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So What Do You Do, Maile Carpenter, Editor-In-Chief, Food Network Magazine?

This epicurean editor brings a fresh addition to the food mag category and preserves the flavor of Food Network in print

- July 29, 2009
Even while covering the TV and entertainment beat at the Raleigh News & Observer, Maile Carpenter found herself sneaking epicurean features onto the front page. Determined to pursue her passion for food, Carpenter moved to New York to become a magazine writer by day and culinary student by night. After stints as food editor at Time Out New York and senior editor at San Francisco, Carpenter became executive editor at Every Day With Rachael Ray. In January 2008, Carpenter left Rachael Ray to launch Food Network Magazine as editor-in-chief. A test issue hit newsstands in October 2008, just as the economic downturn was gaining steam and causing publications to fold. But the magazine seems to have found a working formula, with the highest direct-mail response in Hearst's history and a growing tally of ad pages. Since climbing to 400,000 with the June/July official launch issue, the magazine will more than double its rate base in October and just announced it will reach 1 million in January, six months ahead of schedule.

Now that the title is gaining momentum, Carpenter aims to build more awareness for the magazine, capitalizing on the synergy with the network's TV and online content. On August 2, Food Network will name the newest addition to its on-air team in the finale of The Next Food Network Star. The winner will be featured in the October issue of the magazine and, Carpenter anticipates, will join the other chefs as a fixture in its pages.

Carpenter, who is seven months pregnant (her husband is chef Wylie Dufresne), recently spoke with mediabistro.com about conceptualizing a print iteration of an established TV and online brand, how her culinary training influences the way she runs the magazine, and what it's like to get in the kitchen with Bobby Flay, Ina Garten and Guy Fieri.


Name: Maile Carpenter
Position: Editor-in-chief, Food Network Magazine
Resume: Staff writer, the Wilmington Morning Star (Wilmington, N.C.); staff writer, the Raleigh News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.); writer then editor, FYI (Time Inc.'s in-house magazine); senior editor, San Francisco; food editor, Time Out New York; executive editor, Every Day with Rachael Ray; editor-in-chief, Food Network Magazine
Birthday: August 17, 1973
Hometown: "We moved every few years with the Air Force, so I never had a hometown. I've lived in NYC since 1997."
Education: BA in journalism, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1995); Culinary Arts degree, French Culinary Institute (1999).
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday Times: "'Real Estate.' I can dream!"
Favorite TV show: CBS Sunday Morning
Guilty pleasure: "Candy corn, year-round."
Last book read: The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs


You've had a 14-year long career in journalism -- in food journalism in particular -- how did you break in?
I didn't start in food. I started in newspapers, actually, on a straight news [editorial] track. But then I after a couple jobs at newspapers I moved up to New York, and while I was working at Time Inc. I went to culinary school at night. I didn't think I'd end up cooking in a kitchen -- I thought maybe I'll fall in love with it and become a chef -- but really in the back of my mind, I just wanted to specialize and focus my writing career and editing career in one area. After that, I moved to San Francisco, and that's where I first started doing more serious food journalism.

What made you decide to choose food as your specialty?
Since I was little, I've always loved cooking, I've loved food magazines. I used to go to the library when I was really little and flip through food magazines and copy recipes to take home and try.

Can you tell me a little more about your career path? You said you started in newspapers...
Everyone always asks me, 'Well, how did you get this job?' My original intent was to go into straight newspaper reporting, but the more I wrote, the more I found myself writing feature-style stories, even for the front page. So I eased into the features section, and I became a television and entertainment reporter at the Raleigh News & Observer. It's funny, even then, I was covering television, but I would always skew toward food. The Food Network was just starting, and I just always took an interest in it. In my extra time, I would always do food stories. I very gradually steered that way. Then I moved up to New York to work at an in-house magazine at Time Inc. -- it was called FYI. I really got to see how all the magazines at Time Inc. worked and meet a lot of people, and that's when I started going to cooking school and deciding I wanted to be in magazines and I wanted to do food. From there, I went to San Francisco and then came back here to work at Time Out, which was a totally different experience because that was very street-level reporting. It was weekly, so the pace was very fast. So I've really done the daily reporting, and then weekly at Time Out and then monthly at San Francisco magazine and then -- the most specific training for this was at Every Day With Rachael Ray.

"It's really supposed to be a print version of the network, and I think the popularity of the network proves that this is a good time for it. And obviously, things are going on economically -- it's a natural fit for that, too. It doesn't feel forced for us to say, 'This is easy, this is a great value, do this with your family instead of going out.'"

Food Network Magazine launched in October 2008 and you left Every Day With Rachael Ray in January. What was that interim period like?
To Hearst's credit, the way we launched this magazine was really interesting in that we produced a full-blown prototype of this magazine that we took out to focus groups that [the public never] saw, which is great, because we were able to make all of our mistakes then. Sometimes you'll see a magazine launch and you'll notice it'll change drastically in the first few issues because you get feedback from readers and you work out kinks. We were able to make huge changes because only a few dozen people around the country had seen the magazine. Instead of a focus group where maybe we were showing fake stories on boards with dummy text, this was a case where people were holding something that felt exactly like [the magazine], and they were able to flip through it. We got real reaction from them, like, 'Well, this doesn't make sense following this,' or 'I don't like this design,' and we came back with tons of information. The focus groups were in May, so we really spent the summer fine-tuning everything, changing our creative direction.

