Barbara Fairchild joined Bon Appetit in 1978 as an editorial assistant typing (yes, on a typewriter) recipes. Today, she runs the magazine, and with the closure of Gourmet last month, has become one of the most watched women in food publishing. After all, her Los Angeles-based magazine is the sibling that survived in Conde Nast’s bloodletting.
She’s a powerful executive who splits her time between homes in Studio City and New York, when she’s not at one of the many events she runs or attends all year. She’s more than bicoastal: Her life partner of 19 years, Paul Nagle, is based in Washington, D.C. In some city, they try to spend Thursdays through Sundays together.
Of course, maybe her story shouldn’t be a surprise. Her mother, Ina Lieb, went from secretary to vice president of her company -- and she’s an accomplished home cook to boot. At 89, she still makes killer brownies.
“There’s definitely a parallel there,” Fairchild says one sunny lunchtime over salad and salmon carpaccio at Cecconi’s, a restaurant on Melrose near Robertson that’s Italian enough to have La Gazzetta dello Sport on a rack along with the Times -- Los Angeles and London versions.
She says it’s a great place for breakfast, reasonably priced and quiet. That’s just the sort of advice she is eager to give, and the personification of the role she wants for her magazine -- a pal who might nudge you to try kabocha squash or squid or a new restaurant.
The food magazine landscape has changed. Gourmet is gone, and while Bon Appetit survived, it lost six staff members in layoffs. And though Bon Appetit is one of the largest food magazines, with an average monthly circulation approaching 1.5 million, there are plenty of others out there, as well as bloggers and websites and Food Network shows and other TV programs.
With all that competition, Bon Appetit is working to keep its brand relevant online and in print, through blogs and online forums, cookbooks (a dessert tome is due next year) and a new mail-order venture selling selected wines paired with recipes. Fairchild says a TV show is possible.
“I want to embrace it all,” she says. “We have embraced [change], not shied away.”
While some gripe that too much of today’s food television is just entertainment, Fairchild sees the positive side, as she seems wont to do, noting that lots of young people are watching. As much as she loves Julia Child’s television shows, she says, she finds that when food is served on “Iron Chef": “I feel like I’m tasting it.”
Fairchild joined bad-boy boss Gordon Ramsay as a judge on a recent episode of Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” where the bleeping and the shouting can overwhelm the cooking. Fairchild stood out by being calm, kind, polite.
And she’s all those things over lunch and in her 10th-floor office with a daydreamer’s view of the Hollywood Hills.
Although she spent her first eight years in New York, she’s an Angeleno at heart. She loves the Beatles, has a trainer and plans to get serious about yoga. Italian food is the cuisine she’d pick if she could have just one; to her it feels like California.
“It’s so simple but it feels so sophisticated . . . taking something wonderful and letting it shine, letting it star,” says Fairchild, wearing black slacks and a twin set in browns and black; on a chain, she wears a small peace sign and a heart pendant. Her violet eye shadow is expertly applied.
Asked her age, she smiles and says she’s older than Rachael Ray and younger than Martha Stewart.
Home sweet home
Fairchild, the eldest of three daughters, grew up in Studio City in the house where her mother still lives, just a couple of miles from her own home.
Lieb, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of New York University, served mostly classic American food. She made dinner every night, and a roast or lamb on Sundays, with desserts such as baked apples. Fairchild recalls hand-cranking ice cream and making peach jam in a blazing kitchen “when it was 112,000 degrees in the Valley.”
Her late father was character actor Robert P. Lieb, whose career gave her one of her greatest junior high moments when he played Richard Chamberlain’s father on “Dr. Kildare.”
It was about the same time, when Fairchild was 12, that Ina Lieb went to work at Superscope/Marantz -- devastating at the time, she says, because “none of my friends’ moms worked.”
But her mother’s accomplishments fueled Fairchild’s own, as she slowly started taking over in the kitchen.
Like so many people, Fairchild can count on her family to remind her of her roots. One of her early specialties was a frankfurter pizza, something her sister always seems to reminisce about when they’re at a table with the likes of Wolfgang Puck.
“As much of a foodie as she is and the high circles she runs in, she also is very much a food lover of all kinds,” says Stephen Tao, an executive producer in TV and a decade-long friend.
He describes her as even-keeled, interested in movies and politics, passionate about food but not a snob. She likes the $1.50 hot dog and soda deal at Costco as well as haute cuisine.
And over three decades at Bon Appetit, as she became executive editor in 1985 and editor in chief in 2000, she has witnessed a revolution.
She was initiated in the days when new gadgets such as microwaves and food processors were getting attention, when recipes carried “asterisk after asterisk” telling adventurous readers to “go to this market, go to that neighborhood,” Fairchild says. She recalls spending an entire Saturday making a Julia Child bread recipe, most of it gone in a flash.
The new dynamic
While some readers still want to spend Saturdays that way, they no longer have to spend all day searching for recipes and ingredients. The Internet has changed the way people approach shopping and deciding what and how to cook.
At bonappetit.com, for example, readers can take a short survey about their Thanksgiving plans and get menu suggestions, watch a slide show of appetizers to buy or, if they register, have access to a calendar of food holidays and events. But it’s the magazine that remains the centerpiece, she says.
“Going through the pages of a magazine is still a very lush experience,” says Fairchild, who enthusiastically leafs through the December issue a few days before it’s out, pointing to features -- even ads -- she’s proud of, like the Latino Hanukkah menu or a Christmas cookie layout “unlike any story you have seen anywhere.”
In the magazine test kitchen, six editors sit around a set table, a routine that’s repeated twice a day, three days a week. It’s church-silent as they read recipes and taste from small white plates. Fairchild speaks first, praising the chicken and romesco sauce with Serrano ham cracklings. Everyone agrees, and the recipes are ready to go.
She’s a single-minded booster for Bon Appetit, but it took more than that to get and keep one of the top jobs in the food world.
“I worked veeery hard,” she says, drawing out the word. “And I have the ability to think about and worry about the magazine 24 hours a day.”
Fairchild championed the back-page celebrity Q&A;, in place since 1987, starting with Morgan Fairchild (no relation). There were plenty of skeptics, but she felt certain a convergence of the worlds of cuisine and Hollywood would last. After all, it worked for her.