NEW YORK, N.Y. - You'd think Dana Cowin would know her way around the kitchen. Or at least that she'd be a little more proficient than the rest of us.
Not so much. Turns out that helming Food & Wine magazine for nearly 20 years hasn't quite equipped her for kitchen success. Sure, she's intimate with just about any chef worth knowing. She's eaten at many of the world's top restaurants. And her staff subjects her to an endless parade of great eats from the magazine's test kitchen.
But get her in the kitchen?
"I come by my incompetence genetically," she writes in the introduction to her new cookbook, "Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen." ''I am descended from a long line of noncooks."
Except that while being editor-in-chief of one of the country's top food glossies may not have prepped her for kitchen work, it did give her the contact list to fix that. So she called upon some of the most notable chefs — Thomas Keller, Jose Andres, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, April Bloomfield and David Chang among them — to teach her the basics she felt she was so sorely lacking.
And that became the substance her cookbook, the trials and lessons as she learned her way around the kitchen with the help of some of those who know it best. She recently sat with AP to talk about her learning curve. (Edited for length and clarity.)
AP: What got the ball rolling on this project?
Cowin: Though I've been the editor of Food & Wine for 20 years, I didn't get that job because I knew how to cook. I got that job because I knew how to edit and I knew what people wanted. But I can't go to cooking school. Editors-in-chief of cooking magazines don't go to cooking school. That wasn't on the agenda. So then I thought, I could create my own cooking school. So basically, I set myself up to get lessons. So I took the 100 recipes that I love the most, that I cook all the time. And some of them I actually can cook without failing, like a chopped salad. But there are other recipes that I have messed up so many times in so many different ways. So I asked the chefs for help. And they were so great and they were so much fun to work with.
AP: What was it like to work with the chefs in this way?
Cowin: I know the chefs from hanging out at dinner. I know them from eating their food. Those are two ways to know a personality. But when they become your teacher, you understand something completely different about them.
AP: What was the best lesson out of that?
Cowin: I think my favourite lesson was really Eric Ripert teaching me how to kill a lobster the humane way. And the humane is not the way I did it, which was just put it tail-first into boiling water. The humane way is to take a knife and plunge it through the spinal cord. Well, I tried. But I was so worried about it. It seems really scary and intimidating. After I finally dispatched the lobster, I looked at Eric and said, "Boy, that was really hard." And he said, "You are stronger than the shell of a lobster. Your mind was everywhere but the tip of the knife." So I think the key to good cooking actually is to have your mind on the tip of the knife, whatever that is. That was my biggest lesson. Because so much of my time at Food & Wine, I'm thinking, "How can I streamline this to make it simpler and faster for the home cook?" And my lesson was, "No!"
AP: We are starting to slow down, and I think that's part of a growing appreciation for quality of ingredients, where the food comes from. I think that is helping us slow down.
Cowin: Exactly. As you say, if you have a great ingredient, you want to do very little to it. You want to take care of it and not butcher it. And you see that in the evolution of recipes overall. You see that you don't really need a sauce. You don't need two preparations. You don't really need to stuff it. So when you get rid of all those things that are so time consuming, you have a really good recipe.
AP: Is there anything you didn't master?
Cowin: Oh, so many things!
AP: But that you had really wanted to have in the book, but you didn't quite get?
Cowin: Oh, well... What I would say to that is there are things that I got better at, but I could still use some improvement. I have a very excellent biscuit technique now. So I tried it and they are better, but are they perfect? I think I could go back at them and get better. Another lesson I learned, don't call yourself a good cook or a bad cook until you are a cook. So if you cook a lot and you're constantly making mistakes, then you're probably a bad cook. But if you're only cooking a little, you might just need practice. So I need some more biscuit practice!