David Chang’s cult food magazine, Lucky Peach, burned bright. AMELIA LESTER documents its meteoric rise and fall.
David Chang’s food magazine, Lucky
Peach, burned bright and strong. As it closes, Amelia Lester weighs it up.
“My most vivid memory of the first issue was holding it and thinking, oh shit, we forgot to sell ads. The fact we have to do this again in three months is terrifying.’”
In the beginning, his goal was to open a noodle bar. So when David Chang signed the lease on a funny little storefront at First Avenue and 10th Street in Manhattan in early 2004, he couldn’t have known that pork buns would change his life. Or that two years on, having popularised a whole new culinary genre – something akin to Korean-American stoner food – he would receive two stars from The New York Times for his second restaurant, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, and then, two years after that, stoner food be damned, his third restaurant, Momofuku Ko, would win two Michelin stars.
And what did the patron saint of millennials, the Jimi Hendrix of the chef-as-rock star generation, do next? He started a magazine, of course.
The year was 2011; the name was Lucky Peach, the translation of Momofuku; and the publisher was McSweeney’s, an artsy, intellectual house in San Francisco. Never mind that Gourmet, the beloved Condé Nast magazine run by Ruth Reichl, had recently folded. That publishers everywhere faced a climate of declining ad revenue and disappearing pages, and, with the rise of social media, corporate pressure to pivot from publishing to event planning. Amid the digital insecurities of the times, Lucky Peach didn’t even come with a companion app.
“If magazines are to survive,” intoned the legendary media critic David Carr that year in The New York Times, “they’ll have to become something special.” Just as Chang’s Noodle Bar had done everything differently and succeeded anyway (queues, stools, cash only), his quarterly delivered “special” in spades. Its début, which sold out in its first print run of 40,000, was hailed by Carr as “a glorious, improbable artifact”, and over the following six years, and through 22 more issues, Lucky Peach would change the way we think about food, and how to write about it, forever.
“It’s one of those things you do when you’re young and you look back and you can’t believe you were so reckless and confident about yourself.” Chris Ying, who was editor-in-chief of Lucky Peach from its first issue, is speaking on the phone from San Francisco about the earliest days of the magazine he co-founded with Chang and editorial director Peter Meehan.
Ying is still only 35, but is ref lective about his youth in that way people who are very successful in their twenties can be. Lucky Peach was different, he thinks, because it covered food in a less insular way than mainstream publications. “It was a convergence of people with nothing to do with the food world, but who were very well versed in art and literature” – the McSweeney’s crowd – “with people super-deep in the industry.” That would be Chang and his long-time collaborator, Meehan, who at the time had not only worked on major cookbooks, but had been the “$25 and Under” columnist for The New York Times.
For readers, the foray into new territory made for an occasionally bumpy ride. Nine thousand words from Meehan and Chang in the first issue, for instance, about what they ate on a recent trip to Japan. (“A rambling eat-a-logue,” Carr called it.) Meehan, who spoke to me on the phone from New York, is open about the mistakes made early on: “My most vivid memory of the first issue was holding it in my hands and thinking, oh, shit, we forgot to sell ads. The fact that we have to do this again in three months is terrifying to me.’”
But they did, and the “deep dives”, as Ying lovingly refers to the long-form pieces, were even, at times, shocking and ingenious. Like “America, Your Food is So Gay” by John Birdsall, from the
2013 Gender Issue (all of the issues were themed), a personal essay that traced the evolution of the American palate from hamburgers and scrapple in the ’50s to ahi tuna, caviar and “the embrace of pleasure” in the ’80s. Or “Fixed Menu”, a 2014 report by Kevin Pang on meals served at Indiana’s Westville Correctional Facility, which began with Pang’s memorable epiphany that he is free because he can eat whatever he wants, and vice versa.
Aside from these gems, one way to think about Lucky Peach’s legacy is that it tore down the barrier between the creator and the consumer – which is precisely what Chang did with his open-kitchen restaurants. Chefs themselves often wrote in the magazine. Mario Batali took to the keyboard for the third issue about the formative influence of the Food Network on his cooking, and his enduring love for “guys like Emeril”, no last name needed. In the same issue, which had the theme of Cooks and Chefs, Anthony Bourdain argued for food as a “highway to libertine behaviours” in a vividly illustrated essay with the near self-parodic title of “Eat, Drink, Fuck, Die”.
But although Chang, the magazine’s public face, was one of the most famous chefs in the world, Lucky Peach didn’t only showcase big names. Ying brought a penchant for oral histories from McSweeney’s – the Pho issue profiled pho shop owners; the second Cooks and Chefs issue included a profile of a short-order breakfast cook. Elevating people small-town features such as these to “chefs with their own personalities”, and allowing them to tell their own stories, is something Ying seems proud of. “Not thinking of all ethnic food as the same is a notion relatively better known in Australia,” says Ying, who’s been here seven times in the past eight years. “But knowing the difference between Cantonese and Sichuan, or what miso is and how it’s made is pretty new for Americans.”
So that was the writing. But as a food editor at another publication around the same time, I’ll confess the deep dives weren’t what had me tearing off the plastic whenever the new issue arrived on my desk. As Helen Rosner argued convincingly on website Eater earlier this year, the real inf luence of Lucky Peach might be in how it looked.
