Dawn Davis, Bon Appétit’s new Editor-in-Chief
Courtesy of Bon Appétit
For as long as she can remember, Dawn Davis has had a love affair with food. It was there during her childhood in Los Angeles, with weekly family outings to Marie Callender’s and with her aunt’s homemade gumbo every Christmas Eve. It was there when she began her career on Wall Street and attended cooking classes at the French Culinary Institute in order to unwind after a long day of work. It was there when she experienced New York’s dining scene for the first time and soon became a regular at some of the city’s most celebrated restaurants. And it was there when her unexpected jump to book publishing led her to author a collection of interviews with the country’s top chefs and restaurateurs. But it was not until last year that her appreciation of food history and flare for the perfect roast chicken or tumeric salmon became actual job requirements.
In August, Davis was appointed Editor-in-Chief of legendary multi-media food outlet Bon Appétit. The announcement came after what was a tumultuous summer for the brand that included the departure of Adam Rapoport, who after a decade leading the magazine, resigned under pressure when a 2004 photo of him wearing an offensive costume resurfaced. The image sparked a wider discussion around the longtime editor’s leadership style and BA’s workplace culture, and it quickly became clear to parent company Condé Nast that the choice for Rapoport’s successor would need to affirm its renewed commitment to diversity and inclusion. And as one of a few Black leaders in the publishing industry and the founder and publisher of Simon & Schuster’s 37 Ink imprint, which serves a platform for marginalized voices, Davis fit the bill completely.
When a friend initially reached out to her about the Editor-in-Chief opening at the brand, however, Davis was quick to recommend someone else, and it was only after they suggested she throw her own hat in the ring that she reluctantly agreed. Within a matter of weeks, the 55-year old found herself exchanging emails with Anna Wintour (who serves as Condé’s Chief Content Officer in addition to her duties as Global Editorial Director for Vogue), and not long after, she was was officially hired.
Davis pledged early on to bring the same innovative and progressive approach that she carried throughout her 25 years in publishing to Bon Appétit, and following a months-long listening tour with staff members, she started her new position in November. The editor has since overseen all of the company’s food outlets—Epicurious, Healthyish, and Basically, as well as the famous BA Test Kitchen—and the website’s traffic already increased 10 percent year-over-year in December. But the magazine’s March issue will be Davis’s first, and she’s not holding back when it comes to delivering sweeping changes and a fresh perspective.
Read on to learn how the new Editor-in-Chief is acclimating to the role and what efforts she’s making to build a Bon Appétit that champions diversity and shines a light on underrepresented voices whilst upholding the brand’s impressive 64-year legacy.
Gabby Shacknai: Before being named Editor-in-Chief of Bon Appétit last year, you had a prolific career in the book publishing world. During your years at Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins, what was the extent of your relationship to journalism and the magazine space? Did you ever imagine that you’d pivot to this side of publishing?
Dawn Davis: I’ve always enjoyed magazines, and as a book publisher, they were one of my favorite sources for scouting story ideas and writers. I also read them for pleasure, to escape to the curated world presented in those pages. I never dreamed about being an editor-in-chief, though I always read the Editor’s Letter of a few food magazines and thought it was such a fascinating world!
Shacknai: What was your relationship to BA prior to joining, and what were your thoughts on the magazine—as both a reader and as a member of the publishing industry?
Davis: As my imprint didn’t have a cookbook line, I was reading BA purely for enjoyment — for fun and inspiration. I love to cook, and often turned to BA and bonappetit.com for recipe ideas. Always creative and fresh, BA was a reliable resource for culinary inspiration. I would daydream about the perfect menu at the perfect dinner party, which may explain why one of the first columns I introduced in my March debut issue is ‘Dream Dinner Party.’ We were very fortunate to share the legendary Cicely Tyson’s vision of her ideal dinner party, whom she would host, and what she would serve. Diahann Carroll was one such guest, and I imagine them drinking champagne in heaven.
Shacknai: How do you think your background as a book editor has helped—or challenged—you as you’ve taken on the Editor-in-Chief role?
Davis: We have really wonderful talent coming out of the BA Test Kitchen so we already have the expertise when it comes to ideating about food, about recipes, and culinary creations. But I’ve been thinking about storytelling in elegant, concise, and compelling ways for over two decades. I want to apply my experience from book publishing to shape the magazine into a bountiful platform, where you come for the recipes and stay for the ideas, the inspiration, and the stories.
The pandemic has shown us how essential food is to everything we do: from the basics—How will I get what I need to feed my family dinner tonight?—to the more abstract—What does a hotter, longer summer do to the acidity of certain fruit trees?—to the ethical—If farmers and meat processors are essential workers, where do they fall in the vaccine priority line? It’s all connected. Plus, I have an amazing rolodex of diverse writers to help us opine on these questions. So between the talent that was already on the team and my ability to frame stories and recruit contributors, I think our reach will be broader and more accessible and relatable. I’ve been thinking of it this way: Come for the recipes—always tested and delicious—and stay for the ideas.
Shacknai: You were obviously appointed BA’s Editor-in-Chief in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the subsequent racial awakening last summer, but it was also during a time when BA came under fire for its workplace culture and racial insensitivity. Why do you think it was so important that the magazine’s new editor not only be a person of color but a woman of color?
