When Dawn Davis, Bon Appétit’s editor in chief for almost a year, walked the Met Gala red carpet last month in a sparkly floor-length gown by B Michael, it was a nod to some of the Black fashion designers who haven’t received the recognition they deserved for the outfits they created.
“At the bottom of the gown, we put the names of many African American designers who’d been overlooked by history, including the woman who designed Mary Todd Lincoln’s gown, Elizabeth Keckly, and Ann Lowe, who designed Jacqueline Onassis’ gown,” she said over Zoom from a Manhattan Airbnb she is residing in while her apartment of 17 years is being renovated.
Davis, who met B Michael around two decades ago when he dressed her for The Studio Museum of Harlem’s Gala, was one of a handful of Condé Nast’s top editors in attendance this year, including Glamour’s Sam Barry and Teen Vogue’s Versha Sharma.
Like Sharma, it was Davis’ first time at the gala as she only joined the popular food magazine in November, replacing longtime editor in chief Adam Rapoport, who was ousted amid allegations of creating a toxic workplace culture for people of color and the unearthing of a photograph of him in brown face. At the same time, some Test Kitchen stars alleged that people of color were not compensated fairly for their video appearances.
Davis, a successful book editor who was most recently running her own imprint, 37 Ink, at Simon & Schuster and at one point wrote a book about the restaurant industry, didn’t actually apply for the Bon Appétit job, but was asked by a friend to recommend some food writers she had worked with. Not long after, Condé Nast chief content officer Anna Wintour approached Davis about the position. “You know they say never say no to an interview or to talking to someone and then one conversation led to another,” she said.
Since joining as the title’s first Black editor in chief, Davis, who also has oversight of Condé Nast’s other food outlets Epicurious, Healthyish and Basically, has striven to bring more representation to the magazine, something she has done throughout her career, especially at 37 Ink, which emphasizes marginalized voices. A piece penned by poet Kwame Alexander was one of the magazine site’s most viewed articles of the summer, while in the upcoming November issue, fashion designer Peter Som celebrates Thanksgiving by paying homage to Chinese traditions and Savannah, Ga., baker Cheryl Day offers her take on desserts.
Another big focus has been the writing — after all, she is a former book publisher. “You can have amazing recipes from one of the best test kitchens in the country and also have great writing living side by side,” said Davis. “That is my vision for Bon Appétit and I get lots of emails and lots of notes saying that ‘I just used to whip through for the recipe ideas and now I’m actually reading the articles,’ which I love.”
There’s been movement on the business side, too, as under her leadership Bon Appétit is beefing up its e-commerce chops, with the launch of Bon Appétit Market, an online store where readers can buy ingredients, utensils, cookware and tableware that have been selected by the magazine’s team.
While Bon Appétit’s total audience was down in the first half of 2021 compared with the same period a year earlier, according to data from the Alliance for Audited Media, it’s understood that is partially due to video production being shut down for months because of the pandemic and very high viewing figures during the beginning of lockdown when people cooked at home more than ever. More recent Comscore data provided by a Condé Nast representative showed that unique views were up 8 percent in the year to August.
Here, Davis talks to WWD about her career and the first year at Bon Appétit.
WWD: You began your career on Wall Street in the late ’80s. What was it like back then? Was it a boys’ club?
Dawn Davis: I worked at First Boston and we actually had one of the more diverse classes I think for Wall Street at that time. I call it a class because they hire upward of 50 people to be analysts and the trajectory is that you work for two years and then you go to business school or law school and you return in some capacity. It teaches you at the time an ethos that you’re just going to work, work, work and you’re going to work really hard and you’re not going to complain and you’re going to work with this great group of people who will support each other for the rest of their lives. It gives you this credibility that you may not even at that really young age have really earned but people at the time were so in awe of a Wall Street pedigree that it opened doors for me that I didn’t even know were possible. Of course that’s all changed now, but in terms of how Wall Street is regarded it opened a lot of doors for me.
WWD: But you decided that that wasn’t for you? How did you make the switch to publishing?
D.D.: I was literally taking a cooking class at the French Culinary Institute, so to say to your boss that I’m going to leave for two hours at 6 but I will be back and I will finish this document, I’ll stay to midnight but I have to take these two hours. I think it was pretty clear to management that while I was smart, this was not my calling and it was clear to me as well in the third week. Someone on staff actually suggested that I apply for a Rotary scholarship. I did that. I went to study literature in Africa. On the plane I sat next to a publisher and he was in charge of something called the African Writers Series and I was just like, “You get paid to read? That is my dream job.” When I returned to New York I went to a party and someone was a literary agent and she introduced me to André Schiffrin, who’s the legendary publisher and I was hired on the spot. We worked together for five amazing years. I learned so much under his tutelage and then I became a book editor, then a publisher.
WWD: You’ve obviously had a very successful career in book publishing. Could you ever have imagined that in 2020 you would switch careers and become a magazine editor?
