An Interview with Karen Barnes, Editor of “delicious” Magazine

In July 2010 a new editor arrived at the helm of the British home of the Australian food magazine delicious, published by Eye to Eye Media Limited, which was formed a year earlier as part of a management buyout, led by Seamus Geoghegan, the founder and Managing Director of Seven Publishing.

Karen Barnes had previously worked for thirteen years as the Assistant Editor of Good Housekeeping Magazine, and for six of those years she was the head of the Good Housekeeping Research Institute. This was set up 87 years ago to improve the lives of consumers and their families through education and product evaluation. In the Institute scientists, engineers, nutritionists and researchers are employed to evaluate everything from pots to stoves, face cream, jams and hot water bottles. In addition, home economists create, taste and triple check the hundreds of recipes that feature every year in the magazine.

From this bastion of consumer trust, dependability and loyalty, Karen brought with her some pivotal ideas, that I, as a subscriber to the magazine, noticed fairly soon after her arrival. In June 2011 I went to meet her at her office in Upper Ground, right next to the Thames, in Sea Containers House, to find out how she has found her first year in one of the most coveted jobs in food writing.

As we sit together near her office, I tell Karen that I still remember the words she wrote in an online interview for PR Week magazine soon after her appointment. When asked by the interviewer what her future plans for delicious magazine were, Karen replied:

“My plan is to bring more people into the magazine and more features to give it added appeal beyond the recipes. I want to introduce campaigns, bump up the health pages and make it a magazine recognised for its must-read features on issues people need to know about. I also want the magazine to tap into the zeitgeist.”

I certainly noticed, even as early on as August and September 2010, how the magazine took on a more didactic, recessionary and homely feel, whilst still managing to maintain that sense of “glamour” through its photography.

“I did not come on board at delicious with the idea of taking it all apart and doing something completely different, but I did think we needed to find more ways of encouraging and inspiring everyone to cook. The cover price of the magazine is £3.50 and for that, in a recession, people want real value for money, they want to know they will learn lots of new things, that there will be lots of reliable, seasonal recipes. They also want entertainment. I wanted delicious to be a celebration of food, to be colourful and really joyful” Karen told me.

Now with over 100 000 readers every month and over 250 000 unique visitors on their online offering,, I ask Karen how the business juggles the need to produce a very glossy, beautiful print edition every month as well as keep the online visitors interested and engaged. She replied:

“What people want from an online magazine and what they expect from a printed magazine is very different. Our website is a huge recipe bank, it is a wonderful resource of tried and tested recipes which also feature in the magazine and which we upload every month. But in the printed version we also show the full producers’ stories, we show the making of charcuterie or cheese or bread, we show readers “how to” do things, such as fillet a fish or make a sauce, we review the latest cookbooks, interview interesting chefs and cover a wider remit of “New in Store” products, food campaigns, food festivals and “Make it Special” ideas.”

The values and disciplines that formed the backbone of her Good Housekeeping career are much in evidence in her new work. On the front cover a reassuring emblem guaranteeing the reliability of the contents is printed in a circle: the word “tested” is typed six times round the circumference of the circle, and the words “delicious recipes ALWAYS WORK” sit in the middle of the circle.

There are three promises set out at the end of the table of contents: 1. Every recipe is tested rigorously. 2. Only ingredients that are easy to source and seasonal are used in the recipes. 3. Recipes are analysed for nutritional content by an expert nutritionist.

How they come to create such a unique and comprehensive body of work is fascinating. Karen tells me that there are 12 people in the team, and she and her Deputy Editor, Susan Low, look after all the editing and commissioning of new work. Once a month there is a team planning meeting, and the Editorial Assistant, Sarah Simpson, makes a list of all the major events that are due to happen during the month that is being written about.

The team has to work many months in advance, so in June they are already plotting the Christmas issue. Sarah lists all the religious festivals, food festivals, books, films, sporting events and any significant issues arising during the issue’s month. Any of those could be related to food, as food is a pivotal reference point in culture, religion, politics, economics, art and entertainment. The team sit together, normally away from the office, in a pub that plays no music (“That is very important!” said Karen) and they discuss new stories, new features and brain storm ideas.

“Having always worked in journalism I read an awful lot of other magazines, newspapers, books and Blogs, but I always try to keep delicious fresh and original. I do not want to copy or replicate what others are doing” she continues.

As the magazine has such high standards of photography I ask her how it is possible for a new photographer to get into this illustrious stable. “It is unlikely that we would give a very big feature to a brand new, untried photographer. If a food photographer sends in his or her book, or folio, we have a look through it all. If we decide we will go ahead we normally give them a small section to work on, something relatively light on props, with straightforward food and not too many shots. Then in future editions, if their work has really proven itself, we may consider giving them a more important feature.”

Which leads me on to the big question: the cover. With its foil shiny, silvery headline and its picture perfect pies, puddings, cakes, salads and ice creams I ask Karen how the team decide who gets the front slot.

