Features The New Tastemakers Editor’s Dish
Gourmet magazine closure, chefs as new tastemakers
December 2009

This year’s demise of Gourmet magazine is tragic on many levels, but it’s certainly most catastrophic for the Conde Nast employees who lost their jobs so suddenly and seemingly without warning. As members of the food publishing world, we feel their pain.

Gourmet’s shuttering signified an end of an era, not just for the iconic publication itself, but also for the culinary industry. No more are the editors of food magazines dictating the standards of what is or is not gourmet. In the last two decades, the culinary power structure transitioned from what amounts to a gourmet oligarchy to an all-out foodie revolution. We’ve leveled the playing field, so to speak, making for a rightfully democratic approach to tastemaking.

Of course, it would be wrong-headed to disparage the tremendous contributions of Gourmet magazine. There’s no question that Gourmet played a key role in educating scores of Americans—chefs and food aficionados alike—about the finer points of cuisine in America and abroad. We can’t imagine getting to where we are now without Gourmet and its nonpareil advocacy of excellent food and the value of gastronomic discovery.

The significance of this magazine is reflected in the shock and sadness that has been expressed since the news of its closure. Chef and author Anthony Bourdain said “It’s the center of gravity, a major planet that’s just disappeared;” “It was so unique and powerful in the gastronomic world,” voiced Chef José Andrés. “It helped to make me what I am today,” claimed Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

But in an era of hyper-fast media (food blogging, Tweeting, and public restaurant review websites), a growing number of increasingly sophisticated foodies and prominent chefs, Gourmet clearly became out of synch. The magazine’s idealized luxury lifestyle spoke to a shrinking group of people—the very few who can spend $700 on a single meal—and its old school business model (high production costs funded by extraordinary ad rates) stunted its evolution. The recent recession was the final nail in the coffin.

Today, the pleasures of American food culture are not limited to a club of sophisticates like in Gourmet’s good ol’ days. Contemporary foodies aren’t aspiring to a singular, idealized sense of gourmet living anymore. They want dynamic, a la carte sources to get and share information; food-focused websites, blogs, social media networks, and public review forums (like Yelp.com) are taking their rightful mind-share.

Food lovers are also empowered to find their own gourmet experiences—they no longer need to be spoon fed. Maybe it’s seeking out the most divine bratwurst, blogging about their six-course meal at a new restaurant, or contributing their 127th restaurant review to their favorite website. Our current food culture values information as a tool, not as a standard.

Nor can the tastemaking role of chefs in this modern gourmet universe be underestimated. No longer anonymous slaves to the stoves, they are the nexus between the farmer, food and foodie—more engaged and recognizable in the American culinary scene than ever before. Today the average food sleuth can name and spot at least a dozen chefs from their local and national scene—even the most devoted foodie would’ve been hard pressed to name more than a couple chefs just ten years ago. Even more astounding given their humble history, chefs have become celebrities—pop culture icons in some cases. The explosion of TV shows like Iron Chef and Top Chef, just to name two, is a reflection of just how mainstream “foodie-ism” has become.

And chefs and restaurants are playing a larger and larger role in the everyday lives of more Americans every year. The foodservice industry is enormous: almost one in ten working Americans are in the foodservice industry. To top it off, almost half of Americans’ food dollars are now spent in a restaurant.

Everyone is a critic these days and chefs are fully engaged in the public food discussion. While we can reach saturation points at times, in balance, this isn’t a bad thing. A more educated and sophisticated eating public and a more public role for chefs has opened the flood gates on tastemaking—not to mention created various new ways of earning money in an industry notorious for subpar paychecks. Editorial boards of the Gourmet ilk are no longer the gate keepers, just as it always should’ve been..