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2012 March 20

Mangia! Passé Truffles, Resto Recs, and Banned Foodie Vocab with Tanya Steel, EIC of Epicurious and Gourmet

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Tanya Steel with Mario Batali at Epicurious' 15th anniversary dinner, 2010 Tanya Steel with Mario Batali at Epicurious' 15th anniversary dinner, 2010
Patrick McMullan
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(NEW YORK) Time for a brief, tasty break from all angles of fashion, cherisEver sought out a much-needed reboot on that tired stuffing recipe in the 25th hour of Thanksgiving, or toyed around with an alternative to grilled salmon for the 8,257th time? Then you’ve probably—or hopefully!—have moseyed through and the now-strictly-digital home of Gourmet. If you like what you’ve read and/or eaten, then you have Tanya Steel, editor-in-chief of both Condé Nast sites, to thank. The Daily called up Steel for a slightly hunger-inducing chat about her career path from defunct model to print editrix to online maven, why you need some shallots ASAP, and her ice cream of choice. Hint: Steel’s dairy fix doesn’t require a trip to an artisan creamery or cult-fave farmer’s market stand…

You’ve got some family fashion cred—what’s the story?
I actually grew up in a fashion-obsessed household! My parents had an advertising agency that concentrated on fashion. My mother was a very successful model in London during the swinging sixties, working with Twiggy and Jane Birkin, and my sister was a model in Milan for quite a while as well. But I completely failed at modeling. I realized very quickly that food was much more of my passion than anything else; I loved fashion and beauty, but that was never going to be what I lived and breathed.

How did food factor into your formative years?
A fashion-obsessed household meant it wasn’t a food-obsessed household. My mother, God love her, remains really not a great cook to this day. I figured that out early on and started replicating Julia Child’s cooking at a fairly young age.

Did your mother’s lack kitchen finesse encourage your culinary interests?
Trying to eat something good in my house was survival of the fittest. Being exposed to all the restaurants my parents took me to in New York as the scene became what it is now helped, too—we ate a lot of Japanese before Japanese became big. Same with Indian food before curries were everywhere.

How did your current gig at Condé come about?

Seven years ago, I got the amazing opportunity to become editor-in-chief of Epicurious and bring a very burgeoning digital brand to its fore. After being in print for 20 years by that point, I felt that if I was ever to make the jump, that was the moment. It takes a lot to go into the digital realm and think differently, by covering the same topics in a digital way, by working with speed, accuracy, visuals, new tools, and all those things.

What were you doing before landing the duo of EIC titles?
My first job out of school, after being a failed model, was in the beauty and health department at Mademoiselle. Then I went to Food & Wine for five years—I got a great education there, learning about editing, fact checking, writing—and food and wine, of course! After that, I worked at a Hearst travel magazine called Diversion. Then, I spent 10 years at Bon Appetit running the New York office. It was a fantastic time. I was also writing quite a bit for the New York Times Living section. A highlight of my professional career was being on the 1 train back then and seeing someone reading my cover story on the Living section; now that was just the coolest thing, ever.

How do you juggle Epicurious and Gourmet?
Epicurious was more of a recipe database when I started, and there wasn’t a real editorial team for either publication. Gourmet Live started about a year and a half ago, as an app-only weekly magazine; now we’re online at as well. It’s great fun! We’re using lots of brilliant new writers, old Gourmet stalwarts, and some of the old Gourmet test kitchen team for new recipes we’re introducing. I split my time roughly 60-40 between Epicurious and Gourmet; Epicurious is such a gigantic site, but Gourmet is like my little baby since it’s fairly new. I work all the time, but luckily I love it so it doesn’t necessarily feel like work. It’s a labor of love. So I was able to come in and create a real, new online food publication—the stuff of my dreams!

What were those dreams, exactly?
I wanted to turn people on to all different types of cuisines and chefs. I wanted to show people how to make a perfect pie crust, tell them about the five wines they need to know, and share where they should eat in Moscow.

Let’s talk verbiage—what are the stalest food writing words to you? 
There is so many of them; in fact, we have a list of banned words, and we really try to adhere to it. For instance, foodie, fork-tender, yummy, delicious, and handcrafted are all kind of overused words. Also, everything on a restaurant menu today seems to say “sustainable, organic, farm-to-table,” so we try to avoid those words as well.

