Dana Cowin, Master of Chefs

Monday, September 26, 2016
As the longtime editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine, Dana Cowin interviewed chefs, reviewed their dishes, and shared their cooking secrets with readers. But last year, after 21 years in the post, she dropped the reporter's pad and got in on the restaurant action herself. The eatery, Chefs Club, with a location here in the East Village and one in the St. Regis Aspen Resort, does not center around the vision and food of a single chef, but rather a collective of 50—and growing—chefs who contribute signature dishes to the menu, much like various writers might contribute articles to a magazine. Cowin chatted with us about her well-edited menu. How do you describe Chefs Club? I like to start by saying that we're open seven nights a week—some people think that because our name has the word "club" in it, that we're not open to the public or that we only have events for chefs. But indeed, Chefs Club is a seven-night-a-week restaurant with a very unusual point of view: We get great chefs' dishes and replicate them. Our new menu, which will launch in October, features dishes from 21 astonishing chefs, executed by our own culinary team. So instead of having to go to Minnesota to taste something from Andrew Zimmern, you can come to Chefs Club. Or if you want to taste a dish from Daniel Boulud that's no longer on his menu, you can have it at Chefs Club. We showcase chefs who are super famous and others who are going to be new to diners, so that they get to have a surprise. We're doing an asado from Gabby and Greg Denton from OX Restaurant in Portland, for example. I can't imagine that a lot of New Yorkers have been able to have their food, and it is completely indulgent and completely delicious. So we're really excited to be able to share lots of culinary viewpoints. In the dessert category, we're working with Christina Tosi from the Milk Bar, chocolatierJacques Torres, and Belinda Leong from b. Patisserie in San Francisco. It's sort of a name-dropper's paradise. And it's a really great way to taste the best of what's happening in the country right now. Over the course of your career, you've watched chefs become celebrities with household names. How did the public become so fascinated with people who cook? Twenty years ago, chefs never came out of their kitchen. And then the Food Network came along and made celebrities out of people who were in the kitchen. All of a sudden, diners would come and they would want to meet the person who made their food. Great food from talented chefs has also become more accessible. It used to be that if you wanted to go to a restaurant, you went to someplace where you were probably going to spend quite a bit of money and have a long evening out. But over time, this has changed. Now, you can have an amazing food experience for $10. Places like Shake Shack stoked the growth of interest in doing high-quality food at a good price. It changed the model. Chefs who always wanted to show their best work through tasting menus and [high-priced] extraordinary meals realized that if they wanted to reach more people, they needed to operate not just at the high end but all along the spectrum. Even farmers have become famous! Yes, another gigantic change in the world of food is the interest in where our food actually comes from. Chefs were at the vanguard of saying, "you shouldn't just know my name, you should know my farmer's name." That got a little silly on some menus, but the idea behind it is deeply important and has changed the food and chef culture. We've seen a lot more attention paid to the ingredients and where the ingredients are from. If you go to a restaurant in a food-conscious city, you make the assumption that the food all comes from great farms and that the chef and the farmers are working together to get great food on the table. How do your diners react to the pigeon entrée on the menu? Oh, the Gabriel Rucker squab! They loved it [this dish will not be on the new menu]. The New Yorkers that we get are willing to have a bit of an adventure. If they want to have a mac and cheese or a burger, there are so many places to have that. When they come here, they're excited to have oysters and squab and Korean short ribs. They come with the expectation that the food is going to be interesting and not just a roast chicken or pizza. Have you found any differences between New York City chefs and those from other parts of the country and world? I think that chefs actually are more defined by their ambition and inspiration than their location. There are extraordinary chefs all over the world who work at a very high level and they're all friends and go to conferences together. I don't think where they're physically from is as important as where they're intellectually from. What are their ideas about cooking and food? Some chefs go into the restaurant business because they want to put artistry on a plate, so those chefs come together. Then there are ones who really want to bring the farm to life… those chefs all hang together. Would Chefs Club ever dive into the food truck scene? Anything is possible. We're opening a fast-casual restaurant in a few months [named Chefs Club Counter, set to open sometime between December 2016 and April 2017]. And once we have a fast-casual, a food truck might not be far behind, but we don't have plans for that right now. Have any chefs ever been reticent to share one of their recipes to be prepared by someone else? You would think so, but our culinary team is led by Didier Elena, who worked with Alain Ducasse for 20 years. Most people know him and they know me, so we've had really great success in people saying "yes" so far. I'm sure the day will come when someone says, "I don't want you to cook my recipe," but I haven't had that day yet. Chefs Club 275 Mulberry St between Jersey and E. Houston sts 212-941-1100 Monday–Thursday 5:30–11:30 p.m., Friday–Saturday 5:30 p.m.–12:30 a.m., Sunday 11 a.m.–4 p.m. and 5:30–10:30 p.m.