Dana Cowin on Discovering Talent, the Future of Restaurants & How to Stay Relevant for the Long Haul

Dana Cowin on Discovering Talent, the Future of Restaurants & How to Stay Relevant for the Long Haul

Last week we were excited and honored to welcome Dana Cowin, long-time Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine magazine and general food-world legend, to OpenTable HQ for a fireside chat with our CEO, Christa Quarles.

After 20+ years at Food & Wine Dana became the Creative Director at Chefs Club, a New York- and Aspen-based restaurant concept that curates menus of dishes from chefs around the world. She’s also the author of a cookbook, Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen. These days she’s pursuing some of her own projects, including a new radio show Speaking Broadly. But what we really love and admire about Dana’s career is that she has been a constant and unfailing advocate of up-and-coming chefs and has helped introduce people to new culinary talent all over the world.

Here, we’re sharing highlights from Christa and Dana’s conversation from our San Francisco offices — read on and get inspired. 

You started at Food & Wine in 1995. How have you seen the world of chefs and restaurants evolve over the years?

Watching food as entertainment emerge has been fascinating. First chefs came out of the kitchen, and then they went on the Food Network. They began to have a voice — not only a cooking voice, but a voice in politics, in trying to change the world. That’s been an enormous evolution. If you look at someone like Tom Colicchio, I’m not sure if his first job is restaurateur, chef, world changer, or actor. But he’s all of those.

And all of the food trends, and all of the people that fell in love with food enough that they want to go out five days a week. The evolution of the type of dining options has changed so much. Of course OpenTable is booking the bar, because people are eating in the bar as much as they are in the lounge or the main dining room. Before you went into a room and that was your one choice. Now, I was at Tartine Manufactory today — how many choices are there where you can eat? You can eat at the bar, you can get a coffee, you can buy a frozen ice cream pie. One space that is called a restaurant encompasses so many different ways you can experience food.

You were responsible for bringing up many up-and-coming chefs. What was your criteria in ‘95 and 2000, and what is your criteria now? When you’re navigating a world of Instagram and everything else, is it just about the food?

Is it about the food? That’s a huge question. At Food & Wine when we were finding Best New Chefs, what we were looking for was a chef who had tremendous potential. We weren’t looking for someone whose food was perfect, we were looking at their trajectory — where could they take the world of food in the future? We were looking for innovators and game-changers.

In ‘95, we were looking for people who had restaurants. Often they had white tablecloths; it was easy to identify them. They had a commitment to quality that was obvious. Now you have to be much more open-minded.

I still remember when I called David Chang and said, “I’ve got really good news for you: you’re a Best New Chef!” He was like, no f*cking way. He kept pushing back and saying, “I don’t deserve it.” One of the reasons he felt that way is that he had a noodle bar. He was not in the mold of anyone else we had given this award to. We found him because we believed he was doing something different. And Roy Choi — I got to be the one to say, it’s okay that he has a truck. I’m going to give this award to a guy who has a truck because he’s going to change our world.

Now I look for transformation everywhere. When I look for talent, I look for it everywhere: at a bakery, the mixologist, people who have culinary interests who are not just chefs.

How did you find the truck? Just word of mouth?

Roy Choi wasn’t hard to find, because he blew up on social. The real question there was: can you give a guy who really has a truck this award? Is it going to ruin the value of it? At Food & Wine we had an incredible team. Kate Krader — now she’s at Bloomberg — she would travel the country, I would travel the country… it’s always a team effort to find these incredibly talented people.

What are you up to now? Tell us about the radio show.

The podcast is called Speaking Broadly, and the idea behind it is to celebrate women in the world of food who are doing jobs that are somewhat unexpected, and talking them through their challenges and their successes. So there’s a little business part: how did you make that happen? What lessons could we share? What types of food do you like? What do you see in the future? And then paying it forward. It’s so important as women leaders to pay it forward.

