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Ruth Reichl on Her Debut Novel, Restaurant Criticism, and Much More

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Photo: Hillary Dixler/Eater.com

On Tuesday, Twitter aficionado and former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl released Delicious!, her debut fiction novel. Along with promoting her book, Reichl has also been quite outspoken lately in her criticisms of the contemporary food magazine world and the negative impact pressure from advertisers can have on editorial content.

Eater met with Reichl last week to talk more about her novel, to get her thoughts on how magazines and newspapers can keep content "sexy" and critics funded, and why everyone should just relax about tasting menus. Reichl also revealed the details of her next book projects, including a cookbook based on her famously poetic Twitter feed. There's also another novel and a memoir about Gourmet in the works, but Reichl is taking the time to "have enough distance from Gourmet" speculating that by the time she's done writing it will be about "a world that doesn't exist anymore."

Your novel hits shelves next week. How are you feeling about it being your fiction debut?
Really nervous. Real butterflies in my stomach. I actually wrote to a friend, "Did I feel this was about my other books?" She said, "Yes, you did; you were always a basket case the week before it hit" ...

How did your writing process compare to approaching fiction versus approaching your memoir, even versus approaching a critique?
I feel like I've practiced for writing fiction by doing the disguises I did, which I wrote about in Garlic and Sapphires, but I was inventing people then and turning myself into them. In the process of becoming these people, I pretty much learned what that process of inventing fictional people. Those people that I became for Garlic and Sapphires were fully realized characters.

Yeah. Reading it reminded me of a method actor.
It was kind of like that, of fully inhabiting a character. The process of writing nonfiction is journalism. I mean, you know what it is. It's like you stand in the shower and you think about the story and then you think, oh this is how I'm going to come at it, right? Here's my lede and you wait for the lede sentence and then you know ... But you know what the story is. Fiction is really different because you need to create it out of whole cloth. The biggest part of it is getting to know your character. I created Billie Breslin, this 21 year old who was in trouble, it was an emotional trouble, but had what I always wished I had, which is a perfect palate ... Fiction is wonderful because once you've created the character, they're in control. You're just waiting to find out what they're going to do. It's really fun.

Billie's work life brings her to New York for Delicious!. I imagine you were thinking about Gourmet quite a bit.
Delicious.jpgWhat I wanted to do was I wanted to take this character, Billie, put her in some kind of jeopardy and then put her in a very nurturing atmosphere. I don't know that everybody experienced it that way, but for me being around Gourmet, being around all those food people was the most wonderful group of people...

I was wondering about something you said at Cherry Bombe's Jubilee, about the state of print media today and you were saying that, to paraphrase, the pressure that editors are under to sell ads basically prevents the sexy and interesting stories from being written because what advertiser wants to be on the page with a food politics story.
Yeah. I did say that. I think that the advertising pressure is to make safe stories because that's what advertisers like. Advertisers don't like controversy. There is a lot of pressure and it's not overt. Nobody ever says to you, "Oh, you can't do a story about problems with fish farming." "Oh, you can't get David Foster Wallace to write a piece about what lobsters feel when they go into the pot."

...Nobody ever comes to you and says that. What they say is, "You know, I just can't get an adjacency for this story." You then have to decide, are you going to use your precious well pages for what are essentially print stories ... You end up with a lot of fluff in a magazine ... Magazines used to be reflections of their editors, quirky and surprising. I think that that happens less and less.

There's also a parallel story happening in newspapers with food sections and local food critics. I'm curious as somebody who was there, but isn't anymore, from the outside looking in, do you see a solution for a hard-pressed editor to figure out how to keep their critics funded?
Here's the basic problem with newspapers and food sections; I was the editor of the food section at the LA Times when it was the biggest food section in the country. It was huge. It was 60 to 100 pages every week ... It was a cash cow. The people who ran the newspapers, that's how they thought of them. They thought of those sections as, we're not doing this to please our readers, we're doing this for the advertisers because the supermarkets all want these...

Restaurant critics, in many ways, become the voice of a city.