Was there anything you thought was going to blow away the focus groups that you found they absolutely weren't pleased with? Or something you took from their feedback that specifically you think is really working well?
What I thought might have been a weakness going into the project, which is, 'How on earth are we going to take all these different personalities and find one common voice?'... What the focus group said is, 'We kind of want all that.' So I was thinking that the person who likes to watch one show would never watch this other show [which] is completely different, and that wasn't the case at all. We asked, 'Okay, just spit out words that describe Food Network' -- and every single one of them said 'diversity' -- as a plus. Obviously we knew there's a mix of stars, but what I saw as a problem of trying to consolidate the stars into one voice, they kind of gave us a license to just let all those voices be those voices, in one place, because that's why they like the Food Network. They expected to get the magazine and see everything from Guy [Fieri] to Ina [Garten] and Sandra Lee and Iron Chef and Ace of Cakes. They're strong personalities, and they're really different. So, that was the best takeaway.

What was it like to make the jump from working with one personality specifically, Rachael Ray, to tackling this diverse group of celebrity chefs?
In a way it was good training, because you just become aware of how incredibly busy these chefs are and how respectful you need to be of their time. I was already in the habit of booking things really early and being flexible, but it's great to have this mix of people because you can really have some fun with the different voices.

Food Network is an established television and online brand, and it would seem like a natural extension to have a magazine. Why now?
I say, 'What took so long?' It's just such a perfect fit right now in terms of the strength of the network and the popularity of the network, and just in terms of the way people cook. It's really supposed to be a print version of the network, and I think the popularity of the network proves that this is a good time for it. And obviously, things are going on economically -- it's a natural fit for that, too. It doesn't feel forced for us to say, 'This is easy, this is a great value, do this with your family instead of going out.'

How do you translate the brand identity of Food Network into a magazine format? How much input do you have in the editorial mix? What's coming from where?
We work really closely with Food Network. In fact, I'm meeting with them in a few hours. What we decided early on was that we didn't want to take the show[s] and just turn the magazine into a print version of the show[s]. You see [the stars] live and it's exciting to see them on television, and we didn't want to flatten that. From the beginning, we said, 'We're not going to have a column based on this show and that show. What we want to do is be flexible enough to go where the network goes.' So as people leave and come, as they build new stars, we build new stars. But we're kind of on a similar schedule... We're able to keep in touch with them about, 'What's going to be huge this fall?' so we can plan the magazine around that. But you'll notice as you flip through that we haven't boxed ourselves in in any way. You're not going to see one show appearing in every issue. It's meant to be that if Bobby [Flay]'s doing a huge [show] on burgers this summer, great, [the magazine is] in, too.

What was it like to launch in such an established category of magazines? You've got some real giants like Gourmet, Saveur and Bon Appetit -- what is it about Food Network Magazine that brings something new to the group?
That's the hardest question I had to answer. I worked alone, just in an office with the door shut, thinking, 'Oh my god, how's this going to go?' I had stacks and stacks of magazines -- not just U.S. magazines but European and food magazines from all over the world. I was just tearing them apart, saying, 'What's common about all of these, what's different, and how can we stand out?' What it really comes down to is this cast of stars. It's what makes Food Network Food Network. It's about personality, and the fact that these recipes and ideas are coming from people you know and see all the time. We knew that we could leverage that. What's interesting about that magazine is that when you see TV, the voices change from hour to hour, and yet we were charged [with] trying to find, 'Okay, what is Food Network's voice?' because it's all in one place. It's friendly, it's accessible, and I think that's the strength of the magazine, but it really comes down to the personalities.

"I love candy corn and cheap chocolate. I'm not a food snob, and neither are these readers. That's what Food Network is all about."

In October 2008, you told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that chefs "can do stories with [Food Network Magazine] that they wouldn't be able to do on the air." Can you tell me what you meant by that and give me some examples?
It's a place for them to give you tips and step-by-steps to keep with you. We have a column called "Try This At Home," where a star really walks you through step by step. Television is fleeting, and this is a way to have the tips right on your counter. Same with the "Star Kitchens": You might just happen to have seen this kitchen on their show all the time and wonder about the little secrets in there. Ina [Garten], for instance, built this amazing new studio barn right next door to her house in East Hampton. You've seen it on the air, but this is a nice way to really get into how she organizes her kitchen.

What have you learned from your experience in culinary school and your chef training that informs the way you run a magazine?
Going [to culinary school] originally gave me confidence in my knowledge about food, but it comes in handy all the time. [We're] a small staff and I always say that everyone does everything, and it really is true. Everyone pitches in whenever they can, and every once in a while, I run into the studio and slice vegetables for a shoot. And I don't mean to imply we do that all the time, but... there was a piece of sausage or something, but it needed a clean slice -- it's just little moments like that you feel confident in your knife skills, going in to cut the sausage.

