As a founding editor of Lucky Peach magazine, Chris Ying is an independent publishing success story who’s presenting Indie Magazines: High End Content, Low End Budgets as part of this year’s Vivid Ideas program. You may have a subscription to Lucky Peach yourself, or have seen it in the kitchen of a hipster friend, but if not, then all you need to know is that it’s a new generation of cooking magazine; a quarterly journal that blends recipes with gorgeous design and photography, irreverent personal essays and even the occasional short stories. It’s a work of art as much as it is a magazine.
“I’ve discovered, over time, that people who really care about food also care about books and music and photography and art,” Ying tells me. “I’ve discovered that people who are writers and artists and photographers also care about food. When we started Lucky Peach, the idea was to try and reach out across genders and age groups to people with multiple interests. My own background was at McSweeney’s, who are champions of traditional publishing, so I just wanted to create a big, glorious, art-filled magazine.”
A few years ago, Ying and his friends started their own digital publisher, Ying Horowitz & Quinn. Publishing is a scary business in this day and age, but he’s nonetheless confident. “From the time I graduated college, and even before that, I’ve heard people talk about the death of print,” he laughs. “It doesn’t scare me anymore. When you’re working on a small scale, when you’re passionate about the quality of what you’re doing, and you have a passionate audience, I think you’re okay.”
Each issue of Lucky Peach is themed, with some more obscure and bizarre than others, like the recent Apocalypse Issue. Ying tells me that coming up with a theme is usually a straightforward process. “Take our Chinatown issue,” he says. “Chinese food is a really broad topic, so we decided it would be interesting to approach that through the lens of Chinatowns that exist all over the world, as little outposts of Chinese culture within larger cultures. That was a vehicle for us to talk about a subject we like a lot, without just having the typical discussion.”
The magazine’s success points, perhaps, to a trend among young people, who now favour quality cooking and ingredients. As someone in the field of food publishing, Ying for one hopes that this trend is here to stay. “I often wonder about the fierce interest that people have shown in food over the last 15 years, and whether that will continue,” he says. “There’s more affluence now, and there’s more accessibility, so everyone cares more about food. I wonder, though, is it like Pokémon, a trend that will go away in time? I don’t know if it’s just a trend, or if we’re on an evolutionary track, but I hope it’s the latter!”
This trend towards quality food has given rise to the term ‘foodie’ – it’s more or less in common usage now, even if, like me, it makes your skin crawl whenever you hear it. As someone who’s associated with the movement himself, I ask Ying for his take on it. “I think …” he pauses, choosing his words carefully, “I have no fierce objection to it. I think that it’s the same with any label – when somebody puts a label out there, those who are that thing tend to object to it. People hate the word hipster for the same reason they hate the word foodie and pothead, I guess. It’s hard to come up with a label that people will like – they’ll always get upset. There’s never going to be a word that people are happy with.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN