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2011 November 22

The Assistant Files, Vol. 28: Rachel Sanders, Bon Appetit's Adam Rapoport

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(NEW YORK) Just in time for Thanksgiving, “The Assistant Files” is heading to the kitchen! Conde Nast’s kitchen, that is: take a bite out of Adam Rapoport’s Bon Appetit, through the vantage point of his assistant Rachel Sanders, 24. The Brown grad went from splitting her time interning at Scholastic and Brooklyn poetry publishing outfit Ugly Duckling, to witnessing the unique conundrums of a foodie mag’s art department involving feathered dead ducks and in-season tomatoes. Totally tantalizing! BY ALEXANDRA ILYASHOV

What’s your backstory?
I didn’t do a lot before this—I’m from upstate New York, I went to Brown, and majored in creative writing. I knew I wanted to do something with writing and publishing, but it never occurred to me to work at a magazine, much less a food title. I graduated in 2010 and spent a summer bumping around and traveling. Then I came to New York and got a few internships, including one at this tiny publishing house in Brooklyn, called Ugly Duckling Presse. They do a lot of gorgeous little poetry books. I also had an internship at Scholastic, which basically meant spending the day reading children’s books. But this job at Bon Appetit totally came out of the blue; a friend of mine was working for one of Adam’s good friends, Andy Ward, at Random House—Andy and Adam had worked at GQ together for years. 

What were your first impressions of Adam?
I came in for the interview right after Bon Appetit announced their move from L.A. to New York, and Adam was still in his office at GQ. Adam met me in the lobby, was so friendly and down to earth—and that’s just how he is, always. I remember scrambling to have a list of my favorite restaurants ready when he asked, which actually ended up coming in handy, because Adam asked something along the lines of the best meal I’d had recently. We had a great conversation, and he asked me to come up with some ideas for the magazine. Then, I came and met with Adam’s old assistant, who’s still an editor at GQ—she’s this super nice, smart, beautiful woman, and I just wanted to be her, basically. We got a coffee in the Conde Nast cafeteria and talked about her job. And it all turned out to be true! 

What is Adam like as an editor?
Adam is always pushing people to have distinct voices and be direct and clear in their writing. He also wants everything to be fun; for years, Bon Appetit was a magazine full of recipes—they’ve always been great recipes, and they’ve had great stories about interesting chefs and places to go, but the voices of individual writers were missing. Adam works really hard to get that in every bit of writing, even if it’s just a blurb about aprons or breadboxes. He’ll ask a writer, “What’s cool about this? What do you like about this? Great, now get it on paper.” Adam sits in his office, blasts The Clash on his computer, and yells out over the noise. There was talk of having “ACDC Fridays,” but it hasn’t happened yet.

How were your first few weeks on the job? 
They hadn’t yet moved everyone from L.A. to New York yet, and the ad team was on another floor. Adam and I sat in this abandoned art department area where Self is, on the fifth floor. I was there, alone, by myself much of the time, and I didn’t know what was going on. I thought I was working for a magazine, and there was no magazine! It was a little rocky; not bad, just a strange way to start a job because there wasn’t a full staff in place yet. I started last December, and everything wasn’t fully up and running until April. It was actually an interesting time to start, given my lack of experience in the field, because I sort of saw things come together from the ground up. Adam was interviewing people to fill lots of editor positions, though Meghan Sutherland, the deputy editor, was already on duty. I think he filled the positions mostly through word-of-mouth, and with writers he liked. He had a few of our columnists lined up already, too, while other editors came over, like Christine Muhlke from T. It actually took a while to find a creative director—I think it was something like five people that came in for interviews. Eventually, Adam found Alex Grossman, and now they work really well together. They have this total bromance; they’ll be like, “duuuuude, let’s work on that page! Let’s look at this layout!” Everyone is amazingly talented here, and Adam had a good vision of who would work together well as a team. 

What’s your daily grind? 
There’s a fairly low key start to the day; Adam now gets in before me because he takes his four-year-old to school in the morning. It’s a little embarrassing, because I kept ahead of him for awhile. I usually get in around 9:30 or 9:45. If I haven’t had breakfast already, I do the patented “Rapo Breakfast,” which is a piece of multigrain toast from the cafeteria downstairs with peanut butter, preferably crunchy. Although for a while they only had smooth peanut butter, and that was kind of an issue. It’s never overwhelming in the Bon Appetit offices, and I think that’s one of the nice things about working here. If you’re at Vogue, it’s nonstop; everyone talks about what a high-pressure environment exists there, and it’s definitely a different pace here. I do a lot of scheduling, and Adam loves to say that his entire job is having meetings. Which is kind of true! There are lots of projects going on right now—like the HSN line, for example—in addition to normal production, which also involves a lot of meetings. 

