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How Maile Carpenter has crafted the most widely read food magazine in America

🕐 7 min read

In 2013, when Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: New York City, he was photographed, ebullient, by the Wall Street Journal, a dark-haired woman on his arm. “Chef Wylie Dufresne with a guest,” the caption read.

Some guest.

Maile Carpenter was appointed founding editor-in-chief of Food Network Magazine, a joint venture with Hearst, in 2008. Since then, the publication has become the best-selling monthly food title on newsstands, surpassing Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Rachael Ray Every Day and Cooking Light combined, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. The magazine has 1.75 million subscribers and a pass-along readership of 13.5 million, the largest in the food category. Not bad for a former newspaper reporter whose first cooking job was at 15, working the fry station at McDonald’s. Oh, yes: She is also Dufresne’s wife.

Certainly, in this era of shrinking print sales and ad revenue, the success of a magazine so closely aligned with two channels of television programming might not seem surprising. The fact that the network claims up to 35 million unique visitors a month to its website – plus 30 million followers across all its social network platforms – doesn’t hurt, either.

Still, Food Network Magazine does a quietly expert job of culling just enough from its celebrity chefs to give it gloss while maintaining its identity as a solid source for speedy weekday dinners and lengthy weekend projects alike, with the network’s kitchens developing 90 percent of the magazine’s recipes. Each issue boasts more than 100 recipes, 50 of which are short riffs on a single dish; this month it’s pesto, including Thai Peanut and Sesame-Seaweed.

What the magazine doesn’t have, oddly, is articles. Tips and factoids galore are tucked amid a profusion of photos – one big, bright shot after another of dishes you never even realized you wanted to eat. It celebrates its mass audience without apology – short on sumac, long on chopped meat – and insists on the notion that the most fun place to eat in the entire world is your own back yard. The July issue will have you giddily dosing a spatchcocked turkey with an array of dried spices, throwing it on the grill and eating it Caribbean-style. Because . . . why not?

This ineffable aspect of any magazine – not just how it looks or reads but how it feels – comes directly from its editor. Carpenter, 42, is the second of three daughters of Sandy and David Carpenter, an Air Force major. The family moved continually, and their kitchen, whether in Ohio or Louisiana or Germany, remained their haven. Even now, when Carpenter and Dufresne take their daughters, Sawyer, 6, and Ellery, 3, on summer road trips to rented houses, Carpenter packs her Kitchen Aid stand mixer. The pull of the family kitchen is that deeply ingrained.

I recently met up with Carpenter at a Manhattan photo studio, where she was presiding over cover shoots for the magazine’s October issues, one for newsstands and one for subscribers. Though the late June sun was blazing outside, inside it was autumn. On a large computer screen, a bowl of Geoffrey Zakarian’s pumpkin soup garnished with popcorn conjured falling leaves and football.

Carpenter studied the photo silently, surrounded by food stylists and photo editors. She is a genuine workhorse, a Food Network fan from its inception, living her dream job. Her can-do, girl-next-door quality distracts from how concentrated she is.

“Want a spoon in there?” someone asked.

“The chives are reading blackish,” said another.

“I can brighten them up.”

As the conversation continued, the next newsstand cover contestant, Anne Burrell’s Orecchiette With Pumpkin, was being prepared. (Only one shot will be chosen.) Carpenter closed her laptop and settled down to talk. She is the leanest food editor living, wearing orange skinny jeans with the careless finesse of a teenager. Her vivid blue eyes were rimmed in black liner, stark against her gently freckled skin.

We folded ourselves into a corner behind the camera equipment.

“Of course, the TV component is a huge part of our success,” Carpenter said. “But TV changes from hour to hour with all those stars, all those voices. Ours is a universal voice. We trust the super-talented people in the Food Network kitchens who develop the recipes for home. And we have endless conversations about how far we can push it. ‘Can I put lemon grass in a weeknight recipe?’ I say no. I don’t want to deal with it. What our kitchens are good at is hitting the sweet spot of the comfort zone, with the twist of something familiar being just slightly tweaked. Soup with popcorn.”

