David Chang’s cult food mag­a­zine, Lucky Peach, burned bright. AMELIA LESTER doc­u­ments its me­te­oric rise and fall.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Contents -

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. ●

David Chang

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