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Gourmet Launches A Moveable Feast

Even the most confident cooks want guests to come back for more. Less than a year after shuttering Gourmet magazine, Conde Nast is serving up seconds.

Rather than returning to newsstands and thick print magazines with lush covers of lobster rolls in July, Gourmet charted anew course and will only be available on Apple’s iPad. The food world's best-known brand has moved from the page to the screen.

Michael Wolf
Courtesy Photo
Michael Wolf

The application, Gourmet Live, is a collaboration between publishing giant Conde Nast and Activate, a media and digital consulting firm founded by Michael Wolf, the former President and COO of Viacom’s MTV network. Once known as “Dr. Entertainment” for his track record as a corporate consultant to large media brands, Wolf has paired up with blogging entrepreneur Anil Dash to provide tech consulting to entertainment companies.

“There has never been a more exciting time,” says Wolf, about today’s media industry, as he focuses on digital strategies for revamping formerly staid print publications into multi-platform brands. Activate’s vision for Gourmet — the first culinary publication to be built into an application — is a digital magazine featuring striking food photography and long-form reporting, as well as interactivity and social networking.

The application is currently available as a free download from the iTunes’ store. Users scroll from a tiled table of contents of new material each week and gain “rewards” or access to additional content based on what they read. Clicking on a Thanksgiving-themed recipe for butternut squash soup with apple matchsticks and bacon (even on a day dedicated to poultry, everything’s better with bacon) opens two new holidays menus, catering to varying difficulty levels. Cooks can save recipes to personal files, share with friends or accrue gaming points for later rewards as the content develops.

iPad Gourmet App
Source: magazine
iPad Gourmet App

And, the device itself may be changing cooks’ behavior in the home kitchen — when changing the font on a recipe can be done with a finger swipe or a grocery order placed with another swipe. Wolf hopes that Gourmet Live ushers in a new role for mobile applications as “another kitchen appliance, along with your turkey baster."

It’s about striking the balance between Gourmet’s 68-year legacy as “the magazine of good living” and providing content in ways native to the iPad device, he says. “We thought about how people would use Gourmet if it was created today.”

"We are definitely remembering Gourmet magazine for the wonderful history that it had," says the app’s content producer Kelly Senyei. "Gourmet Live is something entirely new."

“Whenever I get married, I start buying Gourmet magazine,” writer and film director Nora Ephron wrote in the 1970s.

“Gourmet was one of the food bibles of the 20th century,” says Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, the non-profit organization that promotes the culinary arts and hosts the annual James Beard Awards for restaurants, chefs and writers — akin to the Oscars of the food industry.

Gourmet’s publication began in January 1941, when the first cover featured a holiday dish of boar’s head. Long before 24-hour food channels and even before Julia Child hit public television, Gourmet appealed to the aspirational home cook and the growing sub-culture of sophisticated urbanites anxious to know the best Venetian café for tiramisu or to experiment with increasingly global ingredients. In its nascent days during World War II, founding publisher Earle MacAusland urged readers to save the magazines and try complex recipes, once wartime rationing of staple kitchen ingredients ended.

Inspired by Gourmet’s photo spreads and coverage of refined dining and travel, fans were so loyal that subscriptions postwar inspired hoarding. It was the kind of magazine that “people kept in their libraries, like National Geographic," says Ungaro. Ephron’s essay about her “personal brides’ disease” dated the length of her first marriage by the month, corresponding exactly to piles of Gourmet back issues.

When Conde Nast, owned by private company Advance Publications and publisher of dozens of American magazines, ceased printing Gourmet in 2009, it was the grand dame of the industry. As editor in chief from 1999 to 2009, former restaurant critic Ruth Reichl inspired her own consumer following with four best-selling memoirs and several public television shows.

Totaladvertising pages declined 46 percent in the last year on the newsstand, and circulation was just under one million readers.

Post-mortems on the demise of Gourmet filled both old and new media, written by editors of competing food publications and even best-selling novelist Ann Patchett, who wondered in The Wall Street Journal if her — and, presumably, other contributors' — zeal for covering stories in pricey locales around the globe broke the bank.

Wolf acknowledges the difficulty in resurrecting a brand with such a powerful identity.

The “magazine played a big role in my life growing up. My father still has every issue going back to the '60s,” he says. “Our goal is to bring quality magazine content to the digital application.”

Traditional cookbook sales are up nearly 5 percent this year, according to Publisher’s Weekly. And the foodie culture shows no signs of slowing down, from the profusion of free recipe blogs to chef competition shows on cable.

Wolf hopes consumer excitement over the iPad will attract new and younger consumers to the kitchen. He expects to offer Gourmet Live’s fresh and legacy content for pay a la carte, rather than a flat subscription fee. On the menu: small “snacks” of video, menu-planning applications, as well as articles from Gourmet and content partners Eater.com and SeriousEats.com.

Other offerings from Conde Nast titles like The New Yorker and Wired, have single-issue download fees. In Wired’s first day on iTunes, 24,000 downloads were sold for $4.99 each.

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