How does it help you identify what will and won't work as content for the magazine?
I'm sort of a funny mix, because I don't have necessarily high-end taste. I like a very wide range of food. So while cooking school and my life with a chef and all that... I love that world and I eat in that world often, but I also kind of cook and eat in a simple way, too. I love McDonald's French fries, and I love candy corn and cheap chocolate. I'm not a food snob, and neither are these readers. That's what Food Network is all about. It's about loving food without being a snob about food.

Speaking of your tastes, what's your favorite dish to cook with your own celebrity chef husband, Wylie Dufresne?
We don't cook together! (Laughs)

Do you have cook-offs? Is it like a Battle Royale?
No, no, no no. This is a good example of our tastes: When we do eat together and cook together at home, it's super simple. We made meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and I made the meatloaf and he made the mashed potatoes.

You don't collaborate on a dish?
No. (Laughs) That keeps the marriage healthy. But honestly, he doesn't cook when he's home, either, because he cooks all the time.

Do you have a favorite local haunt?
Well, he will never say it, so I shouldn't either. He's like, 'If I say it, everyone will go!'

I can respect that.
We have a Sunday brunch standard that he will never reveal.

So, you touched on this a little bit before, but given the many ways that Americans are cutting back on spending, how do you incorporate those adjustments and translate it into the magazine, keeping it fun and light and compelling?
That almost wasn't a problem because it fits so naturally with the brand already. So whereas I think if you were a different type of magazine, you'd have to work hard to make it fit naturally with your identity -- that wasn't the case here. Food Network always thinks about things like value and ease, and it's just such a natural fit. We have cheap eats, we did weeknight meals for $3 or less in [the August/September 2009] issue. That doesn't feel like a forced concept.

How do you motivate your staff amid this forecasting of the demise of print?
Wow, jeez! What demise of print?! I am a believer in print. I worked very briefly online, and I just had to get back to print because I really believe in it and the ability to hold something in your hands. Especially something like this, that you're used to seeing on television, to be able to put it in your hand and feel it and touch it and have it on the counter. I love that. The staff is small. Honestly, what I think keeps everyone motivated is just that: We're small enough so everyone has their hands in everything. When an issue comes out, unlike a huge staff where you might not have ever seen one of the stories in the magazine, chances are, if you're on the staff, you had something to do with it. You either designed part of it, or you were on the shoot, or you wrote the headline -- that's how we operate, so I think everyone feels really vested in the final product.

What's your take on the overall state of the media industry?
There's more information out there than ever, and your access to information is instant and can be completely overwhelming. In the very beginning of this project, a lot of people said, 'Well, you can go get recipes online.' And I said, 'Well yes, but if you type in 'chicken parmesan' -- and we can find out exactly how many hits you'll get, but my guess is upwards of a million hits -- for chicken parmesan... To me, that amount of information and the speed at which it's coming at you is stressful and overwhelming, and I need someone to curate the information and hand it to me, and just tell me what I need to know. And I see [Food Network Magazine] in the food world as that. Like, 'Here's a month's worth.' We've done the work for you, we've thought through what you need, it's cleaned up, it's photographed, and it's in your hands. And I see that as a strength and not a weakness, in terms of how much is out there right now.

The magazine is more than doubling its circulation rate base with the October 2009 issue. Are there any particular goals or targets that you guys are looking toward?
That's a big question. Awareness is one thing. My goal is for more people to be aware of the magazine and know it's out there. My real goal is to nail it for the Food Network fan, because they know better than anyone what the network feels like and should feel like in magazine form. I want to continue to look at it from both sides, because you know, you can get involved in a project and suddenly become an insider and forget. So I try to pull myself out a little bit, and I put the network on all the time. Sometimes while I'm cooking or cleaning the house, I watch it like a real person and hear little snippets, and try to come up with, 'Okay, What would I like to do? What do I want to hear more about?

Back to that point about awareness, I want to talk about the interplay of Food Network Magazine and this season of The Next Food Network Star. I understand that part of the prize is an exclusive feature in the magazine...
In our October issue, we're featuring the winner, but that's not meant to be a one-time thing. What's great about the magazine is now that we've been around for a few issues, the stars are suddenly realizing that this is all part of being a Food Network star, and they're excited about doing stories with us. In the very beginning, we had to say, "Okay, here's what we're thinking about doing, and here's what the story might look like," but they didn't have a sense of how they'd look and sound in print. Now they do, so it's been great. It's about being part of the Food Network family and having the talent realize that the magazine can just extend them even more. The winner will first appear in the October issue, but assuming this winner becomes -- you know, Guy Fieri was a winner on that show, and obviously he's a huge part of the Food Network. He's done several stories with us and we have more in the works. So I assume that the same will be true of this year's winner.


Blake Gernstetter is mediabistro.com's editorial assistant.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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