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Chris Cusack, Benjy Mason and David Leftwich Discuss New Magazine Sugar and Rice

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From left to right: Leftwich, Cusack and Mason
From left to right: Leftwich, Cusack and Mason
Photo courtesy of Sugar and Rice

Down House/D&T Drive Inn partners Chris Cusack, Joey Treadway and Benjy Mason have recruited local food enthusiast (and former book editor) David Leftwich to launch Sugar and Rice: a quarterly magazine devoted to telling long-form stories about the Gulf Coast food scene. Cusack told Chronicle critic Alison Cook that the goal is to sell subscriptions, and that it won't be a heavy-handed way to promote the group's businesses. In the interview below, they discuss their reasons for starting the magazine, their anticipated audience and respond to the inevitable Lucky Peach comparisons.

How long have you been working on Sugar and Rice?

Chris: We had the idea for this about a year ago. It was September, we've been working on it since then in one form or another. It's a lot different than restaurants and bars obviously, and so we kind of decided we wanted to take our time with it and make sure that we did it as well as we could. And I think you know David was the part of that that really made it work so we're really glad that we're all working together on it.

Did you have an idea for a magazine and then bring David in at some point?

Chris: I mean yes is the short answer to that. We feel like Houston and the Gulf Coast is a really good place to be right now, and it's a really interesting place to be and traditional media can have a lot of limitations . No matter what kind of writer or journalist that you talk to you. (When) we say, "have you ever had a story idea that you tried to pitch to the editor and they said uh that's not going to fit, that doesn't work right now or one reason or another." Being able to be in front of or along side the conversations that we want to have is really cool, and, because of the structure of the publication, I think we have to face fewer of those limitations.

Benjy: And it came about at a time where we were talking a lot about what we were, what our goals were with the restaurant. As we were talking more and sort of realizing that we're not trying to do everything the same way that everyone has already been doing it; there's this psyche of putting our values into the restaurant and growing based on those. We started looking at everything we were doing. The other part (was) we started talking about how the things that we were doing were represented in the media and realizing we're spending this money on PR in one form or another and (realizing) there are much more interesting ways to do that than like trying to get on the Top 10 list. There were much more interesting stories to be told. That was kind of what it grew out of.

Is this sort of an extension of your PR where you're not particularly concerned with it making money?

Chris: We want it to be self-sustaining, like everything we do, I think part of the fun challenge of it is "let's stick to what our values are and make it make some business sense. " I don't know if I, I think it may have started in some ways as like, as the desire to participate in conversations that we were more excited about. In terms of PR, I don't see it as a megaphone for Down House, D&T or our other restaurants at all.

Benjy: I think the real point is the whole notion of the way people do PR now is not that interesting to us. And so rather than thinking of this as PR, it was what could we do to tell these stories

David: I think we are all kind of on the same that its very narrative, story-driven. I mean, we all know that food and all the components that go into it from the ingredients, to the farmers, to the purveyors, to the chefs, to the fisherman, to the people who end up eventually eating it, all have stories to tell. Te story of food is the story of humanity, and humanity tells a lot of stories through food. It's just such an essential part, and that there's just so many stories that can be told, especially in Houston right now. Just trying to find ways to give an outlet for those stories and find different ways to tell those stories and give different people who want to tell those stories more time and room to do that: to give a bigger picture story than they would (in other outlets).

With the fact that it's quarterly, we're not on like as tight a deadline, the authors can stretch their legs a little bit and tell some longer stories. It also gives us (access to) another kind of non-traditional people who aren't necessarily writers an opportunity to tell their own story in whatever way they see fit. Whether that's in photos or weird sci fi visions; whatever it may turn out to be as their way of telling their story about what they're doing within food and culture you know, we're open to that.

Do you have the pieces for the first issue together at this point?

David: We have them lined up, and they're starting to come in. Its not by any means done, but everything is lined up and now it's just a matter of getting the pieces together and getting people to get everything to us and get it laid out.

How long are they, approximately?
David: The stories are ranging from anywhere from 5-6,000 word to 800 words. There's a range. There's at least one photo essay in this issue for sure and maybe more.

Do you have a sense of like who your readers are going to be? Or have people started talking about it?

Benjy: I think what we're trying to do with this sort of more expansive vision, is recognizing that what's happening now and what people and foodies are excited about now doesn't exist in a vacuum and didn't come out nowhere. There are roots to these things. There are these bigger stories to be told. And I think that's something that's interesting to a pretty wide audience. I bumped into a guy I know who is a history professor at UH, and he was really excited about it and really wanted to talk about it. He was talking about how there's a food studies program at UH and part of what they realize is that food and communities are so closely tied (to each other) and food is a way to talk about a lot of pretty complex issues. You don't have to be a foodie to be interested in the stories that we're telling in the magazine.

