Brand building through storytelling

Kitchen mentor, I salute you with an upraised wooden spoon

Among the best perks of editing Chatelaine was being able to take my culinary dilemmas to a maven who knows home cooking the way Alain Ducasse knows haute cuisine—Food Editor Monda Rosenberg, since 1977 a trusted mentor, friend and kitchen confidante to millions of Canadian women (and no small number of men).

Was there a question Monda couldn’t answer? From the sure-fire cut for a juicy pot roast to the mysteries of lemongrass and sambal oelek, our legendary doyenne of the stove knew it all. She had found a multitude of tricks that slashed prep time without sacrificing taste (or, as Monda might put it, the “schmeck” factor). An ace at shaving calories and boosting fibre content, she never forgot that even the simplest meal should delight the eater. And you could count on Monda’s recipes to work: she made sure of that. I came to see that the slogan “triple-tested,” for years a point of pride in the Chatelaine kitchen, did not begin to capture the gauntlet of refinements that the peskier creations had to run while Monda stood guard with a pen and a wooden spoon.

When I started out in the magazine business, I thought of journalism as a project far too noble for anyone but so-called “word people”—the champions of truth and integrity, the experts on narrative arcs. At Chatelaine I broadened my outlook. I came to see that recipes—along with fitness programs, home decor projects and all the other components of reader service—must also have integrity if they are to connect with an audience. The narrative that animates these pages is the reader’s own life, brimful of pressures and projects. An editor-in-chief can search for years to assemble a strong service team; I had the extraordinary good fortune to inherit Monda from my predecessor, Mildred Istona, who hired her away from The Toronto Star. I’ve never had a colleague who knew her readers better than Monda.

She knew what they kept in their spice racks and tossed into their grocery carts. She knew their mealtime worries. (Would the kids eat the stir-fry? Was the stew fit for a first dinner with the in-laws?) She knew the limits of their culinary skill. When trained chefs joined Monda’s test-kitchen team, she insisted that they take a reader’s-eye view of every recipe. Readers don’t own state-of-the-art kitchenware or hundred-dollar bottles of balsamic vinegar. Readers chop their onions in uneven chunks, not the lickety-split shower of onion droplets that set the standard of success in chef school. And while the pros are deftly plating their so-called “20-minute dinners,” the average kitchen schlepper (for instance, me) has barely dispensed with the onions.

It’s often said that the art of magazine making is giving your readers what they want, not what you think they should have. That’s true but not the whole truth. When we’re really in tune with our readers, we give them what they didn’t even know they wanted–as Monda did throughout her career. Looking back on her nearly 32 years at Chatelaine, I’m struck by how adroitly she stayed just slightly ahead of her readers, making food trends inviting when they could have been simply intimidating. With Monda as your guide, why not try a recipe from the hottest take-out shop in Montreal or Vancouver?

This week Monda retires after nearly 32 years at Chatelaine. She’s earned her chance to cook whatever she wants, never mind what someone’s five-year-old will think. I wish her all the chanterelles we were not about to feature in a mass-market magazine, and an endless supply of her beloved Stinking Bishop (Britain’s most odiferous cheese). I’ll cherish the memory of our 10 years together, which on top of everything else were full of the antic humour that thrives at deadline time. Monda liked to say, “If you can’t stand the heat, come into the kitchen.” She made it the heart of the magazine. Monda, here’s to you.

I originally wrote this post for D.B. Scott’s magazine blog, where it appears in slightly different form. I’m sharing it with you because everyone who cooks has a trusted kitchen mentor. Who’s yours? I’d love to know… 


Posted by Rona

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