Does the job involve much writing?
I get to write for our blog, and I also have some print duties when we’re in production. Nothing big, but I’ve gotten to write the blurbs for the T.O.C. [table of contents], and a couple of other sections. I love doing it, but it’s also more stressful when you have something at stake—having to get your text in or your proofs turned around. I started doing those things as soon as I started, and that was basically part of the deal. It definitely was part of the job’s appeal, too. Every month we have an ideas meeting with all of the editors, which I schedule. Adam and the top editors will have a rough idea ahead of time, but everyone is welcome to contribute and everyone ends up sort of spitballing. I’m the notetaker, so I sit there on the couch, saying, “Oh, you want to do a story about matcha tea? Got it!” 

Does your gig involve any personal life responsibilities? 
It really doesn’t; Adam never really had an assistant beforehand, and he was used to being autonomous. Adam was learning to be an EIC as I was learning to be an assistant. The other night, Adam’s wife auctioned him off for a preschool fundraiser, to have the editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit cook dinner. It was a whole adventure helping Adam schlep all this stuff that our test kitchen had prepared to this apartment on the Upper West Side where the auction winners lived. I was there to run to the grocery store for orange juice; Adam handled the cooking. I also helped organize Adam’s Christmas party, right after I started last year. He said, “Alright, I’m not going to ask you this all the time, but I need you to order me a keg.” I found a beer wholesaler and got the keg delivered—strictly Budweiser, “none of that hoppy shit,” according to Adam. As a reward, I got to come to the party. This wholesaler, New York Beverage, has become a regular spot of ours—when we have happy hours, sometimes at the end of a production cycle or a staff birthday, I’ll order, like, four cases of Pacifico for the next day. It’s great. 

How many meetings fill an average day for Adam? 
When he’s booked up, Adam could have six, seven, maybe eight meetings in the course of a day. It’s a lot of meetings in the office, versus going out, but when he does leave, Adam likes to escape downtown for lunches. 

Where does he like to lunch?
If he stays in this area, there’s a number of places that editors all end up going. Lambs Club seems to be ‘in’ right now, and there’s Sushi Zen…Sometimes he’ll do breakfast downtown, at a place like Peels. If he’s editing on his own in the morning, he’ll go hang out at Pastis—he’ll often go write his editor’s letters there. He sometimes sneaks out in the middle of the day to squeeze in a trip to Equinox, and afterwards he’ll grab a sandwich in the cafeteria. Then he’ll tweet something like, “I don’t know why the person in front of me had to use tongs on the toaster. That’s so lame!” Adam is a good observer of cafeteria behavior. 

And where do you grab lunch? 
I try to get out of the building and stretch my legs at lunch, even just briefly, and there are a handful of good places around here. There’s a vegetarian lunch stand in the Bryant Park Holiday Market that I recently checked out with one of our assistant editors, run by this woman who described herself as “once a hippie, always a hippie.” 

What have been some surprising discoveries about food magazines since you started your gig? 
The amount of lead time involved with working with seasonal ingredients! We did a story about tomatoes this past August, and when we were testing recipes in March, there were absolutely no good tomatoes to be found. I think we ended up flying the tomatoes in from Chile, actually. We’ve had some pretty whacky photo shoots. Adam Sachs is doing this column for us called “The Obsessivore,” filled with insane projects that no one in their right mind would want to attempt. So one of the columns was about getting a bunch of ducks to make duck prosciutto for a dinner party, and the art department wanted to do a photo of dead ducks in a suitcase with their feathers on. Sounds gross, but it looked pretty cool! It was a challenge to find them, though. The art department was calling all these places in Chinatown, where no one spoke English, looking for dead ducks that still had their feathers. Usually, it’s not that wild around here—although it is wildly delicious. 

Where do you find the deliciousness around the office?
Well, there’s the test kitchen downstairs, and they have tastings a couple times each week. Or you can make like me and scavenge around at 3 p.m. after the tastings for the leftovers. The kitchen can be dangerous for everyone’s waistlines. We’re featuring this big, gorgeous coconut layer cake for our February issue, for example; when I went down to the test kitchen on the day they made it, there was a tiny slice taken out of it, and I just grabbed a fork and went at it. I couldn’t not do so! I have a horrible sweet tooth. 

