Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Ruth Reichl

Chef Ruth Reichl shares her culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.September 2006

From her days as a chef in Berkeley during the 1970s' California food revolution to her tenure as editor in chief of Gourmet - a post held since 1999 - Ruth Reichl has been one of the most significant culinary personalities of the last 30 years. She wrote three memoirs, including the 2006 Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, which talks about her six years as food critic of the New York Times. She is also the editor of The Modern Library Food Series and all of the Gourmet books. In between book signings, lectures, and more writing, the unstoppable culinary and literary powerhouse sat with the Main Course.

How has the New York dining scene changed since you were a critic?
I don't know that it's changed that much since I was a critic. It changed a lot right before I got here. New York had really good high-end restaurants, but it was hard to find good middle and low-end restaurants. That changed a lot right before I got here. It's a great dining scene, and it was when I was a critic. So I don't see a huge change.

Is there a restaurant review that you wish you got to write now?
I went to Alinea in Chicago last week, and I would love to write about that. It was really exciting. Actually, I've had a bunch of meals lately that I thought would be really fun to write about although, to be honest, I don't think any of them have been in New York [laughs]. I mean, not that the food in New York hasn't been great - I've been to restaurants I really loved. But the ones that I've just thought, oh, this would be really fun to write about, have been in Las Vegas, in Dallas.

Could you write these reviews for Gourmet?
I can do anything I want at Gourmet, or I could if I wanted to [laughs]. But it doesn't make sense for us to do restaurant reviews, per se, anymore, in a national magazine. We used to do reviews in New York and reviews in California every month. It seemed that it just made a lot more sense to write national trend pieces rather than reviews of individual restaurants. Sixty-five years ago, when the magazine started, there weren't restaurant critics in every city. Now, there are so many good local critics working all over the country, people don't really need us to pinpoint individual restaurants. So we completely changed the format of how we do restaurants.

How do you decide what content goes in your magazine?
There are 50 of us here at the magazine. We have a lot of meetings, and we sit around and discuss what we should be doing. We have correspondents all over the world, who send us reports, and we think about what's most interesting to us. It's not me saying, okay, now we're going to do X. It's really this group of us sort of saying, how do we make the most interesting vibrant magazine that we can?

Do you need a formal culinary education to be working at a place like Gourmet?
I don't think it's necessary to have a culinary education. I do think it's necessary to have spent a long time eating and to have educated yourself. I think the big change in restaurant criticism in my lifetime has been, when I started being a restaurant critic in the early '70s, all you really needed to do, to know, to be a restaurant critic was French food, continental cuisine. Maybe you needed to know a little bit about Italian food. And the reviews that were written of what was then called ethnic cuisine were stupid. People would say, well, I don't know what Thai food is supposed to taste like, but this tasted good to me. That doesn't work anymore. If you're going to review Japanese, Peruvian, Indian, Malaysian restaurants, you really need to have been to these countries and to have seriously studied what their food is supposed to do. It's not enough to do it from a Western orientation anymore. You're now dealing with a very knowledgeable public, and you can't be in the situation where the people you're writing for know more about the food that you're writing about than you do. So, I wouldn't say, you need to have gone to cooking school, but I would say, you need to have been very serious about food, and to have eaten widely and without prejudice. In the early days when I was writing reviews, I if I would do a Malaysian restaurant, I would call up the consulate or the embassy and say, can somebody come out with me and talk to me about this food, if I hadn't been to the country. I would really try and do it from as knowledgeable a perspective as I could. I haven't been to Korea, but when I was first writing about Korean restaurants, I was in LA, which has a huge Korean population. We had a Korean art director at the paper, and I would take her with me to restaurants and really try and find out from people who knew about the food.

How has the readership of Gourmet changed?
I don't think just the readership of Gourmet; America has changed enormously. I wrote my first cookbook in 1971, and when I took that cookbook to a publisher, nobody said to me, can you cook? Where'd you learn to cook? Has anyone tested your recipes? It was just, oh, a cookbook, what a cute idea. And they just published it. Since then, the whole atmosphere around food has changed so much, food, cookbooks sell enormously. Every generation of America is better educated than the last one in food. People have traveled really widely. Americans are probably the most curious eaters of anybody on earth and the most open. We're open to the food of everywhere. And so, whether you're at Gourmet of you're at a newspaper in a city like New York, you are dealing with a population of people who are very likely to have eaten in Japan, eaten in China, eaten in South America, eaten in Mexico. And if you say something stupid, they're going to know it. People likely to have actually been to cooking schools. A growing population of people who are very interested in food and cooking. And that's a huge change in America.