“Crushingly boring” was how Rosner described the aesthetic of food magazines before Lucky Peach. The cover of the first issue, which featured two raw chickens, all f lesh and bones, being lowered into a pot, was “a blaring klaxon that Lucky Peach didn’t really care about whatever it was you’d been expecting to see”. In a post-GFC era that had been defined by austerity, abundance became the thing.
Inside, the magazine’s first art director, Brian McMullen, collaborated with Walter Green to establish what became the signature Lucky Peach look. Meehan had made clear his admiration for avant-garde art journals like WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, a title from the late ’70s and early ’80s that included contributions from Laurie Anderson as well as some of Matt Groening’s earliest work. McMullen was inf luenced by other insouciant magazines that had come out of nowhere to define the zeitgeist, like
Spy had done with ’80s New York, as well as comic illustrators such as Daniel Clowes, who had nothing to do with food, but cornered the market on witty treatments of suburban alienation.
Anime, Japanese woodblock, even “junior high desk scratches”, as Rosner puts it, were all thrown into the pot and
Lucky Peach was there to draw back the curtain, refusing Vaseline and airbrushing.
the result was rich and earthy. Consumers were growing more sophisticated about food, and restaurants more democratic.
Lucky Peach was there to draw back the curtain, refusing Vaseline and airbrushing. Often, as with a recipe feature on brains or of Fuschia Dunlop turning one chicken into nine dishes, the food even looked ugly.
At its height, Lucky Peach enjoyed a circulation of 100,000, which is both a lot, given its indie set-up, and a little, considering that Bon Appétit, one of America’s biggest food magazines, reaches almost a million and a half readers. Yet Bon Appétit, and with it the rest of the established food press, owes a great deal to the Lucky Peach look: stencils, graffiti and handwriting; an embrace of the “before” shot; and a generally more casual approach to the presentation of home cooking.
Take a look at the cheeky Gender issue of Lucky Peach, which features flip covers. One is all lurid bisected fruits; the other high-sheen, long-necked gourds, eggplants and icy poles. These covers are fluent in emoji, unafraid of colour, dominated not by an oiled-up roast chicken or some other highly styled dish, but instead scattered with the detritus of a messy sous-chef.
The announcement came in March, and was typically madcap. “I think it’s important for you to know that Lucky Peach loves you and REALLY values the time you’ve spent together.” That was Peter Meehan in a March 15 blog post on the magazine’s website. After a 200-page retrospective later in the year, Meehan wrote, the team would be shutting up shop. The news was a shock. Subscriptions were up 20 per cent in 2016; a fourth cookbook, part of a deal
that had attracted a seven-figure advance, was due out the next month. When I asked him the obvious question – why stop now? – you could practically see Meehan shrug dejectedly over the phone: “Dave decided to end the business,” he said. “The structure of the company was such that he could unilaterally decide.”
That Meehan’s announcement was framed as a speech delivered by parents announcing their divorce to their children was fitting. The magazine had always provoked strong, emotional reactions, and, as with any family, those emotions weren’t always positive.
“You cannot talk about Lucky Peach without talking about the rise of bro culture in the food world,” says Kitty Greenwald, a New York-based food writer and recipe developer. Greenwald is, full disclosure, my sister-in-law. But she was the only person in the industry I could find who was willing to speak on the record about the magazine’s role in deifying male chefs.
She mentions an infamous David Chang sound-bite from 2009 when he complained that “fuckin’ every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate”. (Chang, who did not respond to a request for an interview for this feature, has said that “Fig-gate” was blown out of proportion.) That was a couple of years before Lucky Peach even began, but it’s also consistent with the magazine’s sensibility. Chang seemed to be echoing a criticism of Bay Area icon Alice Waters by Anthony Bourdain, who had said that Waters was overly precious about organic food, as well as the purity of its preparation. Two camps were emerging, and they happened to be divided by gender. There were figs on a plate, or there was Wylie Dufresne in Lucky Peach suggesting you add non-fat milk powder and kombu to a burger patty.
In a round-up of responses to the magazine’s closure on Eater, only one of the 17 food-world personalities broached the issue of sexism and Lucky
Peach. “It was the voice of a new foodie generation, a gonzo-gone-gonzo voice… of a presumably male generation,” said writer Charlotte Druckman. “That, of course, is another way of saying that there was some deeply BRO-DUDE shit – a swinging-dick of a publication.” A less-than-convinced comment on
The New York Times article about the magazine’s demise sums up the case for the prosecution: “All the articles [were] about repetitive and boring topics (sriratcha [sic] sauce, umami, kewpie [sic] mayo, ramen).”
Meehan disputes this position, saying “if anything, we tried to make the conversation around food more inclusive and more expansive.” (He also admits to a conscious course correction in later years to include more women and people of colour in the contributor line-up.)
After the macho excess of the past few years, perhaps the closure of Lucky Peach was simply the end point of a pendulum swing in the food world. Ying, who is now a restaurant reviewer at the San
Francisco Chronicle, might even agree.
I ask him towards the end of our conversation how Lucky Peach changed over time. He says at first he was excited to play around with recipe formats. “We ran a lot of recipes that were not very home-cook-friendly to make a point, or to show something historic, or to celebrate an idea, but I did less of that over time.” What happened?
Time, it turns out. “I started in my late twenties, and then I was in my early thirties, putting food on the table, and suddenly useful and practical recipes had so much more value for me.” He pauses. “I guess I just realised that it’s a real service to people to help them make dinner.” Amelia Lester was the editor of The New Yorker’s food issue from 2013-2015. ●