For fifteen years, Ruth Reichl has had an effect on where we eat and how we cook - first as restaurant critic for the New York Times and now as editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine. But the native New Yorker's story extends far beyond restaurants and kitchens. Food critic Ruth Reichl is the subject of this week’s One On 1 with Budd Mishkin.
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It’s hard to believe - but Ruch Reichl, editor of Gourmet Magazine and former restaurant critic for the New York Times, once engaged in something called "dumpster diving."
"I said ÎGarbage? You expect us to eat garbage? Are you out of your mind?’" says Reichl.
It was back at Berkeley in the 1970s, and Reichl says it wasn't about money, but about supermarkets and waste.
"We go into this dumpster and you know the first thing I found is a whole carton of eggs - two and a half dozen eggs,” says Reichl. “And there were two broken eggs in there and the rest of it was perfectly fine, they pitched the whole thing."
It’s a slightly different image from the day-to-day at Gourmet Magazine, where chefs prepare delicious recipes that are then put in the magazine for readers to try. But Reichl says she's still the same person, and believes in many of the same issues.
"One of the reasons why Gourmet now pays attention to environmental issues and issues of sustainability and politics is because I still think that eating is a political issue," says Reichl.
Gourmet has several small kitchens where recipes are tested, retested and cross-checked before they go in the magazine. Chefs from all over the world submit recipes for Gourmet.
But Reichl says not all restaurant chefs are good home cooks, and even those who are can be imprecise.
"You know whatever he cooked for dinner last night was fabulous. But he's not going to be able to give you a recipe for that- [he’ll say] ÎI just did a little of this and a little of that,’” jokes Reichl.
Reichl has been at Gourmet for nine years, and yet for many New Yorkers, she is still known as the restaurant critic who came to the New York Times in the early 1990s and shook things up — by daring to criticize Le Cirque and reviewing restaurants previously overlooked by the paper.
"I found out much later that they have gotten all these mails from people going, ÎThere is a loose cannon running around Times Square writing about little noodle places,’” says Reichl.
An important part of Reichl's work at the Times involved disguises. She created characters, and then became those characters - a bit eerie when the character was her mother.
"When I sent this photograph [of a disguise] to my brother, he said, "I've never seen that picture of Mom," says Reichl.
Reichl says she left the Times to spend more family dinners at home with her husband and son.
But while still at the paper, she wrote a piece called "Why I Disapprove Of What I Do," which addressed her mixed emotions about her job.
"There's still a voice inside me saying, ÎYeah, but all you are really doing is telling the rich people where to go eat,’ and if I had thought that was all I had done with my life, it would make me very sad,” says Reichl.
For Ruth Reichl, food has always represented something deeper than good taste.
"You taste something your mother made for you and you’re right there,” says Reichl. “You are back in your mother's kitchen, you can't help it.”
But as she told this year's New York Women In Communications luncheon, memories of her mother's kitchen left a bitter taste, saying "I'm pretty sure I've never met a worse cook."
Reichl’s complex relationship with her mother played a role in her decision to live for twenty years in California.
"As long as my mother was alive, being [in New York] was not in the cards for me,” said Reichl.
"When Al Siegel at the New York Times asked me, ÎYou have a great job in Los Angeles, why would you think of coming back?’ I blurted out - I didn't mean to, but it just came out — ÎMy mother's dead now, I can come home.’"
Reichl wrote about her mother's mental illness in her first book "Tender At The Bone."
"She is not here to embarrass anymore. She always wanted to write about it. I’m going to write about it,” says Reichl.
Her books include experiences, food-related and otherwise, all over the world. And she addresses some difficult episodes - such as infidelity and divorce.
"I'm not trying to embarrass anyone or settle scores, but if you are going to tell about your life, you have to tell about your life," says Reichl.
Perhaps the most difficult topic Reichl addressed in her books was the adoption of a baby girl in California. The birth parents changed their minds, and after a court battle, Reichl and her husband were forced to give the child back.
"I was not going to lose my daughter,” says Reichl. “I was ready to lose everything else. I was ready to leave the country and do anything. Once we had lost her, I just threw myself into work and food and it was made me realize that life was worth living again."
Her time in California was marked by a transition from a hippie lifestyle in a group house in Berkeley, to life as the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times.
Not all of her old friends were amused.
"It was painful and it still is,” says Reichl. “I mean, I still have a lot of friends who disapprove enormously of what I'm doing with my life."
But through a lifetime of much joy and some sadness, and dishes tasted all over the world, Ruth Reichl can always connect her love affair with food to the old neighborhood.
"That incredibly good bakery smell, and then I walked around the corner and go to my best friend Jeannie's house at 30 Greenwich Avenue, and her mother is making spaghetti and meat sauce. Heaven," says Reichl.
- Budd Mishkin
|ONE ON 1 EXTRA|
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