Ruth Reichl has done it all. The legendary food writer has six James Beard Awards, nine books (if you include the two Gourmet cookbooks she worked on), served as the restaurant critic for both the Los Angeles Times (1984-1993) and The New York Times (1993-1999), and later joined Gourmet from 1999 to 2009 as its Editor in Chief. Her latest cookbook, My Kitchen Year, picks up after Gourmet's untimely close and gives us insight into what Reichl has been doing since. She joined us to discuss her latest projects, her time as one of America's most high-profile food critics, what it was like to manage Gourmet, and her thoughts on the future of food writing.
Listen to our full chat with Ruth Reichl above, and catch some of the highlights from our conversation below:
On the inspiration for her latest cookbook, My Kitchen Year: "I truly love to cook. The thing for me, I don't think that this is true for everyone, but one of the things I'm trying to say in this book is that I think if you give yourself to cooking it becomes a kind of meditation and it's not just about making a meal and producing something for people that you love, but it's something that takes your whole mind. It's also physical and that it's a way for me anyway, of appreciating being alive. There are moments in the kitchen, sensory moments, moments like when you peel a peach and you see that color right beneath the skin. It's like coming upon a painting. It's a color you never see unless you peel a peach. You don't see it if you bite into it, you don't see it if you slice it, it's only if you peel it. And there's these moments for me, just of pure joy and you look at that and you think in this moment I'm really happy to be alive."
On the biggest mistake restaurant reviewers make: "There are a lot of mistakes. The biggest mistake of any critic, and this would be true of any kind of review, is that many people tend to review the restaurant, the book, the movie, whatever, that they wanted that person to make. So you go to a new Jean-George restaurant and you have an idea of what it's going to be or what it should be. So you review not what he wanted to do, but what you wanted him to do. I mean, that's a really big mistake."
On the pieces every food critic should read: "The first piece would be the story in the M. F. K. Fisher Gastronomical Me, which is in many ways a perfect restaurant review. It's got different names, but I think it's called "Define This Word." It's the one where she's walking in Burgundy and she goes to this restaurant and she's afraid they're going to kill her before she leaves... In terms of writing a restaurant review, I mean she doesn't mean it as a restaurant review, but it's pretty perfect. It's sensual, it's funny, it's a great story, but there are so many if you're talking about restaurants specifically, Tom Boyle's "Sorry Fugu," everyone should read that."
On her leadership style as Editor in Chief at Gourmet: "This is a hard thing to ask me to judge, but I'll tell you what I hoped to do. I'm not sure I was totally successful in that, but I was fortunate enough to go to Condé Nast where they pretty much let you run your shop the way you wanted to do it. Rather than giving you marching orders, 'You must do it this way.' And the way I saw my job was to try and hire people who were smarter than I was and to run interference for them. My managing editor was a much better manager than I am. And I leaned on him. I never wrote a memo that I didn't ask him to vet before I sent it out. He was a better hirer than I was so I got him to help me do all the hiring. I hired people who I think are better line editors than I am. To actually do the line editing. My art director, I would not tell him how to do things he's much better at than I am. And so in many ways, I tried to have it be run by a group rather than by me. And I think in contrast to the way many editors work, I thought it was really important for my staff to feel invested in the magazine, which meant that sometimes I ran articles that I didn't like. Because if it really meant a lot to an editor, it felt to me more important for them to have a stake in the magazine than for me to think everything in the magazine was absolutely to my taste. And I really tried to run it from the bottom up."
On finding out Gourmet would stop printing: "I was on book tour with the second Gourmet cookbook. I was told I had to come back to New York and I thought I was going to get fired. It never crossed my mind that they would close the magazine. I found it out with everyone else. It was just a complete and utter shock. I'm still shocked by it. Sure, fire all of us, make changes, but to close a magazine that had that kind of connection with its readers still strikes me as completely insane... Gourmet had, over its almost 70 years, a connection with its readers that people would kill for. Any publisher would die to have people just renew regularly, to think of themselves as Gourmet people. There is literally not a day of my life that someone doesn't tell me how much they miss the magazine. This is seven years later."
On whether she'd accept the role of Editor in Chief at Food & Wine: "They haven't approached me and I very much doubt that they would, but, of course, I'd consider it. I will consider anything. I loved doing that magazine and I think that there's a hole where a magazine like Gourmet used to be. But do I think that Time Inc. wants to do that? Probably not, I imagine that's the reason why Dana probably left."
On the future of food writing: "You have mainstream publications paying attention to food in a way that nobody has before. So you have a Ted Genoways doing brilliant stuff in The Atlantic, and I would imagine that The New York Times will find someone to replace Mark [Bittman] to be the public intellectual on food. You have The New Yorker doing really fascinating stuff on food science. There's a lot going on in writing about important food issues that just wasn't happening even eight years ago, but at the same time what you see, what I see, happening is that the food publications are retreating in a way that's really sad. You don't have food sections doing really important stories that are aimed at cooks and the epicurean magazines are retreating back into recipes and gossipy kind of things. And it seems to me that it's really important for this important food information to go to cooks and that cooks increasingly need good advice on how to make their food choices. Really it's the consumers who are driving the changes in the food business. You have things like Perdue buying Niman Ranch and they're doing that cause they see the writing on the wall. They see that increasingly consumers are saying that they don't want to buy tortured animals. They don't want battery chickens and so forth. And I think that movement is going to be increasingly important, which is why I think it's increasingly important for the really big stories about what's going on in the food system to be aimed specifically at cooks. It makes me sad that that's not happening."