“I am a man,” reads the print on Jim Nelson’s wall — a print situated in his Condé Nast office, where he reigns over men’s magazine GQ. The print is hard to peel one’s eyes from, and unsurprisingly, that statement seems to encompass what Nelson’s magazine is all about, as does Nelson himself.
Nelson is, quite arguably, the definition of dapper, as well as king when it comes to a cool mix of masculinity and great taste. That’s what we love about GQ isn’t it? We read it and see that there really are men out there that appreciate George Clooney’s hair evolution, Schott Leather jackets, and a beer-filled day watching the Giants play all at the same time — yes ladies, he does exist. So, in essence, we really needed to sit down with Jim Nelson, the man responsible for, well, the modern man. This is one both the ladies and gents can appreciate.
The New Potato: What would be your ideal food day?
Jim Nelson: "It always changes — I’m a creature of habit who habitually changes — but lately: coffee at the new outdoor Intelligentsia Café at the High Line Hotel. I love that gravel garden, and the coffee is great. I would read manuscripts, the Times, Huffington Post, a bunch of sites, and do email. I’d drink too many Cortados — so many that the word “cortado” no longer makes any sense. It’s just one longado.
"If I have lunch outside the office, I either go downtown to get out of midtown (I am not a fan) or go to a place like John Dory Oyster Bar or Esca.
"Everything with me is directed toward dinner with my partner. That’s one of the greatest pleasures of my life, eating out (and drinking wine!) with him and with friends. I keep an obsessive list of new places, and plan to hit every restaurant on it."
How has the publishing industry changed since you started?
"Besides the obvious ways? People talk more about it. I really wonder if the future of publishing is talking about the future of publishing.
"I never lived through the 'Golden Age of Publishing,' whatever that was. That all happened at the Four Seasons Restaurant, right? And, there were martinis and scotch and cigarettes, and never a pressing deadline, right? And, then the internet happened and disrupted the dream? Not really. I find the Golden Age thing too goldeny, too soaked in nostalgia. Those of us who have been doing print and digital and social and new platforms for a while have evolved, as have the new ones who’ve survived. We’ve become something different. We’re all doing new media or modern media, which is itself a mix of new and old and, if we’re any good, constantly vibrant.
"To me, a career in publishing has always been a forward-motion struggle, a constant churn of change and adaptation and creativity, and probably always will be and should be. And, yeah, the cycle of publishing, whether it’s hourly, daily, or monthly (nowadays, we are all of them), always has a certain stress and deadline fever to it. But, it’s also the most fun, endlessly creative stress you’ve ever had. It’s a great job."
What is good content?
"Anything vital, must-read, lively. I love stories with both substance and style. Nothing dutiful. Nothing boring. Never do a story because you think people should read it. That’s almost always a recipe for boredom. That doesn’t mean you can’t do substantive, deep reporting and journalism. It doesn’t mean you can’t do big, important stories. But, only do stories you want to read."
If you could give one piece of advice to publishers now in a tech world, what would it be?
"Invest in reporting and reporters."
What role does food play in your life?
"Food (and wine) is pretty central in my life, not just because I have a hearty appetite and a desire to have peak experiences three times a day if I can, but because it’s the easiest, most satisfying form of social interaction. Everyone’s gotta eat! Might as well make it fun."
You’ve written for food publications in the past. What’s your approach to food at GQ?
"I don’t like preciousness, and I think you really have to watch out for that in food coverage. (“The truffle was knobby, noir, scented with a fungal je ne sais quoi….”) But, food is a primary pleasure, and you want to tap into that, and zero in on the thing that makes the hunt for good food — and the pleasure of enjoying it — relatable and universal. At GQ, we try to do that, but we also have a roving curiosity with what’s new — not just for the sake of novelty, but because hunger feeds into intellect, and both always need to be replenished.
"That’s why I like Alan Richman’s writing so much, and why he’s been writing for the magazine for more than 20 years. People don’t realize: He’s not just a great food writer, he’s a dogged and curious reporter. I respect that so much."
As EIC of the magazine that’s the authority on men, what’s one thing you would say the majority of women don’t know about men?
"That we are more emotional than we are generally assumed to be. It’s just that we don’t always know how to talk about it, access it, and articulate it. But, we definitely feel it."
How would you define your own personal style?
"I grew up going to vintage stores and loved scouring the racks. While nowadays I don’t spend a lot of time at Salvation Army, I still love the fashion that comes from respect for what’s been discarded. I like to mix a little retro into almost every outfit, whether it’s a new form of retro or something actually well worn. There’s a comfort level with that, and I just find it mixes well. You end up looking like you’re dressing from a versatile wardrobe — that your wardrobe has a deep bench."
If you could switch closets with one person in the world, who would it be?
"I think I’d like to raid Band of Outsiders’ designer Scott Sternberg’s closet."
What’s a trend you simply don’t get?
"I cannot wear suspenders without looking like a German barista."
Where do you travel for inspiration?
"I travel madly, probably too frequently for most people’s sanity, but it keeps me going. I always love to discover new places because why else travel? But, I do have places that constantly rejuvenate me. Barcelona and San Sebastian, Spain for food, and Tokyo for style. I love Asia and wish it wasn’t so damn far. But, then it wouldn’t be Asia!"
What won’t you travel without?
"I can’t live without music. Unfortunately that usually means music with an elaborate speaker system that is way too heavy. When I moved to Madrid for a while in the '90s, I only brought two gigantic suitcases and 162 CDs, in their jewel boxes. I was the least practical packer in the Iberian peninsula."
Your afternoon snack?
"I don’t really snack too much. I want to be hungry at dinner. If I snack, it’s usually fruit."
What are your favorite New York and Los Angeles restaurants?
"In New York, I love the places with innovative chefs behind them that constantly rethink their menus, and yet are relaxed and not precious. I love Momofuku Ssam, Hearth, Battersby, Marlow & Sons, Tía Pol, Esca, Gramercy Tavern, Blue Hill, Degustation, and Charlie Bird. Lately, I’m finding myself drawn to Japanese omakase — places like Kura and Brushstroke. I like the element of surprise and the interaction with the chef. Other times, that’s too much and I find myself going back to the constancy of Italian comfort food.
"L.A. has become a much more interesting food (and coffee!) town. I’m a big fan of the Animal guys and also of Suzanne Goin. I’ll always follow what they’re doing. The Tasting Kitchen and Gjelina in Venice are so good — damn them for being so good and so close to each other! I’ve been spending a lot of time getting to know downtown L.A. I love Baco Mercat, Alma, and Bestia. For late night, I’ve been liking Red Medicine. When I lived in L.A. in the late '80s and early '90s, all the restaurants closed at 9 p.m. Thank god that’s no longer the case."
What restaurant would you send a man to as the perfect first date spot?
What’s the biggest dinner party faux pas?
"Photographing every dish, looking at your cell phone, and talking endlessly about yourself."
If you could host a dinner party, with any five people living or dead, who would be there?
"Ai Weiwei (a brilliant artist whose spirit not even house arrest or Chinese security goons can quash; I just want to get that guy out of China), Tom Waits (I want to see what he’s like while eating), Neil Young (he’d probably just snarl at the table, but it’d be an awesome snarl), David Chang (always fun, with a lively mind; plus, he can talk for two people), Vladimir Putin (so I can poison him)."