Food & Wine Editor Dana Cowin on conquering the kitchen

Wilton Library will welcome Food & Wine Editor Dana Cowin on Thursday, Nov. 6 to talk about her new book, Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen.

In a recent interview with The Bulletin, Ms. Cowin said her presentation will "definitely not" be an earnest one.

"The reason to come is if you want to laugh and learn at the same time about food and food trends," she said.

Did you find that your own philosophy about food was holding you back in the kitchen, or was it a lack of technical know-how?

What I discovered over time was I didn't have any technical know-how [in the kitchen], but that didn't surprise me. The biggest thing holding me back wasn't ambition or desire, but focus and practice. As the editor of Food & Wine, I am always trying new things. I almost never do the same recipe twice. Every time I cooked, it was never the same recipe, so I never unlocked the secret of the recipe. As I practiced for the books, I found that practice really is good. Sometimes what held me back was not paying enough attention. I'm a very curious person, but I don't like organized learning.

I've heard that from a lot of writers.

Most writers are intuitive. If you take on something like cooking, if you don't have good instincts you have to practice and learn.

Who was your favorite chef to learn from?

You can never pick a favorite, because they each taught me so many things. I'm a huge chef fan which was a great pleasure of doing this book. I had great experiences with all of them, and my admiration has only grown. Chefs can be scatter-brained sometimes, but they really focus in the kitchen. They know so much and are amazing teachers, which makes sense because they have to teach everyone in the kitchen how to recreate their own dishes every night they're there.

Is there one dish you previously couldn't imagine making, that's now an every-week kind of dish?

There was only one dish I didn't make before the book came along, fried chicken, because I was afraid of bubbling burning oil. I thought, If I could ruin roasted veggies, imagine what would happen if I tackled burning oil.

What's your biggest piece of advice for those still afraid of cooking?

One thing is figure out if there's anything you've eaten that you've loved so much it would make you deeply happy to know how to make it. If you can identify that one dish, find a good recipe, make it three times following the recipe. By the third time, you'll feel like a total pro. And, don't let that be the end! Find more things you want to make and just try them.

Once you conquer the first thing, the whole world shifts. You'll have opportunities that you never though were possible. Feeding people also makes them happy.

As Americans become more distant from their ethnic roots, do you think there is less of an appreciation of the way food can bring people together and make them happy?

People who grew up with an Italian or Greek grandma certainly appreciate that idea, because there was someone within the family that cooked a lot. But, people who come from a more unusual pairing of backgrounds — like Japanese and Peruvian, for instance — can experience a blending of food cultures that will shape the food culture of the future in a really exciting way. I'm curious to see which direction that leads us in. Great American food is amazing, but as the world becomes smaller — we'll have more interesting food memories.

Did you grow up with an Italian grandmother?

I grew up with no one in my family cooking! My Grandma, my mom, even my great-grandma didn't really cook. There's no matrilineal line of food for me. I'm not sure what they ate, but it wasn't food they were proud of. On my father's side there was some gefilte fish somewhere.

Couldn't we call American food one of the first fusion-style cuisines?

Take the food of the south — which we think of as the most American food — a lot of those dishes came over from Senegal. I've researched that and it's fascinating, but all food around the world ended up fusioning at some point. A lot of people think tomatoes are from Italy, but they're actually from China. Trade routes from way back changed the way a singular culture may have cooked. We like to think that food cultures were insular, but they never really were because of people crossing the globe ever so slowly.

The world of food is gigantic. At the same time I was doing this, someone's doing a really deep dive into pizza, or reflecting on the incredible food in Scandinavia. There is gigantic breadth to what it means to think about food today. There's a way to approach it no matter your political, or environmental views, your family background, or your interest in food.

Its said that the Millennial generation is shunning homes and new cars, while spending more money on restaurants and beer. How do you think that generational shift might affect the food industry?

Its great for the food industry! There's so much more great food out there. The world is creating two types of people — the restaurant-goer/take-out person, and sometimes that's the same person who wants to spend the whole weekend roasting a pig. There's a hyper-awareness of food and local food and the possibility of great flavor and great excitement, and I foresee a pretty big sea change. The [Baby Boomer] generation was a bit of a drag because it was all about getting dinner on the table fast. People still want fast, but they appreciate the romance and story behind their food. It makes people much more engaged with what they're eating.