Ruth Reichl, queen for an evening

American critic and author Ruth Reichl

FORMER New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl was once more important than the King of Spain.

She knows from personal experience and in her autobiographical adventure, Garlic and Sapphires: the secret life of a critic in disguise, Reichl recounts the moment when the Queen of reviewers trumped a King for a table in one of the city’s hottest restaurants, Le Cirque.

Reichl (pronounced Rye-shul) left the job in 1999 and became editor of America’s leading food magazine, Gourmet, before its sudden, shock demise in 2010. Speaking to me  her New York office, she’s keen to get home to cook for her family, but first, is happy to discuss her eight controversial years as “the most important restaurant critic in the world”.

New Yorkers hoping it will spill the beans on that turbulent time working for the esteemed broadsheet will be disappointed.

“All I really have to tell is that they were great to me,” she says. But you don’t need to be an avid follower of the Big Apple’s restaurant scene to enjoy Garlic and Sapphires. Like her earlier memoirs, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples, it’s a witty, gentle and whimsically confessional book, which also features her reviews, and simple, reassuring recipes, like New York cheesecake and roast leg of lamb.

“All the dishes in there are very easy food. Part of the message of the recipes is you don’t need to do fancy food to serve good food,” Reichl says.

The recipes also reveal the underlying truth for a woman who was eating out up to a dozen times a week.

“Restaurants are fabulous, but if you think that’s all there is to food, you’re missing a lot. Family meals are really important. One of the things this book is about is I missed cooking; I missed feeding my family – it was like missing a limb,” she explains.

“You can go home and say to your kids ’til you’re blue in the face, ‘Anything happen at school today?’ and they’ll say ‘Nah’. And then you sit down and start eating and you talk about what happened to you and all of a sudden, it turns into ‘well so and so did this’ and ‘this one’s in trouble’ and you suddenly get a whole way into your children’s life that you don’t get by not having meals together.”

Garlic and Sapphires also offers the background adventures to her cat-and-mouse restaurant visits in a vivacious style that belies the austerity of the newspaper reviews. Reichl is at the height of her professional powers when she embarks on a journey of self-discovery through the bewigged characters invented to avoid being detected. On a flight to New York three months before she started, she had a vivid lesson in how high the stakes were about to become when confronted by a waitress offered a bounty for a photo of the critic. It inspired Reichl, with the help of a Henry Higgins-like friend, to create a series of disguises including ‘Molly’, a retired teacher, and the redheaded, happy hippie Brenda. She even faced her family ghosts by dressing as her mother, Miriam.

The personas, which she acted out, were to have a profound impact on both Reichl’s professional and personal life. She wanted her book to explore “how you manage to have this enormous power and not become a jerk”, but it’s much more: both therapy and an exercise in self-analysis.

“[The disguises] started out as a practical thing, but in some way, through them, I did find out who I am. There were people I loved, like Brenda, who is my best self. But there are really loathsome people who are also part of me,” she recalls.

Dressed as Molly, Reichl visited Le Cirque and was treated with contempt. She went back as Ruth, only to be told by the owner “The King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready”.

Just seven weeks into her new role, the experience led to an infamous double review: as the scorned Molly – “I find myself wishing that when the maitre d’ asked if I had a reservation, I had just said no and left” – and the pampered critic receiving a dessert with raspberries twice as big as all the others.  Le Cirque dropped from (the maximum) four to three stars in the Times rating system. It was a shot across the bows of the city’s restaurant royalty.

Reichl was a pathfinder who initially didn’t believe she was up to the task: “I think I project great confidence while deep down I’m eaten up with angst and self-doubt and worry”.

After helping pioneer the organics push 30 years ago, while running a restaurant in Berkeley, California, Reichl showed early flair as a critic, writing them in a range of literary genres, from mystery to sci fi and adventure. She spent a decade reviewing for the Los Angeles Times, as well as being its food editor, before she was headhunted for New York, but did her obnoxious best to blow the interview. It only made her more desirable to the powerful men of The Times.

Her reviews became a subversive lesson in democracy. In disguise, she could offer an outsider’s view of restaurant pretensions. The paper’s previous critics had a proud Francophile tradition, seeking the attendant luxuries of Michelin-style refinement.

Preferring authentic Asian and other ‘ethnic’ flavours, Reichl demolished that aura by venturing down side alleys for Chinese banquets or visit a simple Japanese noodle bar, and taking her family to a popular steak house, or a friend to debunk an overpriced “date” restaurant. It led to a very public spat with her predecessor, who accused her of destroying ‘the system’.

The title, Garlic and Sapphires, comes from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, a poem about humility. Reichl’s book has a keen spiritual thread, is anchored in the strength of family and friends, and littered with small epiphanies that come during the act of eating. After reviewing a restaurant dressed like a bag lady, she wrote a meditation on the obscenity of glamourising a $100 meal, titling it ’Why I disapprove of what I do’.

Reichl has spent her life exploring our relationship with food and its resonances with everyday life. “Food could be a way of making sense of the world,” she wrote in her first, coming-of-age memoir, which revealed her manic-depressive mother as an appalling cook whose food once poisoned an entire wedding party.

Editing Gourmet has given Reichl the scope to continue that search for meaning through food.

“There is an important mission in trying to make people pay attention to just ordinary life, day-to-day living… the small things that ultimately have an impact. To think that how we eat is not somehow connected to what is happening in the world is a mistake,” she says.

“Eating is a deeply political act. How we shop, how we raise our food… what’s happening vis a vis terrorism is not unrelated to how we live our daily lives. This didn’t just happen. It has a lot to do with a general lack of understanding of how we use the resources of the world and that all ultimately comes back to food.”

As Gourmet editor, she believed her mission was “getting people back to the table” and approaches it with evangelical zeal.

“The fact that we don’t pay attention to the community aspect of sitting down to a meal is devastating. I don’t care how they get there. It doesn’t matter what’s on the table, the point is being around the table.”

She believes we’re eating out too much and avoiding home.

“One of the things that concerns me and one of the reasons that I really felt good about coming to the magazine, as opposed to being a restaurant critic, is that it’s important for people to spend less time in public spaces and more time in private spaces.”

Reichl says we are facing some key turning points in how we live and eat. 

“I feel we’re on the verge of a real food revolution – or we’re in the middle of it and we barely recognise it. I don’t think there’s been a time in human history where food has been as messed with as it is now.”

And while the quality of food is improving, there are some emerging problems:

“I think there is a real battle beyond the organic movement, which is wonderful, but we need very much to be careful that we don’t create this double standard where poor people are eating worse and worse, while rich people are eating pristine food.

“We’re very much in danger of setting up a two-tier food system. If you’re rich enough, you need never eat an animal that hasn’t been frolicking around in the grass and humanely slaughtered or a vegetable that has never been touched by pesticides. But if you’re poor, increasingly, some of these fast food are creating ‘food’ that is cheaper than food and we have children who have never seen an orange.”

While she’ll remain a passionate advocate for home cooking, putting down her critic’s pen after 25 years has delivered simple pleasures like booking under her own name. And it’s not about fireworks and symphony orchestras.

“I always said [when I was a critic]: if I were a civilian I would pick five restaurants and go to them a lot so that I became a regular and they were nice to me. That’s more or less what we do.

“I want to go into restaurants where I can say ‘oh just bring me some food, I don’t want to look at the menu’, where I know I like the food and they know my tastes. It’s about family and the easiness of it. It’s a complete pleasure.”

 

* A version of this story first appeared in the now defunct Vogue Entertaining + Travel in 2006.


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