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Bon Appetit's Barbara Fairchild: It all began with a hot dog pizza

From her first innovative experiments in the kitchen as a youngster to her longtime role as editor in chief of the magazine, it's been one sweet ride for the hard-working New York native.

November 11, 2009|Mary MacVean

Barbara Fairchild joined Bon Appetit in 1978 as an editorial assistant typing (yes, on a typewriter) recipes. Today, she runs the magazine, and with the closure of Gourmet last month, has become one of the most watched women in food publishing. After all, her Los Angeles-based magazine is the sibling that survived in Conde Nast's bloodletting.

She's a powerful executive who splits her time between homes in Studio City and New York, when she's not at one of the many events she runs or attends all year. She's more than bicoastal: Her life partner of 19 years, Paul Nagle, is based in Washington, D.C. In some city, they try to spend Thursdays through Sundays together.

Of course, maybe her story shouldn't be a surprise. Her mother, Ina Lieb, went from secretary to vice president of her company -- and she's an accomplished home cook to boot. At 89, she still makes killer brownies.

"There's definitely a parallel there," Fairchild says one sunny lunchtime over salad and salmon carpaccio at Cecconi's, a restaurant on Melrose near Robertson that's Italian enough to have La Gazzetta dello Sport on a rack along with the Times -- Los Angeles and London versions.

She says it's a great place for breakfast, reasonably priced and quiet. That's just the sort of advice she is eager to give, and the personification of the role she wants for her magazine -- a pal who might nudge you to try kabocha squash or squid or a new restaurant.

The food magazine landscape has changed. Gourmet is gone, and while Bon Appetit survived, it lost six staff members in layoffs. And though Bon Appetit is one of the largest food magazines, with an average monthly circulation approaching 1.5 million, there are plenty of others out there, as well as bloggers and websites and Food Network shows and other TV programs.

With all that competition, Bon Appetit is working to keep its brand relevant online and in print, through blogs and online forums, cookbooks (a dessert tome is due next year) and a new mail-order venture selling selected wines paired with recipes. Fairchild says a TV show is possible.

"I want to embrace it all," she says. "We have embraced [change], not shied away."

While some gripe that too much of today's food television is just entertainment, Fairchild sees the positive side, as she seems wont to do, noting that lots of young people are watching. As much as she loves Julia Child's television shows, she says, she finds that when food is served on "Iron Chef": "I feel like I'm tasting it."

Fairchild joined bad-boy boss Gordon Ramsay as a judge on a recent episode of Fox's "Hell's Kitchen," where the bleeping and the shouting can overwhelm the cooking. Fairchild stood out by being calm, kind, polite.

And she's all those things over lunch and in her 10th-floor office with a daydreamer's view of the Hollywood Hills.

Although she spent her first eight years in New York, she's an Angeleno at heart. She loves the Beatles, has a trainer and plans to get serious about yoga. Italian food is the cuisine she'd pick if she could have just one; to her it feels like California.

"It's so simple but it feels so sophisticated . . . taking something wonderful and letting it shine, letting it star," says Fairchild, wearing black slacks and a twin set in browns and black; on a chain, she wears a small peace sign and a heart pendant. Her violet eye shadow is expertly applied.

Asked her age, she smiles and says she's older than Rachael Ray and younger than Martha Stewart.

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Home sweet home

Fairchild, the eldest of three daughters, grew up in Studio City in the house where her mother still lives, just a couple of miles from her own home.

Lieb, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of New York University, served mostly classic American food. She made dinner every night, and a roast or lamb on Sundays, with desserts such as baked apples. Fairchild recalls hand-cranking ice cream and making peach jam in a blazing kitchen "when it was 112,000 degrees in the Valley."

Her late father was character actor Robert P. Lieb, whose career gave her one of her greatest junior high moments when he played Richard Chamberlain's father on "Dr. Kildare."

It was about the same time, when Fairchild was 12, that Ina Lieb went to work at Superscope/Marantz -- devastating at the time, she says, because "none of my friends' moms worked."

But her mother's accomplishments fueled Fairchild's own, as she slowly started taking over in the kitchen.

Like so many people, Fairchild can count on her family to remind her of her roots. One of her early specialties was a frankfurter pizza, something her sister always seems to reminisce about when they're at a table with the likes of Wolfgang Puck.

"As much of a foodie as she is and the high circles she runs in, she also is very much a food lover of all kinds," says Stephen Tao, an executive producer in TV and a decade-long friend.

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