Editors have to stop thinking of them in that way. They have to recalibrate their thinking and realize that their readers really love these sections. They're not going to be the place that they're going to get their huge outlay of money, but they are going to be a place where they can anticipate that they will get readers. I always think that really good restaurant critics should be thought of like columnists. They are people who, in many ways, become the voice of a city. In seeking out ethnic restaurants and following food trends, they can make a local paper feel local and that they have a really important place.

Until editors think of their restaurant critics and their food writers as being really important to the paper, that's not going to happen. I think it's slowly changing because what you're seeing is, at the point when the New York Times gets a Mark Bittman to actually be on the editorial page, that's a recalibrating of how you're thinking of food and the place of food and the kind of contempt where these were women's sections, and I don't think that most editors have really understood. Oddly, magazine editors understand it much better. You have a magazine; you can have GQ, Esquire, or the Atlantic, the New Yorker, all doing important food stories and making food part of the mix in a way that it never used to be.

Newspaper editors, I think still have a pretty old fashioned way of thinking about, "Oh, that's that soft stuff" ... There's a real sense still that these issues aren't quite as important as what's going on in Ukraine.

You mentioned the idea of people thinking of the food section or food writing even, as the women's sphere. You had said a few months ago, that sometimes the food media world still feels to you as a bit of a boy's club.
It does.

Have you seen any changes there or any progress?

There's something a little crazy about a list that recognizes David Chang before it recognizes Alice Waters.

Well, it's interesting because this year, the Time 100 asked me to write about Alice Waters and 3 years ago or 4 years ago, they'd asked me to write about David Chang and I thought there's something a little crazy about a list that recognizes David before it recognizes Alice. I mean, I'm glad that they asked me to write about Alice, I mean I'm glad that they asked someone to write about her. I'm glad Alice got included on the list because I think she's been a huge voice, but I really do think that there's still a sense that the guys are the important ones. The Beard Awards are coming up this weekend and not a lot of women on those lists. It's not as if there aren't a lot of women cooking.

At Eater, Paula Forbes tracked the numbers and the ratio of male to female nominees at the Beard awards and we found that this year is actually...
It's an uptick.

It's an uptick, which is, of course, exciting. I think when you look at the list of media nominees, it's a little bit more...
The media nominees is certainly, but there have always been women critics. I love the fact that at the Cherry Bombe Jubilee, Mimi Sheraton said she could tell the difference between men and women writing and she is, so by far, the toughest critic that the New York Times has ever had.

Ruth-Reichl-Cherry-Bombe.jpg
[Photo: Instagram/@klancycooks]

She also said at Jubilee that she doesn't believe that critics should go out of their way to find women chefs to write about or give them any leeway. What do you think about that?
I disagree with that. I really think that, it just comes down to probably your politics. Do you believe in affirmative action or don't you? I do. Obviously you're not going to give someone a break because they're a woman, but I think that in hiring, in writing, it is important. When I was at the New York Times, at that time, I wasn't thinking so much about women, I was thinking more about color .... [That's] completely underrepresented ... I think it behooves all of us to recognize that this is an industry. There are a lot of women in this industry and there are a lot of people of color in this industry. We don't want to be living in a world of all white men.

We spoke a bit about how you would disguise yourself to dine anonymously and how that was a great practice for fiction. It was also such an important tool in your reviews and there's a trend now of critics shedding their anonymity.
There is and I think it's really a shame. It really comes down to, do you think that going to restaurants is all about the food? If you think it's all about the food, then fine, you can go as anyone and review the food. If they know you, they'll give you their best, but it's not going to really skew your experience.

If you think that restaurants are an experience and that that experience matters— nobody will dispute this ... The difference between going to a restaurant where you're known and going to a restaurant where you're not known, is enormous. Everything from how long you wait to the table that you get, the service that you get, the care that they put into the food, is just apples and oranges. My feeling always was that if they've made me stand for 45 minutes waiting for a table, with a group of people I'm trying to impress or even not or just humiliated me, and there's something really humiliating about feeling... You feel powerless. You go to a restaurant to have a good experience and what happens is you end up feeling like a supplicant, "Please, can I have my table?"

