There are more than 20,000 recipes in The New York Times Cooking archive. For the vertical’s 1 million-plus subscribers, the pandemic was a chance to discover some of them. Comfort food made a comeback. (Creamy macaroni and cheese and extra creamy scrambled eggs were the two most popular recipes of 2021.) Bread baking became a thing, while recipes featuring non-perishable pantry staples (dried beans) were in heavy rotation. Even oat milk — which surged in sales at the onset of the pandemic — received marquis treatment with Ali Slagle’s recipe for oat milk chocolate pudding.
The Times’ core news product accounts for the bulk of the company’s 10 million subscriptions, but verticals, including Cooking and Games, are increasingly seen as important growth areas. In 2020, NYT Cooking clocked more than 110 million users.
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If the pandemic spurred a new crop of home cooks, they have lately returned to restaurants in droves. And so, after a two-year hiatus, the Times last month reinstated the stars on its restaurant reviews, with food critic Pete Wells’ three-star review of popular South Bronx, N.Y., food trailer Lechonera La Piraña. (Reviews were suspended in March 2020 and returned later that year but without stars.) The stars, said Emily Weinstein, who was promoted to the Times’ Food and Cooking editor last December, “is a tradition that dates back to the early ’60s. And I’m not saying that all traditions are worth keeping forever and ever. But it’s not something to do away with lightly.”
Weinstein, 41, a married mom of two young children, joined the Times in 2007 as a web producer in the Dining, Home and Arts sections. In 2012, she became a senior staff editor on the Food desk, where she was among the team that launched NYT Cooking with then-editor Sam Sifton. (Sifton, Weinstein’s predecessor in the job, was elevated to assistant national editor.)
“The impact [of the pandemic] was enormous,” Weinstein said. “Everybody was at home. And we were very aware that there are people out there who don’t like to cook and would never cook a single meal if they could avoid it. And even those people had to cook.”
Here, Weinstein talks to WWD about viral reviews, cultural appropriation in the food world, the morality of red meat recipes and those Cooking comments.
WWD: Star ratings are subjective and can be controversial, which is why many publications have permanently discontinued them. But in the two years since they were suspended at the Times, social media has become even more toxic. Any trepidation about bringing them back?
Emily Weinstein: There was a lot of discussion about bringing them back. But I wouldn’t say we were seriously considering not bringing them back. We wanted to make sure we did it really thoughtfully. And there were two dimensions there; one, of course, is insinuating somehow that COVID-19 is over. We postponed all restaurant reviews at the onset of the pandemic, it just seemed really beside the point in April 2020. Reviews did come back later that year, without stars. But restaurants, at least in New York, have been filling up. People are really eating out and it’s just very evident that despite what’s happening with COVID-19, people are going to restaurants. So it seemed like it was time to bring the stars back as a reader service. As a reader, I found myself missing them. It just felt like, at the bottom of each review, we were missing a punctuation mark.
Lanna Apisukh/Courtesy of New York Times
WWD: Several of Pete’s highly negative reviews have gone viral including his 2019 no-star review of Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger. I think people who never ate at Peter Luger, or would even consider eating there, probably got some cathartic joy from the takedown. Is the review simply to inform readers? Or is it also a form of entertainment?
E.W.: Pete’s review of Peter Luger is a very entertaining review. But the less lighthearted answer is that Pete actually takes those things really seriously. They have serious implications for businesses. He is a funny writer and he’s remarkably clever, but I don’t think he actually takes any joy in writing such negative reviews. If you look at Peter Luger, that is a very expensive restaurant. And I’m not breaking any news when I say it’s not known for treating its customers kindly. You go there to get this celebrated steak, but what does this thing actually taste like? And I think he really set out to explain his experience. It’s not a fun answer, but he doesn’t actually write those to entertain people. He writes them because he eats somewhere and thinks, well this is really expensive for what this is, and people should really know.
WWD: The racial justice movement has spurred a reexamination of cultural appropriation in the food world. I’m curious how you as an editor deal with it, particularly with recipes.
E.W.: It’s been an enormous topic for the past several years. We see recipes as a form of our journalism. And we want to make sure that we’re bringing all of our journalistic powers to bear when we’re creating recipes, contextualizing recipes. There’s a lot of due diligence around our recipes during every step of the process — from the ideas meetings, to the assignment step, to the conversations that editors are having with the recipe developers. Recipes go through several rounds of editing before we publish them. And that process is designed, first of all, to make sure that we’re being respectful with the food, but also to make sure that when you go into your kitchen you’re going to get the best results we could possibly give you. And that’s all baked into our system. We really want to be respectful of cuisines and of culture, and the ways people cook traditional foods. And also, frankly, of the ways people respectfully iterate on traditional foods. And that’s baked into our philosophy.
WWD: When you’re developing recipes with the team, how many times does something actually get made before the reader sees it?
E.W.: Countless times. It also depends on how technically tricky the recipe is. For developers, some stuff is easier to develop than others. And sometimes the simplest recipes are the hardest because there’s nowhere to hide. So you’ve got a developer going into the kitchen and that usually takes at least a few tries to get something right. And then you’ve got a recipe tester, and they might make it more than once. And then somebody else might make it. And then, of course, the recipes are cooked for photo shoots. And then sometimes we’re also shooting video, so you’ve got another chance to make the recipe before it’s published. Readers have invited us into their homes, we want them to feel like “OK, this New York Times Cooking recipe is going to work.”
WWD: That is a good segue to the comments section, which I will admit to sometimes hate reading. That’s not to say there aren’t helpful comments, there are a lot. But there is also a lot of posturing. There are the substitution extremists: people who think they’re showing off by changing the recipe so much it ceases to be the published recipe. And then there are the food police: people who want to wring every bit of fat or sodium out of a recipe. For instance, the white bean primavera: it’s a perfectly lovely recipe that calls for three-quarters cup of heavy cream. But the comments are festooned with people looking for and/or offering non-fat or low-fat substitutions for what is, relatively speaking, a small amount of cream.
E.W.: I would like to say that I express solidarity with you. I don’t think that’s that much cream. But comments are hilarious. People will write in and say, I swapped the baking soda for salt, the ginger for peanut butter, the pork for mushrooms and it was disgusting. And I’m like, well, of course; that sounds terrible. But we love the comments. And we love reading the comments for the same reasons everybody does. I really do read them when I’m actually cooking something.
WWD: Yes, they can be very helpful, too. Like Kay Chun’s recipe for coconut-miso salmon curry, in my opinion, and the opinion of many other Cooking users, has way too much water (3 cups). When I first read the recipe, I thought, that’s a crazy amount of water, even for this dish, which is supposed to be a bit soupy. And many commenters pointed this out. So that was helpful. Do you ever adjust a recipe because of the comments?
E.W.: We don’t often because a lot of it is just a matter of taste. Somebody wrote this recipe and it was tested and edited, and we honor that. But if it becomes clear that something might be straight up wrong, like there was a typo or a conversion error, then yes, we will retest it. But a lot of the times we will just leave it. Sometimes I look at the suggested modifications on a recipe and I’ll make a change, especially with older recipes. There’s a lot to learn from the comment community. There are people who really know what they’re talking about. But generally speaking, we let our recipes stand.
WWD: What effect did the pandemic have on the Cooking vertical? Has interaction with the app waned as people are returning to restaurants?
E.W.: It was pretty extreme and I really don’t want to point to silver linings from COVID-19. But I will say that it was a really big time for Cooking. It was this moment where we could step up and be there for people when they needed us most. And our team really did that — and they were dealing with all the same restraints in terms of logistics and groceries, and all of the anxieties and heartbreak and fear everybody was dealing with. But they were trying to talk you through making those beans, cooking something nice for yourself, baking a cake. Everyone got into bread. And for us, that was a really big moment to show what we could do. And I would say we have eased off the bean recipes. But I think a lot of people actually acquired new skills in that time. And they’re still cooking.
WWD: Obviously traffic was way up overall in early 2020 when people were sheltering in place and devouring news — and baking bread. How significant is New York Times Cooking to the brand overall?
E.W.: During earnings calls and reports, Cooking is routinely cited, along with Games, as being a very big bright spot for the Times and part of that general strategy of trying to become a daily habit in people’s lives beyond being a source of news. And the company is invested in it. You can see it in our staff. Our staff has grown quite a lot in the last several years, which has been really exciting for us.
WWD: Are restaurants generally receptive to reviews once they realize they’re being reviewed? Or do they get defensive?
E.W.: Pete is anonymous, he’ll go to a restaurant a couple times and then he’ll reach out to fact check some things. And we will send a photographer to shoot the dishes. So they know they’re being reviewed before the review publishes. Sometimes the photo editor has a really hard time getting the photographer to the restaurant. Often the restaurant assumes that we want them to pay [for the photos] which of course we don’t, that would violate our ethics guidelines. But it probably says something about other websites trying to shoot food at restaurants. And sometimes they may feel it’s unwanted attention. But I only know of one incident where the restaurant said no, you cannot come in. So we took a picture of the outside of the restaurant. (Editor’s note: it was Village Café, an Azerbaijani restaurant in Coney Island, N.Y. Wells gave it two stars.)
WWD: What is the secret sauce of food styling? Are there artificial enhancers or tricks to make the food look just right?
E.W.: No, everything we do has to meet newsroom ethics guidelines, which applies to the Food desk. We want people to see what the dish is supposed to look like. Now granted, it’s going to look like the most beautiful, professionally cooked version of the recipe. Our food stylists are expert cooks. So it’s the best possible version [of the recipe]. We cook the dish the way the recipe is published, with real ingredients. One of our food stylists, Barrett Washburne, did a TikTok video. He has one of those leather knife bags, but it’s a really big one and it’s full of tiny tools, tweezers of different sizes, a whole arsenal of kitchen tools to make sure that everything is just right. And that’s what stylists do. It’s amazing.
WWD: What happens to all the food that gets cooked? Do people eat it?
E.W.: The team eats it or they bring it home and give it to somebody else. There is a lot of food at each shoot and we don’t throw it out. Food waste is a big issue. And we are food people. We love food and we don’t want to see it in the trash. Those recipes we’re publishing, we feel good about them. And because they haven’t been doctored in any way to look good for the photo, they usually taste good.
WWD: Livestock is a growing environmental concern. How do you approach meat recipes in terms of responsibility toward the climate?
E.W.: We don’t have any official policies in place around meat recipes. But we want to be a thought leader. And we don’t want to blindly work at cross purposes with what our colleagues on the climate desk are doing. It’s just really complicated because it’s not just eating beef, it’s dairy. It’s everything cow related. We have definitely moved toward publishing fewer of those recipes. It’s hard for me to say whether or not that’s noticeable to readers. Once the recipes are published, and we talked about them in our newsletters and put them out on our social channels, they go into the archives. The archive is more than 20,000 recipes going back to 1981. If you [search the archive], you’ll find plenty of meat recipes. But we’re not publishing very many new ones. Somebody had pitched doing a big beautiful prime rib last Christmas; a food stylist could have made that really beautiful. And I just thought you know, we have recipes like that in the archive, we don’t need a new one. I don’t really like the idea of putting a huge photo of prime rib out there as the statement. It didn’t feel right to me. But I will say we publish mountains of chicken recipes. And climate activists would say you have to be totally vegan. I don’t know. It’s all shades of gray. And I’m afraid that was probably a meandering answer to your question, but the big picture is we’re doing less red meat, in part because we think it’s the right thing to do. And I think that’s what our readers and users want. They want to know how to eat less meat. They want to know how to eat more vegetables. They want to move toward a vegetarian diet. That’s why we launched The Veggie newsletter last year. We were noticing that people wanted good vegetarian recipes. They wanted strategies. They wanted to understand how to start to change their diets.
WWD: You’ve written about your own forays in the kitchen. Did you always like to cook?
E.W.: No. I always loved food. Always, from when I was a little kid. But I did not grow up cooking. I think a lot of my colleagues have a food origin story about their mom or their grandma. I don’t have any of that. Both of my parents worked full-time, demanding jobs and food just was not a big deal. After college, I was working at the Village Voice as a fact checker and I just happened to be assigned to fact check the restaurant column, which was written by Robert Sietsema, an amazing guy (who is now at Eater). He was doing work very much like Jonathan Gold [the late Los Angeles Times food critic]. He was all over the city, eating all kinds of food. And I was reading that work really closely week to week and talking with him about it. It was an amazing education about food in New York. And then I got hired at the Times in the Dining section. And it was really mortifying that I worked in the Dining section and never really cooked. And I’d always sort of fancied myself as somebody who probably could cook. And then finally it was like, “OK, well, this is bad.” I wanted to learn, so I’m very much taught straight out of cookbooks. And I had the great good fortune to work side by side with some of the best cookbook authors and recipe writers. When I worked at the Times early on, I worked closely with Mark Bittman, who has a real genius for recipe writing. I got connected with Dorie Greenspan, and she made a sort of baking syllabus for me. And now, 15 years later, it’s really added up and I’m quite comfortable in the kitchen and can really cook. But it totally happened in adulthood.