiction, but I would write and rewrite and rewrite, and the stories were stuck, like concrete. I didn’t have the fluidity that a lot of writers have. So then I got another job at Condé Nast that my former boss from Vogue gave to me.
I was at Condé Nast for 10 years. My last job there was at Mademoiselle, which was a magazine about fashion—not my core interest. Clothes, zits, dates, boys… it wasn’t my thing. So I went to a friend of a friend at American Express publishing, and I said, “I think I can do something with this magazine that you’ve got, Food & Wine, because I believe that food is the center of lifestyle. Food & Wine has amazing recipes, but they don’t have all the packaging, and we can make this about people, and the life around food.” And they bought that vision. It was a different time, when they were willing to give someone like me—someone with little experience, who didn’t really know about cooking and didn’t know all the chefs—a big fat chance.
“I worked at Vogue for the features editor for a total of four years. I loved that job, but I was a terrible line editor. I had a natural instinct for story, but I was way too timid to talk to the writers because I knew I wasn’t going to improve their copy. It’s terrible to feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, I really like this, but I can’t do it.’”
ON BEING AT THE TOP: I love being a boss. My boss-ness evolved over time. When I was first a boss, I was more like a “boss-friend,” and that’s hard, because it’s very confusing—you don’t get the best work from people by being their buddy, particularly if you have to give them feedback where you don’t like something. The more I gained a sense of authority, the more my vision solidified, and the better boss I could be and the more successful I was. I had an extraordinary team, and it was comprised of people who each had very different skills and talents. I tried to embrace and celebrate that, and shape the job to the person to a certain degree, as long as it didn’t upend the entire ecosystem. We really were a living, breathing organism together. I love helping people find their strength and put it to use.
As the editor of Food & Wine, I eventually found myself in a certain kind of trap: I loved it and I could never think of anything else that I would want to do. It was the notion of, “Where do you go from here?” That’s paralyzing, particularly as the industry was changing. Since I did the same thing for 21 years, I didn’t have much vision beyond a certain point, and that was terrifying—truly terrifying. But I realized I needed to have an open mind. Being without a direction is intimidating, but that’s not the same as being lost. I’m not scared anymore. I’m shocked at the sense of calm that I have now.
“She said to me outright, ‘People are very unhappy with the magazine. You have six months to try to fix it, and if you don’t fix it, you will be fired.’ And that was alarming, but very motivating.”
ON FRESH STARTS: I made the decision to leave the magazine last year. One of my biggest reasons for leaving was that I found I wasn’t reading magazines anymore, and things were starting to seem repetitive—and I had never, ever felt that way before. We had recently done a redesign, and I didn’t have another evolution in me. I had evolved the magazine so many times, and that last redesign was it; that was what I had to give. I didn’t have another way of rethinking or redirecting the brand.
Also, I’ve always known that I wanted to have more than one sort of career, and I felt it was time to find out what that next part was. I had done some digging, and I couldn’t quite grasp it, so I wanted to strike out and explore. It was very difficult, though. If an editor departs, the people who are left behind are very vulnerable. So in leaving, you are damning your closest team, and that’s a terrible, terrible feeling. Still, I couldn’t not make a change because of that. When I walked away, I was so ready, because I had done the best that I could do, and I knew I wanted a different future—one that I could build, that was different.
Now, I’m doing a radio show called “Speaking Broadly.” It’s all about women and success, and I speak to people in the food world and ask them about their challenges and what they’ve achieved. We also talk about great food and recommendations, and I love it, love it, love it. I’m also doing a little consulting, which is an opportunity for me to figure out how I can add to the world, and take the skills I’ve honed and use them in new ways. I want to take that information and share it to empower other people.
“I’m incredibly open to criticism as long as it’s not nasty. It has to come from someone who fundamentally agrees with me. If it comes from someone who thinks you’re an idiot, then it’s hard to make improvements.”
“Since I did the same thing for 21 years, I didn’t have much vision beyond a certain point, and that was terrifying—truly terrifying. But I realized I needed to have an open mind. Being without a direction is intimidating, but that’s not the same as being lost.”
ON CONFIDENCE: I’ve been doing some very informal life coaching, and the biggest problem that most people bring to me, honestly, is a lack of confidence. I believe that every person has the answer to what they’re looking for, they just haven’t asked themselves the question in the right way. For example, I loathe failure. Failure hurts! And failure is a setback. But it’s all in how you look at it. If you take something that did not work, and you call it a failure, you’re immediately creating a barrier to learning what was good about that experience, and an acceptance that you can use as a jumping-off point. None of the people I’m talking to have really failed; instead, they have a failure of the imagination, and a failure to see that what they’re doing could lead to something better. I also see that people are too overwhelmed by the unknown—not knowing where to start or who to talk to. The most important thing is to get to talking to people. I believe that networking in the old-fashioned way is sort of gross—you want a job, so you go talk to that specific person—but I feel like the modern version of networking is about conversations. If everybody built positive conversations into their lives, they would find the future they are looking for.