So my question for you: are there women in the food industry or the tech industry or the finance industry who you admire, and what about the way they’ve run their business do you admire?

There are. In the tech industry one of my mentors has been Sue Decker, the president of Yahoo!, and she had a very similar weird background — she was in banking and then went to a company and was sitting on boards. Having someone who had been oftentimes the first or only woman in the room was very helpful.

On the food side, I would say Barbara Lynch. She has this incredible story as the first female Relais & Chateau chef in America. She was a bookie in high school and grew up on the wrong side of the tracks — talk about the hard scrabble to greatness. That story of transformation through food and passion for food… 

Back to you. Technology and dining: at OpenTable, we are the intersection. What are you excited about? What’s going too far — robots making hamburgers? Where is technology still left to help dining and where does it hurt?

I think the role of technology in dining will only grow. Some of the most important pieces of the technology are actually at the back end, in human resources. How you hire people, onboard them, communicate with them — that will transform the business. People come and go.

Turnover in restaurants is huge.

And then there’s the technology of how our food will be cooked in the future, and I think that will evolve because when you can take humans out of the equation you can save money, and the restaurant business struggles with labor cost. The labor cost can be resolved in some way by robots, or by mechanising parts of the process.

There’s a lot of restaurant work that is already automated: if you’re baking and mixing, that mixing machine is not a human. When you get to, how good can a pizza be that is in a vending machine…? I don’t know. In Asia they have apparently great food that comes out of vending machines.

I think the potential for the automat has increased, and I think we’ll see a lot of technology in the dining room. If you go to a restaurant, they’re trying to get servers off the floor and save on cost. I can see a future where you have to order for yourself and eliminating as many points of communication as you can. You do it under the guise of efficiency, but it’s really about the cost.

And then there’s the communication between the front and the back of the house, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity to improve that. Technology will probably be at the intersection of that.

Does that change the kinds of restaurants that should open? If you’re bussing your own table, that’s no longer fine dining. More and more consumers are finding their way to everyday dining. And then at the other end of the spectrum, there’s this extreme gastronomical destination dining, with exquisite fanfare — are we in this massively bifurcated model? What does the future of a restaurant look like, and does the middle get cut out?

I think it’s really tough to be in the middle. It’s all about cost. And also, people want to eat quickly — at the high end of course you’ll have immaculate service, super expensive, really luxurious restaurants. I just think the middle is very challenging. The neighborhood restaurant in that regard will have a hard time. That makes me sad to say, but another thing I see with restaurants is the need to constantly evolve. Even if they opened middle of the road, they’re going to have to be open to tweaking it as time goes on.

That bottom to middle will just expand so exponentially. So many chefs who are opening new concepts are opening them in the fast-casual zone, like Mark Ladner leaving Del Posto, leaving a four-star to do fast casual. Or Jose Andres, who has Beefsteak. Or people who are opening restaurants but their game plan is to replicate them and do them at a lower price point.

Many chefs credit you with jumpstarting their career. But how you start is now always how you finish; restaurants come out and are really hot, and then a year later they’re doing all sorts of things to expand their business. What drives longevity in this business? Can you spot it at the outset or is it a factor of chaos and time?

What you can’t spot necessarily is how much money someone had when they opened; how supportive their partner is; how their landlord is. You can have a concept that is rock solid and that people love, and then they’re done in by things that are outside of their control.

Sometimes that flame is just way too hot. I have more and more conversations with chefs that say, I actually don’t want to be hot. That’s the first time I’ve heard that. They don’t want that flame to be so bright that then it dims and everybody’s moved on. They would rather have a slow and steady solid beginning, build up their audience, and not have all the fanfare.

It takes a certain amount of sophistication to feel that way, because it’s so sexy to be on Instagram every single moment and to feel that love. But that love turns off. I feel that really strongly, that chefs are starting to think about how they can build for the long term. I think it wasn’t in their mind in the same way before because they assumed they were building for the long term. Now, they’re trying to be more strategic about it.

