Photo by Fiona Aboud
A CRITIC’S JOURNEY
Ruth Reichl has spent her career eating and writing about food and in the process has become one of the most recognizable names in the culinary world.
Within minutes of being shown to our comfortable table at Upland—a two-week-old restaurant in Manhattan’s Flatiron district—Troy, the general manager, greets us warmly. He reminds my dining companion of the last time they met and tells her how pleased he is to receive her. He leaves, followed closely by an assistant manager.
“Is this pro forma?” I ask of the red carpet treatment.
“It happens occasionally,” she replies.
A few minutes later, Stephen Starr, the restaurant’s owner, drops by to suggest we order his favorite appetizer, the “estrella” pasta with chicken livers.
“I guess it happens more than I thought,” she admits.
Over the next three hours, it’s a steady procession of hot and cold dishes, solicitous interruptions from the waiter and sommelier, and greetings from friends and prominent food writers who are seated nearby. Eventually, the chef, Justin Smillie, comes over to inquire after her family and the food he’s prepared.
Ruth Reichl, ’68, MA’70, is in her element.
TIMES HAVE CHANGED SINCE REICHL REVIEWED RESTAURANTS IN CAMOUFLAGE, first as food editor of the Los Angeles Times, then as chief critic for the New York Times. “Those disguises were a lot of work,” she recalls of her many invented personas, credit card aliases, wild wigs, and mad getups, which allowed her to dine undetected for 15 years in Los Angeles’ and New York’s better establishments. Then, in 1999, she shed her disguises to become editor in chief of Gourmet magazine. A decade later, Condé Nast shuttered the venerable grande dame of food magazines.
Today, Reichl and her husband, Michael, live in Columbia County, New York, some 100 miles from the epicenter of the food world she once covered. The meal at Upland must feel like old times as she catches up with fellow professionals in between bites of white truffle pizza and quinoa-encrusted steak tartare. But Reichl doesn’t need a corner office in a glass tower to remain relevant.
She writes prolifically from a little cabin in the woods near her home. And she tweets regularly to her 278,000 followers on Twitter. “I found a language there I didn’t know I had,” she says. Her tweets read like delectable, 140-character haikus:
“Steamy, sultry morning. Air hanging heavy. Lemonade, very cold. Fresh strawberry ice cream. Cooler.”
“Glorious morning. Outdoor shower. Long walk. Wind rustling leaves. Warm shrimp cakes: gentle flavor. Corn, tomato, chile salsa. Happy.”
Reichl still remains prolific in longer-form writing. She penned three highly successful memoirs and is currently halfway through a five-book deal with Random House. Last May, “Delicious!,” her first novel, was published. This spring, her cookbook/memoir “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life” will come out. Currently, she’s writing a memoir about her years at Gourmet.
“Delicious!” received mixed reviews, but the critic of the New York Times gave it a particularly scathing critique that left Reichl physically sick. (The follow-up article was considerably kinder.) “I wanted to write an escapist book,” she says, “not a work of literary fiction.” If the critics had loftier expectations, Reichl’s loyal readers didn’t care. The book has sold well around the world.
Growing up in New York City with parents who were intellectuals—her father, Ernst Reichl, was a prominent book designer—Reichl learned at an early age to revere books, especially works of fiction. That reverence extended to Gourmet’s library of 7,000 volumes. In October 2009, her Condé Nast bosses recalled her from the road where she was promoting Gourmet’s latest cookbook. They announced that they were closing the magazine, and the entire staff, including Reichl, would lose their jobs. Before she left, she locked the library. When she eventually returned to clear out her own office, she discovered in the library a file cabinet full of old letters. They were dull fare, so she went back to her desk and wrote her own collection of epistles, the ones she wished she had found.
A year later, they became the centerpiece of “Delicious!”—a World War II-era correspondence between James Beard, the chef and food writer who once worked for Gourmet, and a young girl from Akron, Ohio, named Lulu. As for her protagonist, Billie Breslin, Reichl invested her with a unique superpower, the ability to reconstruct a recipe from taste memory. Reichl says her own gift is something very different. “What I have is the ability to imagine how you describe something that people can taste. Being a supertaster is useless if you can’t translate it as a writer.”
REICHL’S TENURE AT THE NEW YORK TIMES was marked by the laying low of the city’s high temples to gastronomy, eschewing French toques in favor of unheralded Asian woks. Her democratic reviews spoke to a wider audience, appealing to readers in the Midwest and on the West Coast who were looking to be entertained rather than for menu recommendations.
“She totally changed the idea of what a restaurant review should be and made it better,” says John “Doc” Willoughby, former executive editor of Gourmet. Before Reichl, restaurant reviews typically centered on what to order (or not). Reichl crafted little works of literature, offering readers an emotional experience, not just a culinary one. “There are only a handful of great food writers, and she’s one of them,” Willoughby says.
Reichl doesn’t miss daily journalism so much as she misses her former colleagues at Gourmet. She enjoyed the collaboration of editors, writers, and designers; the process of putting an issue together; and the resources to think big. If she wanted to do a Paris issue or ask Junot Diaz to write about Dominican cooking, she could. “I miss working with smart, interesting people and shaping ideas without really knowing what the result would be. I miss that sense of possibility.”
There was considerable speculation about the reasons Gourmet folded: diminishing advertising revenues, bloated expense accounts, the prominence of the Internet, the financial crisis. Yet to this day, Reichl still doesn’t have a definitive answer. All she knows is that after 69 years in circulation, Gourmet closed on her watch. “Sixty to 70 people lost their jobs,” she says regretfully. “I felt like a huge failure.”
WHILE REICHL WAS AT GOURMET, she infused “the magazine of good living” with an essence of social responsibility. Under her stewardship, the magazine wasn’t just about fine food and travel but covered issues of sustainability and the debt to pleasure—that is, the high cost borne by those who gather and prepare our food as it travels from farm to table. In March 2009, Gourmet published an article by Barry Estabrook that detailed the deplorable conditions under which tomato pickers in central Florida lived and worked.
“The American food movement has gone off the rails,” says Reichl passionately. “It’s not just about us and our health, it’s about an entire industry that runs on the backs of undocumented workers.” For that reason, she regularly volunteers to speak on behalf of the Rural and Migrant Ministry, a nonprofit in New York state.
That Reichl should direct her spirit of social activism to food-related causes comes as no surprise to Lolita Hernandez, ’68, her U-M roommate for three years. “She was always food conscious, always a great cook, and always had a deep sense of right and wrong,” says Hernandez, a lecturer in creative writing at the Residential College and a 33-year veteran of the UAW. The two friends were on campus during the late 1960s, a time rife with political turmoil, dominated by Students for a Democratic Society rallies, the Black Power movement, and the first Vietnam teach-in.
“One of the places we lived was above a coffee shop where the more radical elements of campus gathered,” recalls Hernandez. “We were part of those conversations.”
Reichl wonders if she didn’t compromise her academic studies for that hands-on political education. “After my freshman year, I did nothing but politics,” she recalls. If so, the American food scene is the richer for it.
THE MEAL CONCLUDES WITH a ricotta cheesecake brulée that quickly disappears. It’s late, but Reichl politely declines the offer of a cab ride uptown, preferring to join another table of friends. Her appetite for this culinary life is still not sated.
Steve Rosoff, MA’87, is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer, amateur chef, and gourmand who spent almost two decades writing copy for the J. Peterman catalog.