“We analyse all the main body of photographs taken for each issue. The photo for the cover needs to be really stunning and uncluttered.” She points to a photo in the magazine of a very beautiful “Baked blueberry and mascarpone cheesecake” in a feature called “The Summer Pudding Hotlist” written by Silvana Franco (Consultant Food Director) and Lizzie Kamentzky ( Food Editor), photographed by Peter Cassidy, food styled by Lucy McKelvie and styling by Rachel Jukes.

“In this photograph there is a vase of roses on the top and a jug of milk where the title needs to go, and there is not enough space round the sides to include all the wording. It’s all about space, seasonality and balance. The front cover has to look perfect because it helps sell the magazine. All the shooting is done in natural light, and mood boards are drawn and written showing which accessories will be needed, which colours are going to be used and how all the themes that are running through the issue are going to connect from the very front of the magazine, all the way through to the back cover. The budget is not big, but food shots are expensive, and we have to make sure that the money we have is spent wisely.”

Karen reveals that there is a stampede in the delicious kitchens when the food editor, her deputy, Lucy Williams and the cookery assistant, Charlie Clapp, finish cooking and testing the recipes: “The results of all our cooking do not last for long!”

From the very start Karen wanted to make the magazine very accessible to all cooks, from beginners to the very advanced. At the front she set up a “Reader Panel” of three readers, of which two must be cooking for a family, and each month they provide feedback on which recipes worked best for them.

“There is so much about food that is elitist, or snobby, and I wanted to break down all the barriers to show that anyone and everyone can cook. Elitism is where things all go wrong. delicious is a magazine all about inclusivity and not exclusivity. I did worry that one month we featured lobster, and I thought that maybe people would object, but it was in season and we showed what to do with absolutely every bit of it, so there was no waste.”

There are objections, every now and then. “Recently, we did a supplement called “Meat and Two Veg” which was all about bringing men into the kitchen, and trying to get them more involved with family cooking. One reader wrote in to say how she found it “smacks of mindless sexism and sensational journalism”. Well, of course, that was not at all how we envisioned the articles to come across, but we published this comment in the “Good to hear from you” section of readers’ letters. We don’t shy away from criticism, and hide it. It’s all up front. Thankfully, most of the letters are really encouraging and positive.”

One very important point for me was how prominent a place is given to Debbie Major, Rick Stein’s home economist and the “Make it every day” writer. We have seen how in television and in many parts of the media “les femmes d’un certain age” slowly fade to the back whilst the younger fillies and models are brought to the forefront, into jobs where, quite frankly, they have neither the experience nor the skills to pass on. Debbie’s section is one of the very first I turn to for reference and inspiration: her no nonsense approach and wide ranging repertoires are exemplary. Karen agrees that having Debbie at the heart of the magazine’s didactic offering is of lynchpin importance. “In cookery, unlike showbusiness, we really appreciate wisdom, and age is irrelevant when it comes to writing recipes.”

The magazine’s advertising placement rates have remained the same since the start, even throughout the recession. From all the major and minor supermarkets, to well known food brands, cookery schools and small, private companies, there does not seem a lack of businesses who want to have their name and product showcased to this foodie audience.

“The advertising is done totally separately from the editorial, and the only time we discuss a joint initiative is if an advertiser, say a meat business, wants to do a promotion next to our meat recipes. That is very clearly marked as such, however, so that readers understand that we do not champion any one specific producer over another” Karen explains.

As the editor of one of the nation’s most important, and powerful food magazines, Karen is extremely influential in choosing which food producers are included in each issue. I asked her what small family owned artisanal food producers should do to feature in “Food Bites” section at the front or “New in store” and “Buyer’s Guide” at the back. “We take our responsibility towards all producers very seriously, but we cannot include everyone, especially those businesses who only stock their product in one farm shop in the Outer Hebrides. If a small producer writes in to us, telling us their story and the history of their product and sends us a sample, we will always look at it, test it, either here or at home, in the context of a full meal, for example, and consider it carefully. We are always interested in learning about good food producers. If the timing is not right, or we would prefer to feature that product at another time, then we will get in touch and let the producer know our intentions.”

Karen told me she works twelve hours a day, but she does have a self-imposed rule called “No Meetings Fridays” whereby she has a full working day dedicated to getting on with the actual creation of the magazine, rather than being distracted by meetings and appointments.

I asked her how she felt when she received the letter that told her that she had been chosen as the magazine’s new editor: “I thought at last I’ve got the job I’ve always wanted! I am obsessive about cooking and I always wanted to be part of this successful and beautiful magazine. A few weeks into my job I got a letter from a new reader and she told me how she bought delicious magazine at the train station, and she read it all the way through to her final destination. She said it made her train journey really relaxing, it made her laugh out loud, entertained her, informed her and inspired her. Well if we can achieve all of that, then I think we should be really proud!”

Contact Details.

Follow delicious magazine on Twitter: @deliciousmag

Follow Karen Barnes on Twitter: @deliciouseditor

Follow Lizzie Kamenetzky on Twitter: @deliciouslizzie

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