They are also good at monitoring supermarket inventories. “Every year we have to reassess,” Carpenter said. “A few years ago, you couldn’t find mango salsa or miso paste in supermarkets, now you can in some. Our kitchens take field trips all the time out of the city. They have fallen in love with Super Walmarts.”

Carpenter was born in Pennsylvania, though just before that her father was stationed in Pearl Harbor, which is how she got the name Maile, pronounced Miley. “It’s a vine used to make leis,” she said. “And in ‘Blue Hawaii,’ Elvis’s girlfriend was named Maile. They thought it was normal.” Carpenter has an older sister, Jennifer, an architect, and a younger sister, Ridge, who is the art director for HGTV magazine, also at Hearst. All three live in New York, and as adults, they continued Sunday family dinners there until Carpenter and Dufresne got a weekend place in Lyme, Conn. That is close to Mystic, where her parents retired to live around the corner from her uncle, who has been married to her mother’s best friend since 1967. Talk about a family unit.

“Mom cooked the way her parents did,” Carpenter said. “Mac and cheese, pork chops, meatloaf. But moving around a lot exposes you to how people eat in different places. When my father was stationed in Germany, we ate all over Europe.”

Carpenter received a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and began as a reporter for the Wilmington Morning Star (now the Star-News) before leaving for the Raleigh News & Observer to cover film and television. She moved to New York to write for Time Inc.’s in-house magazine, FYI, and, by night, earned a degree at the French Culinary Institute. She eventually landed at Time Out New York to cover food. In 2002, she interviewed Dufresne about his plans to open WD-50.

“There was something about him that fascinated me,” she recalled. “But he was engaged, so I let it go. More than a year later, my brother-in-law, who’s in the food business, went to WD-50, and Wylie, who was single by then, said, ‘I’ll give you a tour of the kitchen if I can get a date with your sister-in-law.'”

They married in 2008. “Restaurants are a tricky business,” she said. “So one of us needs to be steady.”

After earning a Michelin star every year from 2006 to 2014, WD-50 closed in 2014, when the building was sold. Dufresne, 46, opened a second restaurant, Alder, which closed last year. “I would love to get back in the restaurant game,” he said when we spoke by phone. “Hope springs eternal.” He is doing some consulting and writing a book for Anthony Bourdain’s imprint at Ecco Press. His wife says he doesn’t cook during the week.

“In my defense,” he told me good-naturedly, “I cook with a certain regularity, but not as much as I should as a relatively good cook who’s unemployed. Maile does 85 percent of the cooking, and her food is delicious. On weekends we do a lot of outdoor cooking, and the protein usually lands in my lap. Contrary to popular belief, I know how to make regular food really well.”

Indeed. Long before he was squirting a methyl cellulose solution into soup (the heat turned the liquid into solid noodles), he was a sous-chef at Jean-Georges, the three-star Michelin restaurant in New York.

“He does make breakfast once in a while,” Carpenter conceded. “He’s the master of eggs. But for weeknight dinners, our kids won’t even eat what I make. They eat chicken nuggets and pasta and once in a while a cucumber. It’s the best I can do.”

It was time to shoot the cover for subscribers, iced cupcakes topped with bat-shaped cookies. The cupcakes smelled like gingerbread.

“No, that’s apple pie spice,” said Susan Spungen, a stylist. “Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice. It’s great for writing short recipes.”

The talk turned to what you can buy in supermarkets these days.

“What’s that company that makes all the spices?” Spungen asked.

“McCormick?” Carpenter answered.

“That’s the one,” she said. “Za’atar is coming soon, I assure you.”

Everyone laughed except Carpenter. Already, she was planning.

Witchel is a former staff writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of “All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments” (Riverhead Books, 2012).

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