What’s the most overrated food trend?
I would have to say truffles. Totally. They’re insanely expensive and it’s such a big production. The waiter comes over and shaves very thin slices of black or white truffles that are probably like $40 worth on your pasta. While the earthy aroma is very nice for that one moment, it doesn’t really add that much flavor so it’s kind of a waste. I just think it’s ridiculous.

Dismantling the holy truffle from its trendy perch, how bold! What’s an underrated ingredient?
Everyone who cooks at home should use shallots! I’ve cooked with a lot of chefs in a lot of restaurants, and every single one of them uses shallots. It’s like their secret ingredient; it really amps the flavor, with that caramel sweetness. Shallots can be used in almost everything, whether its scrambled eggs, pasta, quinoa, or salmon. [Ed. Note: Check out Steel's favorite ways to use shallots in a Cobb Salad, creamed kale, and mashed potatoes from Epicurious' best!] 

What’s a haute search on Epicurious right now?
Slow cookers is one of those things people are obsessed with; we get a tremendous amount of traffic from people looking for slow-cooking recipes. I recently became obsessed with carnitas: it’s low fat, high protein, and it’s cheap! You can throw anything into it. I’ll put it on the stove at 7 a.m. before I leave for work, and when I get home it’s this perfectly fork-tender, unctuous pork dish. 

What parallels do you see between fashion and food?
Like the fashion world, the food world has its own types of trend cycles. There are definitely chefs who are more embracing of trends just because they’re trends, while other chefs will try to dissect what’s going on in the food world instead of just following the same trends.

Is there an example of a chef that’s doing that really well?
Daniel Humm
at Eleven Madison Park, because the restaurant has very classic underpinnings, but Daniel tries to reflect what’s going on in the food world today without a heavy hand. There are also a lot of chefs doing very inventive things, like the food landscape’s Alexander McQueens— Ferran Adria is the most obvious example, plus Grant Achatz in Chicago, or Wylie Dufresne in New York, all of whom embraced molecular gastronomy from the beginning. These are the people who’ve taken food to a whole different level. It’s fascinating.

Who is the chicest chef?
I love April Bloomfield.  By chic, I don’t necessarily mean sartorially splendid, but I really like her very personal, hip aesthetic.

What do you eat for lunch every day?
I don’t get out as much as I fantasize about going out to these lovely restaurants; I’m often locked to my keyboard! I eat a lot of leftovers from the night before. On Sundays I cook three or four meals for the week; invariably, one of them has quinoa, I always make some kind of veggie stew, plus a lot of soups. It’s all very seasonal. I try to eat very healthy during the day so I’m “allowed” to have my big bowl of ice cream at night.

What’s your ice cream of choice?
I’ve been obsessed with Edy’s half-the-fat, slow-churned, peanut butter cup ice cream for the past year or so. Every night, I eat a gigantic bowl of it with a teeny, tiny little spoon, so it takes me a good 15 minutes to finish.

What are your favorite restaurants of the moment?
I had a really good meal at Brooklyn Fare, owned by Cesar Ramirez. I tend to love Asian cuisine more than anything else—that’s what I crave!—and I’m very impressed by what Ed Schoenfeld is doing at Red Farm. I’m an Andrew Carmellini fan; the The Dutch is great. I also love going to this little Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall in Chinatown with my family; it’s delicious, inexpensive, fresh, perfect food.

What’s the biggest misconception about food writing and editing?
People think it’s easy and it’s really not. Everyone thinks they know about food because they love to eat. We really look for people who have not just a passion, but a real knowledge and expertise. I get hundreds of pitches about different food stories; I always look for whether a writer a) really know your subject matter b) can write in a manner that’s not cliché, but rather is a new take on something evocative. That’s really hard to do, same as in fashion.

What’s the feedback been like for both sites since you started?
At this point, we’re the most award-winning food site on the web; we’ve gotten 64 awards including three ASMEs, an Emmy, two James Beard awards, and over a dozen Webby awards. During the month of December, we had over 11 million unique visitors. Our app is also gigantic! We’ve had around 7.3 million downloads so far.

What’s up next?
We’re very much a "fully baked" team now, which is amazing. Epicurious is actually turning 17 years old this summer—for a site, that’s a long time!  We’re actually going in the opposite direction: We’re coming out with a cookbook in November, featuring 300 of the site’s top-rated recipes, including a couple dozen recipes from users, including a couple little interviews with the home cooks, and some amazing chefs featured.

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