Is it important for a chef to understand business? We’ve seen some that are all about the business, they get the marketing, and then there’s the auteur and for them it’s all about the food. Do they need to be a mix of both?

The most successful chefs often become restaurateurs, and either that suits them or not, because it’s not why they got in the kitchen. And they’re rewarded with growth because people want to help them expand, and yet if they don’t have a good business head they get taken advantage of. They end up in bad leases.

I think chefs ideally have a partner, particularly the auteurs. They need someone to say, it’s great that you want to spend a thousand dollars on foie gras, but you only sold $200 worth of foie gras. You think that’s your signature dish but actually it’s not. To have that balance is important, and to be all of that yourself is difficult. But there are chefs who are all of that.

Who comes to mind?

Jose Andres is really smart, and he built an amazing team around him, and he has partners. But he was smart enough to know who and what he needed — he knew he needed to build an advisory board. If you look at someone who’s grown a lot like Dave Chang, he’s had to learn a lot along the way about the business side.

You mentioned labor cost, and the $15 minimum wage is upon us. What is your view on the new no-tipping arrangements, back of house people running food, automation, etc.? When you think about the future of a restaurant, what does it or should it look like? What advice do you give chefs today?

The first point of advice for any restaurant, any chef, is: you have to know how you are, and you have to be one thing. You really can’t be everything to everybody, and when you know who you are, what that one thing is you want to excel at, who you want to be — that is going to determine what your labor looks like. Who are those emissaries in the room? And is it okay in the truth of your concept to have no waiters? It might not be. In which case, figure out your P&L a different way. The most important thing is not to do anything just because of the dollars, because you can always rearrange. If who you are means you want table service, then maybe your price point is higher. Maybe you compromise on your location.

I think, as with everything, there will be a swing. There’s been a swing to the very high and the very fast casual. And at some point there will have to be a swing to some kind of middle, and I would guess it will come from the low end up. Because table service is nice. If they can figure out how to do that, and I think people will, it will drive butts in seats to be just a little bit nicer.

One of the things we’re trying to do at OpenTable is be more of a global company. New York is our #1 market, but London is actually #2 for us in terms of size. Where are you seeing pockets of vibrancy? Where geographically are you seeing hot spots?

I think London is fantastic. I just got back from Tokyo and Kyoto, and I’m fascinated by the food scene in Tokyo, in part because they have a very different model for dining. You go to a restaurant and it has eight seats, and your seat is yours for the night. And the price is high, and there are so many restaurants, and they’re so hard to find. It’s good to have a guide with you.

It’s not that the dining in Tokyo evolves so much. In New York or L.A. there’s something new constantly and you’re always chasing the new. The thing that’s fascinating about Tokyo is that it’s not about new, it’s about the variety and the depth and the breadth. And the fact that small can be so beautiful. So many chefs are experimenting with that: what would it be like if I did something the size of a dinner party?

Obviously you were already knowledgeable about the restaurant business before doing Chefs Club, but were there any learnings moving into the operations side?

What I was doing at Chefs Club was putting together a menu that was 25 star chefs, each with one dish on the menu. So the menu at Chefs Club is 25 dishes, 25 star chefs. And then working on the visiting chef program, which was great.

But I always wanted to go deep inside a restaurant, having been on the media side writing about restaurants. The numbers, to me, were fascinating — seeing what sold and what didn’t sell, what motivated people to come into the restaurant, and what had absolutely no effect at all.

When I planned a magazine issue I would plan for at least 50% of the articles to be something that people would enjoy, and the other 50% would be dispersed. Someone might be interested in wine, another might be interested in travel. But I didn’t need them to be interested in that 50%. You play that game in a restaurant, and you’re so screwed. If I brought in a chef who no one had heard of but they were amazing, I better fill that room myself by hand, because you couldn’t count on the diners coming for someone they didn’t know about. That was really interesting to me.