Davis: My understanding is that the staff wanted it, but you’d have to ask them. I can’t speak to my predecessors’ management style, but I suspect I bring more humility and a more genuine interest in diverse perspectives to the job. And by having a different perspective—I’m the home cook who loves to experiment across an expansive range of recipes—I am going to open up what it means to be a food magazine. At BA, through storytelling, we can leverage the brand’s reach to spotlight talent and voices across all races, genders, and backgrounds.
Our March issue, for example, has a wonderful story on women entrepreneurs who launched their own food businesses. For one, Tiffany Hall, she didn’t quit her own job but rather brings her skills as an attorney to her “side gig,” a premixed cocktail called Empower. Another entrepreneur Sophia Maroon, answered a dare from her brother to bottle their mother’s salad dressing. Stacy Madison, of Stacy’s Pita Chips, describes her journey from owning a single sandwich cart to succeeding as a serial entrepreneur. It’s all about food but elevates the person—here, the woman—behind the story as well.
Bon Appétit’s March issue is the first with Davis as Editor-in-Chief.
Courtesy of Bon Appétit
Shacknai: You started your role at BA in the midst of much of this turmoil, following the resignation of Adam Rapoport and the departure of staff members who spoke of a toxic culture at the brand. What has your strategy been in mitigating the aforementioned issues? What sort of efforts have you made thus far to ensure a healthy and fair workplace, and how will this continue down the line?
Davis: My goal at BA is to create a space and workplace culture where everyone feels comfortable contributing and participating in their own way. This is imperative to our desire to publish a modern magazine, in print, online, and in social media—one that provides a fun, nourishing, and informative place where the food community and food obsessives found all over the world want to hang out. I always listen and encourage the team to share their perspectives, their unique worldview as it relates to food. We have put into practice the idea that diversity of thought makes for a better product.
Shacknai: You have a long history of giving a platform to underrepresented voices. How do you plan to continue doing this in your new role at BA?
Davis: Our March issue is the perfect example. We presented a story that shares the perspective of a food delivery person working through the pandemic, that of a trained chef who loves working in a church’s food pantry, and that of Valerie Castile, Philando Castile’s mother, who discusses how she is carrying on the work her son started in paying down lunch debt for students without the means to do so. We also have Melissa Miranda, a Filipinx chef whose restaurant Musang in Seattle is deeply rooted in supporting the local community. (Her recipe for roasted chicken adobo is amazing.)
These are all diverse perspectives on the broad universe of food. That is diversity of experience. As for writers of color, we’re already working together. In many cases, they’re calling me wanting to contribute to the magazine. Dawnie Walton, who has a fantastic debut novel, “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev,” will have a piece in the May issue, and the prize-winning poet and YA writer Kwame Alexander will contribute to the June issue. Valerie Boyd, the biographer of Zora Neale Hurston, has written a thought provoking article for our April issue that I’m excited to share.
Shacknai: With so much cooking content available online these days and social media turning everyone into an expert, how do you think BA can compete and remain relevant?
Davis: By offering tested, accessible recipes for novices and busy people and recipes that are a bit more extravagant for the experienced cook. By providing reliable, useful information on restaurants (our restaurant issue is much loved and heavily relied upon) and profiles of cities with great and developing food scenes. Also by supplying invaluable expertise on ingredients, cooking methods, and influencers in the food space. Plus, I hope to bring more reportage on how food impacts cultural equity, the environment, and social movements. And that’s to say nothing of our look at kitchens today. I don’t know about you, but my kitchen has seen more action in the past 12 months than in the previous five years. So, how do we update our cookware, appliances, and other essentials at various price points? What are the latest innovations in smart kitchens and in environmentally-forward ones? BA is the one resource for all that information and also for a recipe for a green curry lentil soup!
Shacknai: BA has been one of the most successful titles at Condé Nast, thanks to its forward-thinking video strategy and beloved test kitchen content. How will you ensure that this side of the brand continues to flourish?
Davis: We’re working with Condé Nast Entertainment to bring in and develop new talent and to test new shows. I’ve seen a few, and they are fun, and each series, each chef, offers a really fresh, flavorful perspective to the kitchen. We’re excited to start rolling out that content soon.
Shacknai: What sort of changes can we expect from BA with you at its helm? How do you plan to stay true to the magazine’s long-standing legacy and retain existing readers whilst also working towards change and progression?
Davis: I think the March and April issues are good examples of my approach. The food and recipes will be first and foremost. If you need inspiration for what to serve your family and your friends (when it’s safe to gather again), we’ve got that. If you want to know what to do with those pantry staples and some fresh citrus, we have inspiration and recipes for that. But while you’re here, if you want to read about the fascinating ways food and culture intertwine, we’ve got that as well. Wait until you see our April issue. We’re exploring the one year in the past half-century that we think changed American food in the most significant ways and are asking the reader to deliberate with us. And if you want dynamic programming that covers everything from food to wine, from Filipinx cooking to Bahamian inspirations, from meatballs to recipes that maximize spring vegetables, BA is here for you.