David: Food is just such an interesting place. Obviously, we're all involved with it every single day, three or more times a day depending on how often you eat and how much coffee you drink and how much beer you drink. And it's a place where culture, technology, nature all these thing all come together every day. All those kind of different stories that radiate out from that could be of different interest to different people outside just the food community

What pieces in the first issue are you most excited about?

Benjy: There are very few pieces in the first issue that we're not super excited about.

David: We're all pretty excited about it.

Chris: I've always been from the beginning of the idea I think Gene's story on Topo Chico's is the one I'm really most looking forward to at the moment. We're sending Gene Morgan down to Mexico via bus to visit Topo Chico plants. There's a Topo Chico mountain that the whole thing is based on. A lot of people in Texas drink it, and I think a lot of people (think) this is just this weird Mexican soda water and you don't really think about it too much beyond that. And I think it would be really cool if we could find out a little more about this company.

David: I said before we're working with P.J. Stoops. There's Casey Fleming who's going to be writing on some of the dive bars she went to when she was kind of becoming a woman, like growing up, you know?

Do you have a subscription target. For example, if you reach 500 subscribers by the first issue or some other goal?
Chris: Short answer, no. I want people to enjoy it, and our thing was let's make the first issue. Let's really focus on the experience of reading the issue and get it done. I'm sure after seeing where the chips lie we'll be able to start coming up with more tangible goals.

Benjy: We discussed that in this age if you're going to do print media it needs to be something that's an object in and of itself, otherwise why not just do it online.

Chris: I anticipate a pretty serious amount of growth, especially after the first issue comes out, but not having to adhere to very specific numbers right now makes it easier for us to be like lets get it done and you if we need to do a second printing or something like that, that would be an option.

You said when you were talking to Alison that you're benchmarking Lucky Peach and Swallow. What elements from those magazines do you think you'll draw upon for Sugar & Rice?

Chris: She asked me if there were magazines that we used as inspiration, and I said it would be really difficult for anyone not to draw the comparison to Lucky Peach because they're also a restaurant group that started a magazine, and I think that Lucky Peach is really cool and as much as its really fun, its creative, and it doesn't kind of follow the traditional format that food magazines have. (But) there's very little that I think that we would have directly in common with Lucky Peach.

There's a lot of food celebrity in the nature of Lucky Peach because David Chang is David Chang and he's good friend with Mario Batali and?

David: It's very celebrity chef driven.

Chris: And I don't know any of those people. Rich (Richard Knight) is the most famous chef that I know.

Benjy: Yeah, and I know some farmers.

Chris: Yeah we know a lot of farmers and ranchers.

Benjy: I thought it was a cool collaboration with the McSweeney's and I always felt like Lucky Peach was much smarter than most food magazines . Like, there's a certain intellectual base behind it, and I think maybe in that way there's some similarity.

David: I mean there's a lot of this like "hi, look at me, I'm David Chang and I know everybody." I mean, there's that aspect to it.

Chris: I think that's one thing that Lucky Peach does best is handle media, and they're exceptionally good at it.

David: I think ours wont be quite nearly as focused on individual chefs.

Benjy: Until it gets successful and then we know lots of famous people.

Chris: Then we're going to sell out.

50 bucks for four issues.

David: That's a thing too that I think we haven't really touched is we're really hoping to have an interesting visual aspect to it. Since it is going to be print, one of the places where print can still separate itself is there's still some really cool stuff design wise if you can do in print. And I feel like if you're going to have a print magazine anymore its go to have that aspect. It's got to be a tangible, kind of cool. Otherwise, you know?. I can look at anything that's white with black text.

Benjy: In that way, you were asking about similarities, I think we were super impressed by Swallow. Have you seen the magazine? It is nuts.

Chris: The physical magazine they put out is unreal. I mean the first thing out of my mouth when I picked it up after five seconds I was like this is the best looking magazine I've ever seen, I mean it's unreal.

Benjy: I ordered them online and I was like $30 for a magazine? And then it came and I was like oh shit this is definitely awesome. We gave it to our graphic designers, and they're print nerds who flipped out over it. They were, like, oh my god, stuff that I would never have known because I just don't know. They were just, like, look at this there's a fifth color on every page. I don't know what that means, but (they said) this color right here is not a normal print color.

Is there anything else you want people to know about the magazine?

Chris: One big thing that we want to do that I think will be fun is we want to have weird and cool events associated with each issue launch. It's funny to look at guest lists sometimes when you see what kind of people are there, and I think a lot of times are very indicative of their readership or what kind of culture they're trying to create. Our guests are farmers and ranchers and bartenders people like that. I think they're going to be really interesting events that are going to be a lot of fun.

So if you write about a farm you may have a dinner at the farm that promotes that issue?

Benjy: Or maybe not a dinner, maybe we want like a rave; like a farm rave. You can print that.

As long as there are hay rides.

· Sugar and Rice [Facebook]
· Down House Brain Trust, Leftwich to Launch New Food Mag [29-95]