Hunter Lewis grew up in a big family in North Carolina where gathering for meals was the centerpiece of the day.
He deepened his passion for food when he moved to New York to work in some of the top restaurants in the city. Eventually he merged his love of food with his journalism skills. He became food editor at Bon Appetit, then editor of Southern Living and now, editor of Cooking Light.
Guest host Phoebe Judge talks with Lewis about his life, career and the future of food media.
Q: Your roots are in North Carolina. Your grandparents came here for an interesting job. Tell us about it.
"My grandparents were from the Bay Area in California and they came here in the 50s’ and brought my mom and my aunts. My grandfather ran the Gerber’s baby foods plant in Asheville. And it’s the same reason craft beer is big in the Asheville area now – good water."
I had fond memories as a kid. We used to golf cart around the plant and my grandfather would take all his grandkids to their favorite area of the plant. Mine was the applesauce room. It was a pretty cool thing as a kid to be in the baby foods plant."
Q: Your grandparents were around food and food was a big part of your family life. How?
"I grew up in a big extended family… and we spent every August together in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina at this four bedroom house. Everyone crammed in… and we just had these epic feasts every night. We’d come back from the beach and everybody would shower up and once you got old enough, you could be at the table and dinner would start around ten and go on and on and on until midnight. We spent hours at the table. And we’d do the same thing for the holidays. And so these big feasts, I didn’t know it at the time, but they really had an impact on me."
Q: You move from Atlanta, your birthplace, to Chapel Hill when you were in 7th grade. Your aunt and uncle lived here. And they did have a big influence in how they in how you perceived food, right?
"They were hugely influential. They took my cousin Eric and me on a big trip to Europe when we graduated from high school and that was an important time to taste food from all over Northern Europe. But way before then, my aunt Morgie had an amazing cookbook collection, and chance are the first time I was tasting something new was in her kitchen."
Q: Growing up in the 80s, what were you seeing, was this exotic cuisine only going on in your aunt’s house? It wasn’t what you were getting in most of your life, right?
"As a kid, I don’t recall eating a ton of vegetable. It wasn’t something my eyes were open to a lot later…It wasn’t until later, later that I realized how big an influence my grandmother and my aunt had on my palette and on the way that I cooked?"
Q: When you were here in Chapel Hill, that you were surrounded by what we’d think of as southern cooking or were there restaurants in Chapel Hill that were starting to integrate these global flavors?
"The global flavors where happening but it wasn’t happening on the level that it is now. Coming up through college at UNC even though I didn’t have a whole lot of background or knowledge about food, somebody like Bill Neal really loomed large on me. You know, this guy that had started Crook’s and before that, La Residence."
Q: As a kid did you know that you wanted to work in food or in journalism?
"As a kid, I thought I wanted to be an anesthesiologist until I started to take math and science, both which I was terrible at. I was good with words and I was okay at history, so once I got to Carolina, I started to pursue journalism. The food and in the interest in food was always there but I didn’t realize that until later."
Q: After college what did you do?
"After college, I met my wife Ellen at UNC and when I graduated she went to study abroad in Florence, And I delayed reality for about a year in Sun Valley Idaho. So I fished and skied and I set up wedding tents for a summer and I also worked a little grill at a place called the Saw tooth Grill… and that was a dream."
Q: You ended up in Durham working for a newspaper. What was the experience like?
"It was awesome. That was my huge foot in the door. When I moved back eat, I got a gig as a prep cook at La residence and I did that during the weekend, and during the weekend I got to cover the Tar Heels for GoHeels.com. And then I got lucky and my big break with newspapers at the weekend cops reporter for the Herald Sun and that led to a full-time job at the newspaper."
Q: You had one ritual while you were working as a cops and courts beat. You would do this before walking into jail. It involved public radio. What was it?
"I would listen to Lynne Rossetto Kasper and the Splendid Table on my way to the jail. That was the sort of moment of Zen before walking into this pretty intense place before going and sifting through the records of what happened that weekend…. Every time I hear her on the radio, I think about driving to the Durham County Jail."
Q: So you’re covering the courts and cops and you’re also writing restaurant reviews. How did you wiggle your way into restaurants reviews?
"There was a handful of us at the paper that got to write these reviews and as the former short-order cook who had more cooking experience that other folks on the paper but not nearly enough to write review, I got to write these restaurant reviews. But I knew deep down, I had no idea what I was talking about…. A buddy of mine said one day, “You know, you like this. And you’re kind of good at it. Why don’t you go to culinary school. And that really planted the seed for sort of the next step to pursue culinary school or a job in restaurants or to become a food writer."