TEXT BY SOPHIA JENNINGS ('16), CREATIVE DIRECTOR
IMAGE BY RUBY LANG ('17), STAFF ILLUSTRATOR (ABROAD)
It must be something to walk into a bar with James Cury (’89).
First thing he’ll notice is the ambiance. What's it look like? How’s the lighting? Where do you sit? And the staff? Are they friendly? Can we get a menu?
Access to the bartender is key. “That’s how you get context,” he says. “You’ll know if this is farm to table, or a sports bar.” If it’s a sports bar then you shouldn’t be there in the first place. “Not for cocktails at least.”
Then he’ll have to read the drinks menu. What are the main ingredients? Vodka? Gin? Bourbon?
And right when you think he’s done, he’ll start counting the ingredients.
“If they have cheesy names or more than five ingredients then I get very suspect,” he says. “I’m looking for a simplicity that’s still very clever.”
A New York native, Mr. Cury is the current Digital Director of Details Magazine and a former editor at Maxim, Epicurious, Time Out New York, and Playboy.com. He co-founded The Webby Awards, wrote The Playboy Guide to Bachelor Parties, and, for those who aren't sold yet, calls dinner with Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction a recent highlight of his career.
On the day of our meeting, I arrive at One World Trade Center 13 hours before Hurricane Joaquin, the wind flipping my umbrella backwards. “Is it raining?” Mr. Cury asks. “I haven’t been outside all day.”
By Friday at 3:30 pm, I’m his 11th meeting of the day. On Tuesday, he stayed up until two in the morning relaunching the Details website. On Thursday, he interviewed alternative rock band The Neighbourhood. Tonight, he’ll go to The New Yorker Festival with his wife, his mother, and her partner.
But right now, he’s leading me to the 35th floor cafe where he asks for a chocolate chip cookie. He has one every day.
Majoring in Psychology and Art History at Wesleyan, Cury was a WESU DJ who liked the record store on Main Street and concerts at Eclectic. Upon graduation, he moved to San Francisco andstarted covering punk culture in the East Bay for BAM Magazine, later working as the Music Editor for FAD and MODA magazines, none of which exist today. He interviewed musicians like The Jesus & Mary Chain, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Dave Navarro, and Elvis Costello. His most memorable? Joan Jett, right after the murder of Mia Zapeta.
While in San Francisco, he got a job writing for MacWEEK to pay the bills. This was 1989. The first year of the Gameboy. Four years before the internet launched. Prior to writing in San Francisco, Cury had never even owned a computer. “Later, as a copy editor at PC Computing magazine, I remember having to decide if World Wide, as in “World Wide Web," was two words or one,” he says. This was also the first time he had an email address.
After seven years, Cury moved back to New York with his brother Peter, convincing their landlord they had “real jobs” through phony letters from friends at magazines. “We were so naive and so optimistic that it turned into us actually getting jobs,” he says.
It was then that Cury began writing for Entertainment Weekly, covering technology in music and film. “We still think that internet culture and the web is wild west, but it was really wild west back in 1997,” he says. “And not something that every magazine included.” One Cury article I found was “Mouse-keteer: Guess what? Britney Spears wants to conquer the web, too.” Some highlights include “On her first time Online…,” “On nude pic rumors…,” and “Click Me Baby One More Time.”
At the same time he wrote articles for Rolling Stone such as “Digital Music Gold Rush Confuses Customers” and “From CBGB to MP3” as well as interviews with Quincy Jones, Willie Nelson, and They Might Be Giants. “I was no longer writing about tech for tech’s sake,” he says. “I was now writing about how tech was being used by artists.”
In 2000, Cury became the first employee to write daily online content for Playboy.com. There he wrote about food, drink, gadgets, and gear or, as he says, “everything but the sexy stuff.” Some of his articles include a Q&A with Anthony Bourdain and a series on America’s Best Bartenders.
“I didn’t position myself as a men’s magazine writer but that’s where the opportunity was,” he says. “I wasn’t very good, at hobnobbing or marketing myself. Shmoozing. I was averse to that.” He just liked to write and review.
So Cury was having fun. With an office at 5th avenue and 58th Street, he remembers Playboy rooftop parties with artists among the likes of Chris Noth, Jay Z, and Betsey Johnson. “The only person I could never talk to was Hef himself. He had a velvet rope around him the whole time,” he says.
While writing for Playboy, Cury pitched articles to Time Out New York. “I started noticing high-end restaurants using beef jerky, which back then was new.” After the article, Cury left Playboy for a food writer position. “I was not a chef, not a cook, not an ingredient-savvy guy, but I was a restaurant-savvy guy,” he says. “I knew how to go out and pay for dinner.”
For four years, Cury worked his way up from writer to editor of the section, taking over the “Booze Clues” Column, introducing longer restaurant reviews, and the star system. “I’ve never immersed myself in the content as much as those four years,” he says. “All I was thinking about was New York-specific food and drink.”
