Food & Wine Classic: New magazine editor Hunter Lewis continuing his education
June 14, 2018
Shortly after the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen wrapped last year, Food & Wine magazine made some bombshell announcements.
The magazine was sold by Time Inc. to the Meredith Corp. (with an infusion of a cash contribution from the Koch brothers). It moved from its longtime home in New York City to Birmingham, Alabama. And Hunter Lewis, the respected editor of Cooking Light, took over as editor in chief, replacing Nilou Motamed, whose tenure lasted little more than a year after she replaced longtime editor Dana Cowin, who had helmed the publication for more than two decades.
Despite these shake-ups, don't expect major changes to the time-tested formula at the Food & Wine Classic. Lewis, 40, sees the Classic as a cornerstone of Food & Wine's identity.
"The Food & Wine Classic is a major part of the DNA of our brand," Lewis said in a phone interview from the magazine's new digs. "We're not changing the brand. Food & Wine is strong."
The move to Birmingham was not made by the writers and editors of the magazine, but was a corporate decision. Still, Lewis said it has clear advantages for readers and staff alike.
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"It was a show of faith in the talent in Birmingham — in our history of making high-quality magazines and social media and video and recipes and photography here in Birmingham," Lewis said. And the relocation united Food & Wine's team with sister publications Cooking Light and Southern Living in Birmingham in a state-of-the art compound of test kitchens and studios.
Half of the editorial team for the magazine is now in Birmingham, while the staffers covering restaurants and wine are still in Manhattan. That approach brings a best of both worlds — New York and flyover country, that is — to all things Food & Wine.
"We're tapping into all the new and the next that the editors in New York are a part of — all the trend forecasting that they bring to the table — with a sensibility in Birmingham that's more in line with who our consumers are," Lewis said. "By that I mean that we buy wine more like our customer at the same bottle shops and supermarkets. We have cars. The way we buy groceries and the way we eat at home are much more in line with the average Food & Wine consumer outside of New York."
For the June issue, Lewis oversaw a redesign of the magazine's layout. The subtle changes signal a shift to more news-you-can-use features — Lewis calls them "actionable takeaways" — that includes expanding its "Bottle Service" drink section, and the "Handbook" features aimed at practical cooking with ingredients readers can find at local grocery stores. Video features on Food & Wine's "Well Done" site are heading in a similar direction.
"Part of our mission with the redesign is to dial up the service and the hospitality," Lewis said. That initiative, of course, comes along with continued coverage of the elevated culinary scene and the superstar chefs who top the bill at the Classic.
When Lewis took the reins of Food & Wine last summer, planning was already underway for the 2018 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. He and his team have talked about it every week since then, with special issues and buzzy lists like the Restaurants of the Year and Best New Chefs features leading up to the events in Aspen.
"Everything points toward the Classic," Lewis said. "You can see the build-up for us, editorially, towards the Classic."
AT THE CLASSIC
This will be Lewis' first time at the Classic, though he's no stranger to the mountains. He spent a college summer as "the world's worst hotel valet" in Telluride and ski-bummed for a year as a short-order cook in Sun Valley after he graduated from the University of North Carolina in 2000.
"I love the mountains and I love the lifestyle," he said. "And I'm really excited about seeing the brand come to life through the events around town, all the tastings, the wine demos."
He's particularly looking forward, he said, to tasting dishes at the Sunday brunch at the Hotel Jerome highlighting Food & Wine's Restaurants of the Year and at Friday's late-night preview of Austin barbecue master Aaron Franklin's and sushi domo Tyson Cole's new Asian smokehouse, LORO.
While Lewis will be working the crowds at the Classic, meeting readers and festival-goers, some of the best insight into Food & Wine's new editor may come from watching the man cook. He'll take the stage with his mentor, celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman, on Saturday afternoon.
Lewis began his career in food journalism by leaving a gig as a newspaper reporter in Durham for New York City, where he walked into Waxman's Barbuto and asked for a job.
"I wanted to learn how to cook so that I could be a better food writer," he said. "They took me on as a line cook, broke me down and then built me back up again."
The pair will showcase Waxman's roast chicken and crispy potatoes recipe — it's billed as "Chicken the Obi-Wan Waxman Way" — a comfort-food standard that Waxman has mastered and passed on to Lewis. "Whenever I have a chef come visit me and my wife in Birmingham, chances are I'm doing some version of this," he said.
Also expect to see Lewis in the crowd often at seminars and tastings. He's here to learn.
"I look at a life in food as a continuing education," he said.
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