The food-media world, and its readers and followers, were up in arms last November when the New York Times reported that the San Francisco Chronicle was killing its award-winning weekly food section. With its recipe test kitchen and in-house writers, its well-researched stories and experienced editorial staff, the Chronicle's food section was an anachronism of sorts in these days of sound-bite journalism on demand and ever-shrinking newsroom budgets. But it was widely seen as one of the last holdouts of worthwhile, well-tested and original food and wine writing in a daily newspaper, at a time when more and more weekly food sections were resorting to canned wire-service stories and syndicated recipe columns.
For those of us who make our living as writers, too many stories of good content meeting death under the budget axe are true. But in this case, reports of the demise of the Chronicle's Food and Wine section have been greatly exaggerated. Instead, the long-running Wednesday food section has been revamped into Food + Home, a bigger, brighter insert into the Sunday edition of the paper, debuting this Sunday, June 29. (A free Food+Home preview has been posted on the SFChronicle site.) First imagined at 16 pages, this Sunday's launch has grown to 20 pages, a nod to both robust content and a vigorous advertising presence--each one, of course, feeding the other.
When asked about the combination of food and wine with home and garden, assistant managing editor Kitty Morgan and managing editor Audrey Cooper said their goal was to reflect the way readers live now.
"We're Northern California," noted Audrey Cooper. "We live outdoors year-round." When you can garden, grill, and entertain outside nearly every month of the year, grafting gardening and food together makes sense. At the same time as they're kitting out their kitchens with immersion circulators and Vitamix blenders, eco-conscious readers might also be adding bee boxes and designer chicken coops to their backyards. With more and more Bay Area dwellers adding edible gardening, DIY projects and seasonal cooking into their daily lives, the lines between home, garden, and kitchen are becoming much more permeable.
It's a development that Morgan, who worked at both Sunset and Better Homes and Gardens prior to joining the Chronicle editorial staff last year, hopes to reflect throughout the section. As for home design, Cooper and Morgan point out that, especially in the food-centric Bay Area, "the kitchen is always the most popular room in the house." They also discovered that readers were less interested in the previous section's emphasis on sweeping photos of gorgeous--but mostly unattainable--showplace houses, and much more eager to get real-life advice and stylish design solutions for more typical (and often space-challenged) Bay Area homes, bungalows, and apartments.
Over the past few months, Cooper and Morgan have been on a "listening tour" to hear what readers want. They realized that, to be relevant in today's very interactive media climate, the paper could no longer be simply the "voice from on high" coming from the Chronicle's imposing block of offices on Mission Street. While the paper still has the benefit of fact-checkers, copy editors, and recipe-testers to assure the accuracy of everything from a pudding recipe to a report of a restaurant's closing, Cooper and Morgan hope to make readers' opinions, photographs, and finds into one of the paper's shareable assets.
Some things won't change, however; Michael Bauer, the paper's longtime restaurant critic, will continue to write the weekly lead restaurant review, and high-profile wine writer Jon Bonné will lead the wine coverage. The annual much-debated, much-awaited Top 100 Restaurants list will also go on. But Morgan and Cooper plan to emphasize quality writing and a diversity of voices within the section. Alongside Bauer's two-and-a-half star review of Archetype in St. Helena is Jonathan Kauffman's two-and-a-half page exploration of Lazy Bear, an underground restaurant that's poised to go legit in the Mission this summer. Kauffman describes its previous off-the-radar incarnation as "the highest-rated, least-known restaurant in the Bay Area," run by David Barzelay, who went from laid-off lawyer (fresh out of law school, he'd been employed for less than a year when the post-2008 financial crisis knocked out his job) to obsessively self-taught, molecular gastronomy-inspired cook. Kauffman, an IACP and James Beard Award-winning writer who previously worked as a reviewer and editor at SF Weekly and Tasting Table, joined the paper's staff in April.
The section will feature fewer recipes than before; with so much recipe content now available online, readers are much less inclined to depend on torn-out newspaper columns for stovetop inspiration. Still, the Chronicle's clout still counts. Notes Cooper, "We can call up pretty much any chef in the Bay Area and they'll talk to us." So the recipe sections--the season-driven Fresh Now and the technique-focused In the Kitchen--will take advantage of the paper's broad access to the pros.
With all this to offer (plus ice cream), the new section seems poised to fill its niche better and more widely than before. Which didn't stop Eater from gleefully dancing on the grave of the food section as we've known it. Food and Wine is dead, it's true; long live--or as long as any print newspaper might live in these digital times--Food+Home.