How has your palate changed since arriving at Bon Appetit?
It hasn’t really gotten more adventurous, since my family always ate pretty interesting things—though I did get over my issues with tomatoes—but I do have more of an interest in cooking. Not that I necessarily do it very often, but someone will recommend, say, a certain Japanese spice mixture for a braising liquid. People are always talking about what they made for dinner last night, and you want to keep up with things a bit.

What do your friends think of your gig? 
You’d be shocked by the number of guys my age who just love Adam! I’ll tell them what I do, and they say “oh my gosh, I have such a ‘bro crush’ on Adam Rapoport.” He really inspires dude crushes. People also think it must be exactly like The Devil Wears Prada—but with food!—to work here, and they figure there must be a lot of tasty snacks all the time. Which is often true. So they’ll ask me if there are job openings here. 

Do you have a posse of Conde pals? 
There hasn’t been much inter-publication cross-pollination in my experience. I’m mostly office friends with people on staff here, and it’s a great group of people. I’ve met people at other magazines who are very nice, but I haven’t formed lasting bonds. As a general rule, it’s a very nice place to work; it’s just an office when you get right down to it. It’s not a culture of terror. Sometimes you get in the elevator and Anna Wintour is there, so there’s dead silence. But I’ve never stepped out of an elevator that she’s been in—she’ll very politely stand in the corner, everyone is terrified and silent, and then it’s over. 

What are some surprises about Adam as you’ve gotten to know him? 
He’s very in touch with his metrosexual side, which is a term he has applied to himself. We redid the whole office, and Adam got a designer, Cindy Greene, to come do the space. Adam totally acknowledges that that’s a fussier and unmanly side of him, this sensitive and aesthetic guy, and he embraces that. He’s thoughtful and really listens. He’s an interesting combination, because he’s also a dude who loves beer—and golf, which kind of surprised me. Every time he’s in an airport, he picks up a copy of Golf Digest. 

Do you ever hear any vignettes from Adam’s time at GQ
He was there for 10 years, and he worked with a great group of editors. He learned a lot about the fashion world and made so many contacts in that world. Adam talks about the fact that Jim Nelson started as editor-in-chief while Adam was there, and he learned a lot from Andy Ward, too. He’ll still go out for “man dinners” with them at a steakhouse, drink a lot, and have a good time. It sounds like it was more of a boy’s club at GQ; Bon Appetit is more of a grown-up environment. It isn’t sitting around all day and hanging out with the fellas. It’s not that the people here are really square or anything; this is a collection of extremely fashionable, smart, fun, people, it’s just a different vibe from when he was at GQ. 

Does Adam share even older tales from the trenches? 
He talks about his start at the James Beard Foundation, followed by his time at Time Out New York, where he was covering food. So he kind of started with food, followed by fashion, and has since returned to food. It shows! Adam always dresses well, and will always tell you what brand of socks he’s wearing if you ask him and will talk about the proper fit of a blazer. He can discuss whether a tie should be knit, and if it needs to be a skinny tie or a wide tie. It’s just a constantly running dialogue! He always has an opinion, and he’s always ready to share it. Adam will talk about having a “good outfit feeling” or “bad outfit feeling,” but he’s totally unpretentious about it. Adam is a great example that when it comes to fashion and food, people that love one often love the other as well. A lot of people in this office are totally on board with that. There’s a nice overlap of interests, but you leave behind the less pleasant aspects of the fashion world when you come to work at a food magazine. 

What’s the most invaluable nugget of knowledge Adam has passed along? 
Adam is always ready to comment on my personal life! But seriously, he’s always been open and encouraging of me to share my opinions and really get out there. Adam has opened me up to the idea that if I want to do something, I should just make it happen. 

What’s the deal with Adam’s tray of libations? A midday minibar of sorts?  
The bar has sort of grown organically. We got some Belvedere because we partner with them on projects. Two of our editors dropped off a bottle of cinnamon-flavored Kahlua as a joke, and Andrew Knowlton, our restaurant and drinks editor, is a whiskey expert, so he’s always weighing in on what kind of whiskey is worth of being in Adam’s office. Right now, we have some Knob Creek, which apparently passes muster. Someone will come in for a beer or something, but it doesn’t get that much use; it’s not Mad Men.

What’s up next for you? 
That’s the big question; not the million-dollar question, maybe the $40,000 one. I don’t know, though it’s something I’ve been thinking about, especially since it’s been a year. I am interested in writing, though I don’t know if I want to be a journalist; that’s not something I necessarily planned on. Maybe grad school, or going to another city. It is a little weird to come into a job I really like that has a lot of opportunities for the future, straight from college. For right now, I’m really happy with things, so I’m definitely sticking around for the near future.

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