At this point we begin comparing Bay Area foodies versus New York foodies. In the Bay Area, we decide, food is spiritual and visceral. It’s about the ingredients, the chef, and the recipe you take home. In New York, foodies are interested in the aesthetic of the dish and the theater of going out. Hence the city produces food fanatics like Cury who don’t actually cook.
“I really thought I had to be up on every restaurant,” he says, describing how he’d stop cabs passing restaurants he didn't know.“I think I technically have OCD. How about just neurotic New York Jew?”
His average week consisted of five restaurant visits. “I didn’t think it was fair for our reviewer to just go once and write about a place,” he says. “So I made it a requirement that I also visit.” This was, as Cury pointed out, a perk. “Instead of being paid well I could basically eat wherever I wanted.”
Eventually leaving Time Out for Epicurious, Cury was laid off from the site in a series of staff reductions. “I was kind of mad. I was also ambitious.” Doing as any upset journalist does, he left Conde Nast and got a job at their biggest competitor, Hearst. Then came Maxim, then Details, back at Conde Nast.
Today, I ask how Details compares to other men's magazines like GQ or Esquire. He pauses. "It's a luxury lifestyle brand and it’s a little more self-consciously vain."
“Our health side is about looking good,” he says. “’Guys don’t have to just have soap and shampoo, they can have options and they should know about these options.”
But these days his main focus is video. “My challenge is to come up with content that people will come to us for,” he says. “I’m thinking of 15-second Instagram videos as much as anything.”
For those of us seniors looking to write, Cury has some advice. First, you have to be persistent. “If somebody doesn't answer you, email them again,” he says. “Maybe after five tries give up”. Then, try to add some personality to your writing, lose all your “throughout history” academic rhetoric.
Lastly, remember it’s a numbers game. “Your job is to send X amount of emails to X amount of people until you land the job you want,” he says. “Remember, it isn’t that the people who work the hardest are the luckiest. It’s the people that work the hardest are prepared for when the opportunity arises.”
After an hour which the writer compares to therapy, I thank Cury and race to Grand Central for the 5:45pm back to New Haven. On the train I write up my notes: gadgets, East Bay punk bands, cocktails, New York restaurants.
The only thing connecting them all? They are things Cury loves. His career path was never about following the market, it was simply about surrounding himself with his favorite hobbies all the time.
Which, he points out, “is lifestyle through and through.”
MORE FROM JAMES OLIVER CURY
I’m proudest of my first New York Times book review. And even prouder when they asked me to write a few more.
My favorite artists in my 20s/30s were Jawbreaker, Stooges, Dinosaur Jr, Dwarves, Guided By Voices, Replacements, Hank Williams, Dillinger Four, Crimpshrine, David Bowie, Rancid, Jesus Lizard
My favorite new discovery is Czech sneaker brand Botas 66. I bought a pair in Prague a few weeks ago.
I used to love SPY Magazine. It was almost like a parody of pop culture. Like a more mature National Lampoon with more cartoons. They made fun of society in big ways. They were the first people to say, “oh the people were loathsome” and then just show the ugliest photo of the person on the cover and your jaw would just drop at what they got away with. I’m sure they got sued a lot. But it was all print.
Last night I saw Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists, and then watched Bob Mankoff, Roz Chast and a few other cartoonists discuss their creative process on stage. It made me want to draw cartoons.
My favorite lunch spot when I lived in Nolita was Bread restaurant on Spring Street. I loved their imported Sicilian tuna sandwich. All I eat now is salads in the cafeteria. No one has time for outside lunches.
My favorite dinner is my wife's Polish-style chicken soup (AKA Rosół).
The best advice I’ve received is fake it 'til you make it.
My local joint right now is Pete's Candy Store in Williamsburg. They've got live music, spelling bees, spoken-word sessions, open-mic night. And Brooklyn Lager on tap.
My favorite Sunday brunch is lox (salty) and bagels (everything) with tomatoes, onions, chives, cream cheese, and capers. Ideally with family and a place to nap nearby.
My favorite artists as a teen were Elvis Costello, The Jam, Clash, X, Minor Threat, Rolling Stones, New York Dolls, Velvet Underground, Ramones, Yellowman, Minutemen, Husker Du, Bad Brains, Blasters, Elvis Presley, Doors, The Specials, English Beat.
I'll love almost anything John Schaefer plays on "New Sounds"
My biggest regret was leaving the full-time food journalism community. I got a job at Hearst to run their shelter websites, thinking I might enjoy diving into a new topic (architecture and home design)...but it was actually a career pivot into management. I was running a business. At a certain point in a career, your time can be completely monopolized by going to meetings, creating presentations, and answering email. Be careful what you wish for.
My favorite artists in my 40s were Steve Reich, Arvo Part, Mikal Cronin, Ty Segall, Skip James, Stevie Wonder, Shannon & the Clams, Mark Sultan, John Fahey
I wish I could interview one of my great-great-great-great-grandfathers.
I’m honestly just flattered that anyone interviews me.