I was very lucky to have been a restaurant critic in the time before cell phones.

...I think it's really hard. I think I was very lucky to have been a restaurant critic in the time before cell phones. Now, I don't know how you would manage to do disguises very often because everybody's taking pictures all the time and they would figure out who you were and you would have to do a new disguise every day. I really think it's important to try and be as anonymous as you can.

Picking up on that idea of being a supplicant at the restaurant, I'm reminded of Alan Richman and Corby Kummer on tasting menus. Richman coined that phrase "egotarian cuisine" a month ago, and I wanted to get your thoughts on that style of dining, whether you see a chef-first, not customer-first, attitude and is that a problem?
I think it depends what you want. If you know that you're going to Alinea or Eleven Madison Park or one of these restaurants where it's a tasting menu, you're signing on for the theater of the experience and that's different than going to a place where you want to, okay I just want a cup of soup or I want the 2 or 3 things I order every time I come here.

To me, that argument is like the difference between molecular gastronomy and simple cooking. It's a big kitchen. There's room for a lot. I have to say, I love tasting menus because if you've been a restaurant critic for as long as I was, just figuring out what you're ordering is... I like nothing better than to walk into a restaurant and say just feed me...

I know you've turned in your next book. It's a cookbook memoir?
It's a cookbook ... What it is, is when Gourmet closed I was really beyond. I was shocked and sad and I really felt like a failure. I mean, 60 people lost their jobs on my watch. This is a magazine that had been going along for almost 70 years and bang. I had a long time where I didn't quite know what to do with myself and I ended up just going back into the kitchen and cooking. It's a diary of that year and it takes the tweets that I was doing and so each page is like a tweet, the back story of what was going on at that point in my life and then the recipe I was tweeting about...

Two things really happened and one was, after years of going out to restaurants, and suddenly it was like, I realized it was the first time in 35 years that I hadn't had an expense account. I wasn't going to fancy restaurants or really much of any kind. I realized after a while that I didn't miss it, that I was loving being in the kitchen and that I was learning after living this quite fabulous life at Gourmet, that's the next memoir I'm going to write; the life of luxury at Condé Nast was to a daily journalist like me, almost unimaginable. I had just never lived like that before. I knew I was a visitor and that it wasn't going to be for the rest of my life, but it was incredible. Not to worry about money for the first time in your life.

And in New York.
In New York. And to have a car, you never have to wait for a cab. You never have to run through the rain. A clothing allowance. It was incredible. I realized that I really didn't miss it. I loved being in the kitchen and that I was getting so much pleasure out of little things. I had all these big things and then I suddenly realized that I was now aware of a beautiful day, of peeling a peach, the smell of onions caramelizing in butter, and that really is the secret of life ... It's very much a book about how this connection to food and feeding people was very healing to me .. That'll be out next May.

Does it have a title?

I said we can't do that because that was just Tony Bourdain making fun of me.

We are probably changing it. We started calling it, The Tao of Ruth and then I thought, people aren't going to realize that this is a joke. They're going to think, oh, who does she think she is? I said, no we can't do that because that was just Tony Bourdain making fun of me. If you don't know that, it sounds really pretentious. We don't quite know what we're calling it, but it's done. Then, I'm writing [my next] novel and then after the novel I'm going to write [the memoir]. I will have enough distance from Gourmet and by then it really will be, I think, a world that doesn't exist anymore.

Is there anything else on your plate?
I gave a speech the week before last for the fundraiser for the Rural & Migrant Ministry, and it's something I feel really strongly about. It is justice for farmworkers ... So much of the food industry now runs on the backs of mostly illegal immigrants who have no voice. One of the things that I really want to do is put energy into trying to change that. We will never have a sustainable food movement as long as we continue to think that it's okay for these people to be treated ... The stories that people tell you, you can't even imagine what these people's lives are like. In New York State, farm workers don't have the right to collective bargaining. They don't have the right to a day of rest in a week and they don't have the right to overtime ... We have to change that.

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[Delicious! Cover: Random House]

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