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.
Q. So the magazine is no longer part of McSweeny’s.
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, email@example.com, 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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I’m a female subscriber of Lucky Peach! I actually love the art work, which is really out there, along side the writing.
AAAAAND I really wish there’d be more writers and features apart from David Chang. I know its his magazine and all, but somehow it really feels that it is a David Chang magazine.
I hope that with this call for new writers, Lucky Peach would have new faces and stories 🙂
It definitely reflects his interests, but the magazines’s growing and changing. I don’t think they know exactly what kind of stories it will include a year or two from now. That’s the exciting part.
Joy @ braisenwoman says
Re: the “Boy’s Club” nature of Lucky Peach – for me, the gender issue only emphasized the intense “male-ness” of the magazine. Honestly, after reading it, I was pretty much done with Lucky Peach. It’s discouraging, both as a female reader and aspiring food writer, to see how much women are seen as the “other” by men in the industry. I came away from the issue thinking, “Is this the best they could do?”. I want to love Lucky Peach. I really do. But it’s going to take more than a “for the ladies” section in one issue to win me over. I thought this was a pretty good review of the Gender Issue:
Thanks Joy, for including this well-written piece to understanding the gender issues in magazines, particularly Lucky Peach. Clearly they devoted half the magazine to women because of all the criticism about being a boy’s club. And now that they’re done with that, it’s back to business as usual. The writer says Esquire is one of her favorite magazines. I idolized it in journalism school decades ago, because of great writers like Tom Wolfe, but now all that T&A really turns me off.
CJ at Food Stories says
What a cool magazine – Just subscribed 🙂
Okay, one more check for David Chang. He’s been financing this puppy for 2 years.
Maureen C. Berry says
I have back issues from the first year, but did not renew my subscription. It felt too out there and more like a man’s mag. However, when I saw the gender issue, my interested was piqued again. I like the style, the art, the long form articles and the independent feel, but I got tired of the voice.
I want to like it and support it. I think I’ll take Ying’s advice and see what they’ve been up too. And like you, I think it’s exciting they don’t have a pat format for each issue.
Great interview Dianne! Thanks.
Thanks Maureen. I want to like it and support it to, and I do like many of the articles. I would just like to feel more included. On the other hand, maybe men don’t feel included when they read Rachael Ray magazine.
Great Q&A. I don’t have a subscription, but I pick up a copy when I see them on newsstands. I like the fact that they’re not locked in to any particular thing or direction right now and they realize they’re still evolving.
And anyone who is happy to welcome new writers is a winner in my books. Talent and not notoriety should rule.
Thanks Ethan. I think Chang has a strong sense of what he’d like to see, and it’s still mostly chef driven. But as you say, it’s evolving. I hope they mean it about welcoming new writers. Most of the bylines are of established writers.
The Gender Issue was so cluelessly gratuitous, it actually made me stop wanting to read the magazine, because at that point I think I realized how deeply entrenched this magazine is in bro culture. Despite some great writing by women in the mag, Lucky Peach reflects the reason why many women leave, or don’t wan’t to enter, the boy’s club that is most professional kitchens. Also, the recipes often don’t work, and considering the time and money that goes into trying to follow one of their recipes, they should work flawlessly. Either that, or stop running recipes. It was a cute experiment I honestly don’t expect to last.
I thought it was a lot of fun and well done, but I was also scratching my head over what it meant: 1/2 issue “devoted to women,” and then back to the whole bro culture, as you put it. To some extent they are guys in a guys’ world and quite clueless.
I have never tried the recipes. I don’t think they have a test kitchen or have people test the recipes. That would have been a good question to ask.
Holly Jennings says
Thanks for writing this story, Diane. The main difficulty I see with pitching to Lucky Peach is having the time to develop a story to fit their themes because they don’t share their planned themes months in advance. I sent a pitch in once, and got a very nice and encouraging reply, which I appreciated since very often you may not hear a peep after submitting a pitch. The problem was it didn’t fit their upcoming theme–or so they said that was the problem (it could be a way to let people off lightly). Your question about how far in advance they come up with themes for each issue is the closest I’ve seen to any sort of theme announcement. So, for this reason, it feels a bit clubby. Do you have any ideas about how one can pitch do their themes when they don’t make it known in an editorial schedule? Thanks!
That is a problem, Holly. At this point they don’t know their themes that far in advance. Ying said that before they never thought about them until after the previous issue closed, so this is an improvement. He announced the all-you-can-eat theme was taking pitches, so if you can come up with something for that, go for it.
Holly Jennings says
Thanks Diane. So, can you interview the editor every quarter and ask that same question–the one about the theme? . . .
The nice thing about pitching to a theme is it gets you thinking in a direction that you wouldn’t necessary dream up on your own, without the prodding.
I just saw in L.P.’s newsletter that they’re hosting an all-ewe-can-eat even in FLA:
Not to be confused with all-you-can-eat. (A momentary panic, there.) Thanks again for providing so much great and useful info for the writing community.
Susan Cooper says
I will admit I am not aware if the magazine. It sounds intriguing. It sounds both entertaining, irreverent and fun. I’ll be checking it out. 🙂
It is. I hope you do check it out.
What Susan said. Which is reinforced by this editors’s response to your question about it being a bro magazine: Yes, we heard those complaints so we did a Gender issue to address them.
I feel especially sad when I see women who’ve written for them say “Hey, it’s not a bro magazine. They asked me to write for them.”
That said, much of American food writing feels “macho” these days. Bon App, food stuff in T+L, the stuff that gets published in the “Best Food Writing” etc etc. Am I imagining that?
Great interview, Dianne!
Thanks Robyn. Nope, I don’t think you’re imagining it, Robyn. Young male chefs are big celebrities in the US. It’s all about tattoos and bikes and breaking down animals and over-the-top barbecue and food trucks with huge comfort meat servings. Just the latest version of male dominant culture. The magazine comes from that culture, so that’s what you should expect.
On the other hand, so much of food writing has been confined to women’s magazines, and focuses on serving others (particularly children), so in some ways, it’s refreshing to see a publication focused on something else. But only in some ways. Not all men are into that stuff either.
I know I’m very late to the comment party, but I’ve subscribed to Lucky Peach since 2013. I love it, yet it’s off-putting to hear comments such as: “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.” Because cars are manly contraptions that women can’t stand. It’s ironic to hear a statement like that when Chris is trying to make the case that Lucky Peach isn’t a boy’s club.
Nonetheless, I really do like the magazine, and it’s been intriguing to see how it has evolved over the past few years. You did an interesting interview with Chris.
An aside: I’ve been trying to freelance for Lucky Peach for awhile, but I don’t even receive a response when I ask for their editorial calendar of themes. I wish they would post that on their website, even if it’s only six months in advance. Holly is right that it feels clubby when they don’t do that.
That’s okay Adina. I still see all the comments and I’m happy to respond. Lucky Peach is evolving. They do not post their editorial calendar. It’s still hard to get into because they dedicate issues to themes, where they assign stories to writers they want to feature. I managed to get into the blog, but it looks like they’re mostly reposting older material from print. I wish I had better news. Keep trying!
Thanks, Dianne! Sounds very difficult to break into. I guess it would be easier to pitch for the website, where the theme structure doesn’t seem as rigid. By the way, I really enjoyed “The Meaning of Mangoes.” It’s a striking vignette, especially since I did grow up with brisket and gefilte fish.