The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The mysterious demise of Lucky Peach magazine and its uncertain future

Two issues of Lucky Peach magazine. The publication will fold, editor Peter Meehan confirmed. (Joe Yonan / The Washington Post)

This story has been updated.

Lucky Peach’s death, like the food magazine’s existence, was chaotic, original and unpredictable. No one saw it coming — until they did.

Eater’s Amanda Kludt was the first to break the story on Tuesday, although the full extent of the news wouldn’t be known until Wednesday, when Peter Meehan, co-founder of Lucky Peach with multinational chef and restaurateur David Chang, confirmed the demise of the groundbreaking, genre-bending quarterly journal with an editor’s note written in the style of a parent telling the kids about an imminent divorce.

Your mom and I have been meaning to talk to you for a while. But there sometimes comes a time in a publication’s life where … jeez, this is difficult. Puberty usually only equals death for caterpillars … and sometimes food magazines.

Lucky Peach’s death will be a protracted, long-suffering one, with friends and relatives gathering on Twitter to say their goodbyes to the reigning James Beard Award winner for Publication of the Year. Meehan wrote that the “last regular issue” — themed “the Suburbs” — will hit the stands in May but also noted the magazine won’t turn its toes up until a “crazy double issue” in the fall. The publication’s last book, “All About Eggs,” will be published on April 4.

The staff, at least those still there, will apparently get the ax before the double issue hits newsstands. Eater reported that staffers were told on Monday that their jobs would end in May. When I emailed Meehan, he responded by saying that “most of want [sic] ms. kludt scooped is correct but not all.” He didn’t specify what information was inaccurate. Meehan did not return repeated follow-up emails and voicemails.

Nobody seemed to see Lucky Peach’s demise coming —at least among those outside the magazine. Two freelancers told me they were blindsided. But perhaps there were clues we missed. For example: In the winter issue about Los Angeles, Chris Ying, the founding editor-in-chief, was listed as “editor-at-large.” There was no mention of an editor-in-chief at all on the masthead. Then on March 2, Ying launched a quirky column for the San Francisco Chronicle called All Consuming, which promises to review the eateries that most critics ignore in the Bay Area.

In the same winter issue, Rupa Bhattacharya was listed as senior editor. But on her LinkedIn profile, Bhattacharya notes that she left the magazine in November, a full five months ago. I found Bhattacharya’s cellphone number in a database and cold-called her. She said she couldn’t talk. I asked if she had signed a non-disclosure agreement. She said she couldn’t talk and wished me well on my story. She was exceedingly polite. She also couldn’t get off the phone fast enough.

David Chang also rebuffed my inquiries. The man behind the Momofuku empire apologized via email but said he was “remaining on the sidelines,” the place where you find water boys, not superstar chefs with a reputation for fearlessness. Chang hoped that I understood.

The thing is, I don’t understand. I don’t understand how a beloved and pioneering periodical suddenly goes belly up, particularly when the niche magazine industry is holding its own in a rapidly evolving market. (At the time of its death notice, Lucky Peach claimed a press run of more than 74,000 copies, of which more than 90 percent was paid.) Naturally, when there is an information void — as there is here — people will start to fill it with speculation, wild or otherwise. I won’t deign to repeat the speculation here.

(After all their stonewalling, both Meehan and Chang spoke with the New York Times. Meehan blamed the magazine’s demise on creative differences with Chang as well as their differing opinions on financing the publication. Chang told the paper that he and his Momofuku company, which own a majority of Lucky Peach, are searching for financial partners to keep the magazine alive.)

Todd Kliman, the former food critic for the Washingtonian who has written for Lucky Peach, said he recently spoke to Ying about a couple of possible pieces for the magazine. “This came as news to me,” said Kliman, who won a James Beard Award last year for a story in Lucky Peach. “I didn’t know anything about it.”

Neither did Lucky Peach contributor Kevin Pang, the Beard-winning food editor for the Onion’s A.V. Club. “No clue,” Pang wrote via email. “I just spoke to Peter a few weeks ago and everything sounded fine. I’m still in denial, to be honest.”

So who owns Lucky Peach and its name going forward? It seems an important question should Lucky Peach continue to publish books or consider a second life. Problem is, the answer is not clear. The magazine debuted in 2011 as a co-publication between Lucky Peach and McSweeney’s, the San Francisco-based publishing house. But two years later, Lucky Peach’s founders announced they were going solo.

In its 2016 “statement of ownership, management and circulation,” which the U.S. Postal Service requires annually to qualify for a periodical mailing rate, the magazine lists its owner, simply, as “Lucky Peach.” Meehan is listed as publisher and editor; Chang’s name does not appear anywhere. But if you look at the magazine’s “terms of use” page on its website, it notes that Lucky Peach “and all related marks are trademarks of MomoIP LLC,” which looks to be the legal name for Chang’s Momofuku restaurant group.

Regardless of ownership breakdown, Lucky Peach’s co-founders — Meehan, Chang and Ying are the trio often mentioned —created one of the most original publications in the food-writing business, breaking free from breathless, aspirational, lifestyle-oriented formats of earlier magazines. Lucky Peach could be crude. It could be scholarly. It featured serious recipes, tongue-in-cheek smackdowns, fiction stories, brilliant graphics and long-form narratives rarely seen since the heyday of the New Yorker. Lucky Peach was, in short, unpredictable no matter what theme it tackled that quarter.

Both Kliman and Pang are already ruing the magazine’s imminent demise.

“Food journalism before Lucky Peach was mostly homogenous, boring and cliche-riddled, and they came along and spoke in a language that made many say, ‘hell yeah,’ ” wrote Pang via email. “Casual observers might think Lucky Peach differentiated itself with brash prose and F-bombs, but it had the sharpest journalistic sensibility. I worked on a story about the state of prison food, where the editing session could be described as ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ but the resulting piece was the proudest story I’ve ever written.”

Kliman, a frequent contributor to magazines, said Lucky Peach was that rare periodical that let writers be writers, rather than the puppets of a dominant editor.

“Anybody who cares about writing, let alone food writing, should be disheartened. This is one of the few places left anymore that lets writers write and cares about language,” Kliman said in a phone interview. “It was unslick, and I think that was the driving thing for Chang: something that didn’t feel slick and focus-grouped.”