What are the biggest trends you see from a producer's perspective?
It's been going on for a long time, but there's a really growing interest in using local products, in forging relationships with producers. A much bigger interest and knowledge about issues of sustainability, a real sense that people in the industry have to think about being stewards of the earth and have to think about things like sustainability of fish and the fact that, if we don't control our appetites, children won't have any fish to eat. The industry has taken a real leadership role on issues of hunger, the environment, and understand that, if it doesn't come from the industry, who is it going to come from?

What is your take on food shows and the Food Network?
The more people watch food, think about food, the better it is. And I don't care what it is that people are watching. The fact that people are thinking about food, I think, is good for the industry and good for the world. Maybe some of the TV shows aren't as enlightened as we would like them to be. People start going into the kitchen, and maybe they're making stupid food to start with. But they are thinking about food, looking at food, cooking food. And they'll graduate. We need to get people back into the kitchen. We need to have people understand how much fun it is to cook. They start with baby steps.

I read that that's one of the reasons you're doing the 10-minute cooking, right?
Absolutely. Anything that makes people put food on their tables at home and sit around the table is great with me. And anything that gets any kind of food aromas into the air is great with me, and better that people make a 10-minute main course than call up for bad Chinese food. I truly believe that cooking---I don't mean cooking in restaurants, which is high pressure and different than home cooking---home cooking is fun, and people need to be reminded that it's really fun to get there and play and watch things get transformed, and the pride that you have in making something even if it's something that only took you 10 minutes and your family says, oh, this is great. Will you make it again? People need to be encouraged to do that.

What's your favorite thing to cook?
I really love cooking. It's fun for me. I like baking pies. That's probably my most fun thing. There's something wonderful about pie dough where it's always different and you never quite know how it's going to come out. I love the fact that you get to use seasonal fruit, that it changes with the seasons.

How do you feel about molecular gastronomy?
I think it's great. The problem with it is that it takes real talent to do it well, and a lot of people of very little talent are doing it and doing very bad versions of it, which is giving it a bad name. When you eat something that [Ferran] Adrìa has cooked or Heston Blumenthal, it's so exciting. The truth is most of the cooking that we do hasn't changed much in thousands of years. So the idea that everything else should move forward but that people shouldn't be using all these scientific advances to do things with food that are not junk food, like chicken nuggets, trying to figure out how to make 30 chemicals into something palatable, but to take a carrot and use these new machines to transform it into orange air, I think it's wonderful. It's not for everyone, and it's also what chefs do. it's different than home cooking, and I'm sorry that so many people try and do chef cooking at home. I feel like there should be a real line between what chefs do and what home cooks do. One of the things that chefs do when they're very, very good is experiment with new technology. And it's great.

The same can be said about food writing, which so many people try to do but few do well.
I agree. Partly, we're the victims of people who think that food is so exciting that no matter what you put down about it it's going to be interesting. And that's not true. The truth is, it's like memoirs. Everybody's life is interesting. There is nobody who has ever been born who doesn't have an interesting life. But it's how it's put down that makes it interesting to other people. The person with the most interesting life on earth who tries to write a memoir and can't write is going to bore you, whereas someone to whom almost nothing has happened who has good powers of observation can make you fascinated by their lives.

You've had the benefit of both, right? A great life and great writing to tell it.
Well, thank you. I had the benefit of having been taught early to be a storyteller, which is also part of what the dinner table is. At my family's dinner table, you had to have a story about your life that day. You sat down, and what you were supposed to do at the table was say something that was interesting about what had happened to you that day, which is how you learn to be a writer basically. I was also really fortunate to be interested in food at a time when almost nobody else in America was. In the '60s when I loved cooking, I was the only person I knew who did.

In Berkeley?
No, when I was still in New York and then when I went to Ann Arbor [for college]. I cooked for all my roommates and loved it, always loved it. Everybody thought that was weird. I just sort of fell into the food writing, writing about food just because I was the only person who was doing it. And I sort of got to grow up with all of this change in America. I was in Berkeley at the time that Alice [Waters] was starting what she was doing and all the burgeoning California food movement. I moved to Los Angeles when all the energy moved from Berkeley to Los Angeles. Then I got to come to New York just as it was happening here. It was just luck.

Are you thinking of writing more memoirs?
I'm probably memoired out at least for a while. I sort of caught up with myself. You need a little distance.

Where is the line between memoir and fiction?
I don't think you should make stuff up out of whole cloth. Where my fictionalizing comes is, sometimes I will take two events and conflate them into one. Two parties will become one party, but it all happened. I didn't make things up that never happened. I just made a better story sometimes out of an event. I don't think you should betray your reader's trust by just outright lying.

Are the books you're writing a way to exist beyond Gourmet?
Partly that, certainly. Partly, I just have a need to write. Writing for me is very pleasurable. When I wrote Tender at the Bone, I'd been writing short for so long, I wanted to see if I could write long. I didn't know if I could. And I thought, this is a way for me to find out. Also when I was at the Times, I didn't even have an agent, but people kept calling me, editors, saying, you must be writing a book, I'd like to see whatever book. After you get the 10th phone call like that, you think, oh, I must be writing a book. And then writing it was really so pleasurable to me. I'm not writing a book right now, and my husband said, I would bet anything that you will be by Christmas because you just can't stand not doing it. For me, it's like knowing that there's this parallel life that I can go into that's very private, and that I can escape into for a while. Also, writing is like a kind of drug. I hate writing. I absolutely hate writing. I'll do anything but write, but I love having written. I love that when it goes well, the rest of the day you're so elated. For me, at the end of a good day of writing, nothing feels that good. It keeps you writing, wanting that feeling.

How do you do it?
As I get older I need to sleep less. I get up at 5, before the guys get up. I write, I don't make coffee, I don't do anything. I just grope my way to the computer and write for a couple of hours until it's time to wake them up and make coffee and breakfast.

Is it essential to reveal as much as you're revealing in your books to be a good writer?
I don't think so. Different writers do different things. I just happen to be a person who doesn't have a big regard for privacy. One of the things I learned when I was writing restaurant reviews is that the things that you're most scared of are the things that are worth doing. Every review that terrified me, those were the really good ones. The ones where I was going out on a limb or afraid I was making a mistake. Writing's a little bit like that too. For me, it's the things that you're worried about revealing that are the things that are worthwhile to other people. When I wrote Tender at the Bone, I tried very hard not to write about my mother's mental illness. In the first draft I didn't, and my editor said to me, 'I don't know what it is, but there's something that's not here. I can feel that there's a secret here. There's something that you're not putting down.' I said, well, my mother, my mother was classically bipolar. And I just don't want to write about that. She said, 'Well, you're going to have to do something because your mother as a character isn't working.' I took this deep breath and thought, okay, maybe it would embarrass her, but I'm going to have to deal with this. And I did, and I have gotten dozens and dozens of letters from kids saying, 'Thank you so much for writing this book. My mother's bipolar. It's really nice to know that you can get through it.' So I thought, well here was this thing that was hard to reveal, and it turned out to be really useful to someone. I don't think that's for everyone. It just happens to be for me.

It also fits the genre. If you're not revealing as much as you do, a memoir's probably not going to work.
Right. But if you're JD Salinger and you don't want to tell anybody anything about yourself, but you're a brilliant writer, fine.

Who are your literary influences?
Obviously, MFK Fisher, who was very much the model of what this, where this book [Tender at the Bone] came from. This is an odd person to have been influential to me, but this woman named Kate Simon, who was a wonderful writer. She's not alive anymore. She wrote a guide called New York Places and Pleasures that I read a lot as a kid and then would go out on the street and see New York through her eyes. She was very important in not only teaching me to look and smell, and hear, but also teaching me that that kind of writing could enhance other people's pleasure. And then my father was a book designer. So we had piles of books in our house. Whenever he found a book he really liked that he was designing, he would bring it home in galleys for us to read.

Who are the people currently at the top of food writing?
Jeffrey Steingarten is wonderful. Tony Bourdain is great. Bill Buford's new book [Heat] is incredible. Michael Pollan's new book [The Omnivore Dilemma] is incredibly important and beautifully written.

How do you address nutritional issues in Gourmet?
We don't do nutrition, but we do a lot of, I would say, more politics than nutrition. That was one of the huge changes that I made when I came here. Five years ago, six years ago, we did the first piece on problems with farmed salmon that I know about. I still haven't seen this piece done anywhere else. We've done a lot of stuff about genetic modification. We do stuff about gene patents, the effects of Wal-Mart on the food industry. We're very committed to trying to do something every month that has to do with this state of the food supply. Because our audience are people who care about food and who are cooking, it's important for us to say, 'these are things you really need to think about.' I think it's very hard to navigate American food today. Part of our job for our readers is to help them navigate, help them make good food choices.

What has escaped you, if anything?
This sounds so horrible, and I don't know if I should say it. But I feel like I've been so lucky that I have been able to, when I see something that I feel like I need to do, I have been lucky enough to be able to do it. When I wanted to write, to really think about, making connections between historically, everything that's happened in American food, I was asked to do the Tanner Lectures [on Human Values] last year at Yale, and I got to actually spend time studying, reading all this stuff. The thing I want to do next is write fiction. That's the thing that has escaped me so far, but I'm hoping I'll be able to do that.

With a food theme?
Probably not, although I'm sure that the food will come into it because I don't see how you live your life without thinking about food. But I don't think food will be the theme.

-- Anne E. McBride