D.D.: I used to read the editor’s letter of one food magazine and have this fantasy that apart from my book job, it must be the best job in the world. I think on some realm in some part of my brain I must have implanted this idea that wouldn’t this be amazing? But I was quite happy as a book publisher. I wasn’t looking to transition. I had amazing authors throughout my career, but in terms of a group of them all coming out in succession, it was the best slate of authors I’ve ever had so it was the last thing I was looking to do. But Bon Appétit is such an iconic, legendary brand and I love food and the way I look at it, food is connected to so many other things. It’s about the recipes and what to put on the table, it’s about what’s for dinner, it’s about, “Oh I need another way to make chicken.” But it’s also about access, who has it, it’s about restaurants as we all have just experienced, it’s about the environment as we’re all experiencing so I just thought this is a way to kind of keep working with ideas but in another format at an iconic brand.
WWD: Were you a bit apprehensive only because it’s so different to what you’ve been doing for many years?
D.D.: Of course. I was apprehensive because it is so different. What’s consistent is working with people and writers and working with people who have to have a point of view and a voice. What’s different of course is the emphasis on food and recipes and working with the Test Kitchen and working with sponsors and advertisers and subscription models and all of that is different. But I think out of a sense of maybe a little fear also comes excitement and also comes this part of your brain where you start generating ideas and thinking of ways to move the brand forward.
WWD: It’s coming up to a year now that you’ve been there. What are the biggest changes you’ve made to the brand since joining?
D.D.: One of the biggest changes is cultivating a sense that this is a place where your ideas matter, listening to different teams and realizing that ideas come from all over. I’ve instituted some columns that I’m excited about. One called “All On the Table” brings literary writers such as as Dani Shapiro and Bob Alexander to the magazine and they talk about these emotional moments at the table and through them they work with the test kitchen to develop some ideas and we’ve had some of our most trafficked recipes from June and July come from those stories. The model that I’ve developed with my team is come for the recipes stay for the ideas so it’s always going to be a recipe-first magazine but that doesn’t mean we can’t be a place where we also tease out and introduce and be in dialogue with different ideas. So for instance in May we had a sustainability issue, which was fantastic.
WWD: Can you also tell me about the recently published heads of the table list?
D.D.: We have the heads of the table list. It’s 12 people, organizations and restaurants that we think are doing community building things — one is the united sommelier foundation. We always think of sommeliers as helping us with our wine, but of course during the pandemic they’re the first to go because they weren’t having indoor dining and no one was coming in so two people started a foundation to support sommeliers. I think that’s really important.
WWD: How would you say your background as a book editor has helped you be editor in chief of the magazine?
D.D.: My Rolodex is extensive. I’m able to call people. I’m respected for respecting diverse voices and cultivating those voices so I think that has brought a lot to bear in terms of the diversity in terms of ideas and the diversity of writers and the diversity of recipe developers that we’re attracting.
WWD: Obviously you came in at a difficult time where there were lots of complaints of a toxic workplace. How have you dealt with that?
D.D.: I want to acknowledge Sonia Chopra, who is my executive editor. She came in a couple of months before and we have just worked really hard. First of all, we’re rebuilding the team. I would say at least 70 percent of the team is new and we’ve created an environment where people feel respected, where people feel valued and we are by definition interested in diverse perspectives, diverse storytelling, diverse food cultures. That’s reflected in the pages of the magazine and the website and our Instagram. That’s reflected in who we are, so I don’t think toxicity is a word that that we’re cultivating at all.
WWD: Has it been hard to speak to people and do all this while working remotely?
D.D.: It was hard at first, but this has become the new new in a way. We try to get together where possible when possible. The office is open now if people want to come in, so I am bit by bit building an in-person rapport with people.
WWD: I know there were a lot of reports about the Test Kitchen video series and payments and that was part of Condé Nast Entertainment. It seemed to me that it was quite disjointed and the magazine was saying, well, that’s up to CNE. Are you working more closely with CNE and its new president, Agnes Chu, to oversee all that now?
D.D.: Yes, we want to build a model that is more integrated. My lead on that June Kim [vice president of video programming and development for food] is invited into our editorial meetings, she’s part of the team, we’re really trying to build a culture of one BA. I think that that makes sense.
WWD: Food has always been very important to you even if you haven’t always focused on it in your career, right?
D.D.: One hundred percent. I did that book [“If You Can Stand the Heat: Tales from Chefs & Restaurateurs,” published in 1999] while I was a food editor and a lot of things that people are talking about now I think I covered or attempted to cover in that book. I was interviewed on a podcast the other day and the guy said I interviewed Tony Bourdain before he was famous and that some of the things I wrote about were very prescient.
WWD: What made you write the book?
D.D.: I have friends who are professors and lawyers and again this was many, many years ago, and although we were all set on our career path we kept having these conversations of “let’s open a restaurant.” I just thought this has to be more complicated than it looks, so I started interviewing some chefs. The chefs were fascinating and had really interesting intel and really interesting insights. As a book editor I could tell that there’s a book here. I got an agent and I sold it anonymously actually. I didn’t want it to go out with my name in case it was horrible.
WWD: How do you relax?
D.D.: I love to play tennis. That is the place where I’m outside of my own head. That’s my happy place.
WWD: So the Met Gala must have been a dream for you to see all these tennis players?
D.D.: It was great. I saw Naomi, Venus, Serena. It was nice to see Venus because I published her many years ago.
For more, see: