Feast Portland Interviews

Q&A: Chris Ying

Lucky Peach’s editor in chief dishes on his radical journal of food thought and underground art.

By Karen Brooks September 14, 2012

Feast Portland, one of the country's most original food festivals, lands in the Rose City September 20–23. To count down to the event, read Eat Beat's daily interviews with seven of the great food thinkers coming to participate in this illustrious culinary throw-down—and where to catch them.

 Q: Lucky Peach is the food quarterly we’ve been waiting for: smart and deep but free-wheeling, a bit naughty, and audacious. A recent issue easily roamed from Zen and the art of toilet cleaning to a mournful essay on the death of serious cooking. You started the magazine in 2009, along with David Chang and writer Peter Meehan, and with the literary-minded McSweeney’s as publisher. What is the essence—or perhaps the mission—of Lucky Peach?

A: We’re fortunate to have started the magazine on the foundation of really strong relationships with great cooks and chefs, as well as incredible artists, writers, and photographers. Our goal for Lucky Peach has only ever been to discuss food the way we talk about it with our friends. When I talk to chefs, they never just want to talk about food, and when I speak to one of our writers or artists, they bring a lot of insight from beyond the food world. There’s so much interesting ground to cover in the spaces between different interests.

Each issue drills down on a theme, such as “ramen” or “American food.” Can you recall the moments of decision, the “OK, we’re gonna do this,” for these issues? Any ideas that even Lucky Peach deemed pushing too far?

I can recall having a few, um, heated debates—one in the middle of a busy New York sidewalk—with Dave and Peter. But these debates are seldom about whether we’re pushing the themes too far or not far enough. They’re always about esoteric issues, like specificity. I prefer narrow themes—ramen, Chinatown—that seem restrictive, but actually foster a lot of creative thinking. It’s harder to pin down what to cover with a broad topic like “Warm Food.”

Lucky Peach has completely obliterated the boundaries of genre that define most niche food publications. Is this a model or a moment?  

I suppose it’s a response to the moment we’re in. We don’t purport to be any sort of paragon of food publishing. Like I said, we do what we can, the only way we know how. I’m honored that people see us as innovators, thrilled if people take some inspiration or motivation away from what we’re doing, and excited to see what comes next.

Among the covers for Lucky Peach so far: a cow eating a hot dog and a tattooed artist tattooing a man’s figure on a pig’s ass. What does a Lucky Peach cover-art meeting look like?

A group of sophomoric goobers trying to make each other laugh.

Lucky Peach has limited advertising. Can the magazine survive on subscriptions and newsstand sales? Is this an art project, a pickup band of friends playing original music, or a viable business model?

It began as a side project—a concept album, I guess. We honestly got so wrapped up in producing the first issue, we didn’t think about having to do it again until we were done. At this point, we’re trying to scale up the small independent model—sales-based, limited advertising—and incorporate what we’re learning from the digital market. We’re feeling our way through a new media landscape, just like everyone else.

Does Portland matter? If so, why?

Of course Portland matters. What’s happening in Portland—people singularly dedicating themselves to their crafts and to taking advantage of their region—reminds me of Copenhagen. Did anybody think that Copenhagen mattered before Rene Redzepi brought the world’s attention to it? Portland is an active volcano, quietly churning molten creativity down the mountainside, just waiting for everyone to notice that they’re being buried alive under it. For real, man.

Catch Chris Ying at the Whole Foods Market Speaker Series, a three-hour festival of thought moderated by Portland Monthly editor in chief Randy Gragg. Ying joins a dozen national and local food minds discussing “The Global Local: Searching for an American Food Culture.” Saturday, Sept 21, 12:30 pm, Gerding Theater at the Armory.

Bon Appétit Presents Feast Portland (feastportland.com) is a region-defining celebration of everything that makes Portland awesome, Sept 2023. All proceeds benefit hunger relief organizations Share Our Strength and Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.

Buy tickets at www.feastportland.com. Find updates on Facebook and Twitter (@FeastPDX).

Tomorrow: Cooking icon and Michelin-starred chef gives us the lowdown on Asian fusion done right and the future of New York dining trends.

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