Lucky Peach, the two-year old quarterly that has already won a Beard award, contains personal essays, taste tests, rants, recipes, photo essays, and fiction. But there the resemblance to other food magazines ends.
A recipe might be written in haiku, stories are illustrated in rock poster or tattoo parlor style, and swearing appears often. A feature article might run 20 pages. Josh Ozersky of Time magazine says Lucky Peach is “powered by the fiery ardor and violent attachments of its presiding spirit,” whatever that means.
I disliked Lucky Peach at first because of the overwhelming boy’s club atmosphere, but I do appreciate the irreverence, the new subjects, and the writing quality. So I was thrilled when Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying agreed to be interviewed. The former publisher of McSweeney’s, Ying cooked his way through college at fine dining restaurants and Mission Chinese Food:
Q. How did Lucky Peach come about?
A. Dave (Chang), Peter (Meehan) and I had met a year before we started Lucky Peach. We worked together on a small project for McSweeney’s, writing about food, and we were looking for a new way to collaborate. Peter and Dave came up with a curated, single-subject user-driven TV show/ap, but we ended up collecting way too much info, so they thought, ‘What if we could also make a literary food journal?’
The app didn’t pan out, but we made the magazine, and it’s become our mainstay. Dave and Peter have been editors, developing themes, content, what to cover, and assignments.
Q. Are David Chang and Peter Meehan still involved?
A. Peter and I are basically partners. Peter is running the magazine, assigning the stories. I make more magazine-y decisions, like where things appear, what to cover, and assigning and line editing. Dave is as involved as he’s ever been, in broad strokes. He’s interested in what’s important to talk about, who are the right people to hear from. He’s not line editing stories.
A. Yes. We vastly underestimated people’s interest. Our circulation is at 100,000 now. It’s not making anybody rich, but as someone who’s been in independent publishing for a long time, this is the closest I’ve come to making a sustainable successful magazine.
Q. Is the magazine going to stay so large?
A. (Laughs.) I’m not so interested in reducing it. If we were making the magazine six times per year, we could make it smaller. But right now it’s going to be 170-something pages, with 20 to 25 features.
Q. What should freelancer writers know about writing for Lucky Peach?
A. We’re looking for good writing first. I value someone who’s going to put effort into a pitch regardless of the topic. I want thought put into the angle too. There’s always an obvious way of covering something, and then there are other ways to cover it. I like the other ways.
Q. How far in advance do you come up with themes for each issue?
A. We’re probably half a year ahead. The street food issue is next, then the all-you-can-eat issue. We could be taking pitches now for that issue.
Q. Are you more interested in writing by chefs than writing by freelance writers? You’ve got viewpoints of the world’s best chefs in just about every issue.
A. No. There’s been a strange expectation based on chefs that they should naturally be able to write. But it boils down to us liking people who can write. Rene (Redzepi) and Daniel Patterson are good examples.
Q. How important is it to you to discover new writers? It seems like you’re sticking with celebrities and the tried and true, like John T. Edge, Ruth Reichl, Jonathan Gold, Harold McGee, Fuschia Dunlop, and Anthony Bourdain.
A. There are plenty of writers in the magazine who are not famous. Established writers are established for a reason, but we definitely champion new writers.
It’s funny. Freelance writers take it as a personal affront when they see big names. But you should be concerned with your own craft. If you are a good writer, you’re going to get pieces published.
Q. When people send a query to the submissions email on your website, firstname.lastname@example.org, what happens next?
A. The managing editor reads it first, and does the initial thumbs up or down or middle, and passes it on to us.
Q. Is it true that the editorial team comes up with a subject and then asks the ultimate authority to write about it? So you don’t take much unsolicited work?
A. That was true more in the earlier days. That’s a safer method. But it doesn’t always pan out, and people who are not experts sometimes do a much better job. I get pitches pretty frequently that are: ‘I’ve heard about this thing and I think it would be cool for me to explore it.’ It could be a little scary for me if they don’t know anything about it. I’d rather get the guy who’s been going to the event for 30 years.
Q. Well, that approach has pros and cons too. That guy might be super geeky and make assumptions about what people want to know.
A. It’s my job to ask the questions that everybody wants to know. There’s also a tendency in journalism to go for the broadest thing. I’d rather be insiderish, in-depth and a little geeky, if that’s what geeky is. In the story about Franklin Barbecue, I wanted Aaron (Franklin) to geek out and tell me everything about what’s going through his head at any given moment during the day. Getting that from Aaron is different from getting a writer to observe.
Q. You said in an interview that you favor people who like to experiment, push things forward and not settle. What do you mean by that?
A. I like people who are going to not settle for the obvious story, who are going to try for more, be ambitious about the way they cover it. I get a lot of ‘how I learned to do the best “this” in the world,’ but I would rather do something that another magazine wouldn’t run. I also get the gross-out extreme thing but that’s not what I’m looking for either. We get our fair share of poo, ‘this is gross’ and ‘this is crazy’ pitches.
Q. Now that you’ve done the Gender issue, I assume you’ll go back to the whole stoner bad boy theme. Do you not want female subscribers?
A. We have a lot of female subscribers! I don’t think you have to cover female things for women to be interested. I’ve been hearing this forever that it is a masculine magazine, and that’s why we did the Gender issue.
We just think that men and women will be interested in our magazine. It’s not like we’re making this magazine about car repair.
I’m not going to deny that there are more men on our staff. Our magazine does come a little more from the professional restaurant world than other magazines, and that’s a little bit of a reflection of that world, and it’s a male dominated world. I have to admit, the first issue, it was fun to be a bit of a raunchy boy’s club. There hadn’t been a magazine that reflected the reality of the professional cooking world.
Q. Will Lucky Peach continue to be about the professional cooking world?
A. I would like the magazine to be more about food. We’re trying to get back to exploring a single subject that’s food related. But some of our biggest readers are professionals and they really appreciate what we do. And Dave, that’s his world, what he cares about most deeply.
Q. How important is it that the magazine stay mostly Asian? Or will it become a general food magazine at some point?
A. I don’t really know. We love Asian food. But the magazine’s young still, and we’re still finding our feet editorially, and that’s what keeps it exciting to me. We don’t have any strict editorial guideline that says every recipe has soy sauce in it.
Q. Do you want to be like conventional magazines and win national awards? You’ve already got your first James Beard award for Fuschia Dunlop’s article on racism in Chinatowns.
A. We had four nominations! To me what’s more exciting is that we’re this upstart magazine with four people working on it and we can compete with the big magazines. Sure, my mom and dad would be proud. But we don’t run articles to win awards.
Q. Any last words for freelance writers?
A. The best way to figure out how to be a contributor to our magazine is to read it. A lot of people read the first issue and then send in a pitch. But we’ve evolved a lot. I would pick up the latest issue.
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