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04 March 2014

Karen Barnes, food journalist

Karen Barnes, food journalist

Karen Barnes is editor of delicious. magazine, her dream job, which she describes as the perfect combination of creativity, satisfaction and good things to eat. 

How did you get to be editor of delicious.?
When I left university, cooking wasn't on-trend as it is now so it didn't occur to me that I might one day earn a living as a food journalist. I began as a PA for a publishing/training organisation but moved on to the editorial side as soon as the opportunity arose. The publishing arm of the company was sold – frustrating at the time but ultimately good as it made me take a leap into the broader world of journalism. Next it was a computer magazine (all men; the smokiest office you can imagine) before moving on to weekly women's magazines which, at the time, were selling over a million copies a week and making eye-watering profits. By 26 I became chief sub-editor and then moved on to sub-edit Good Housekeeping magazine. I began to oversee the lifestyle pages (fashion, beauty, homes, food) and edit GH's one-off food magazines, which led neatly on to delicious.

Is it a glamorous job?
It depends how you define glamour. In my last job I had several pairs of high heels under my desk (a scary thought as I'm already 5ft 11in tall), and it was commonplace to walk through a lobby full of models coming for castings. We were often asked to test designer beauty products that cost upwards of £60 a pot. At delicious. I'm relieved to say the dress code is more relaxed – unless I'm out and about. If you work on our food team, developing the recipes, it's a physical job – hours spent testing recipes in our open-plan test kitchen – so clogs are more suitable footwear than Jimmy Choos.

On the more glamorous side I do go to a fair few restaurant openings, new product and book launches, PR agent meetings judge competitions, do interviews with chefs and food producers (sometimes in muddy fields, mind you). I get to know both up-and-coming and established chefs. Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I'm paid to do something I enjoy so much, even though it is very demanding.   

What's your favourite thing about your job?
Sitting down with my team – 10 very different personalities, all full of ideas – then putting together an issue of the magazine. I always have about 40 more pages of ideas than I have room for in a particular issue, and the satisfaction comes from crafting that into a mix that's as balanced and all-round-appealing as I can make it. I also love developing a close, loyal team – spotting talent and watching people develop as journalists. That's rewarding.   

Does your job involve a lot of eating?
In a word: yes! I taste about three-quarters of the 70-plus recipes that go into the magazine each month. We test every recipe at least twice, and everyone in the company is invited to taste the food that comes out of the kitchen – it's vital to get feedback. The office is full of aromas – wonderful when the team are baking cakes or cooking bacon; not so good when they're frying mackerel. Apart from recipe-tasting, I have to go to a lot of meetings, which usually involve food. But I do a lot less lunching than I used to. It took me a while to distinguish the crucial-to-do from the just-nice-to-do. I avoid business-related three-course meals wherever possible. 8am breakfast is the best meeting-meal of the day (one course; one hour; no alcohol!). 

As an editor, you must be a grammar pedant?
Before I was an editor I was a chief sub-editor, so grammar and good English were my job. I'm obsessive about well-crafted language, and I love a good grammar argument (sad but true). I think the written word should be lyrical. Reading it aloud is a technique that immediately brings any awkward sentence construction to light – and exposes the missing rhythm in the words.   

Any upcoming trends in food that you could tip us off on?
Vietnamese, Brazilian, proper barbecued food; kale, sprouts, cauliflower (previously so unsexy; now very sexy!), Middle Eastern spicing – and, of course, the obsession with baking continues. Sourdough is the new cupcake.

Is the magazine industry an easy one to be a Christian in?
A good journalist never takes things at face value, which is vital, but means cynicism can creep in as part of the package. I try to guard against that. In today's fast-paced, hugely competitive online world, where a story can gather pace in minutes, it's increasingly common for attention-grabbing stories to take precedence over proper fact-checking, no matter who's upset in the process. Now I'm lucky enough to edit my own magazine, journalistic integrity is central to everything we do – even though it's not particularly fashionable. In the office, my approach is calm, firm and fair. Gossip is destructive and makes an unhappy place to work. Confidentiality is an absolute rule of mine. I've been described as an iron fist in a velvet glove (like a good pinot noir!)… Is that a good thing? I hope so. 

Advice to someone hoping to get into magazines?
These days you need a degree and, usually, a post-graduate in journalism. Read a lot to develop your language skills, and read magazines and newspapers obsessively - think about what makes a feature work well. Once you start work experience, however menial the task, do it with a smile on your face and go the extra mile. Be daring, come up with ideas and be bold about suggesting them. Even if they don't like the ideas, they will remember your nerve. And never underestimate the power of making a good cup of tea!

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