Ruth Reichl — a woman whose resume (food critic at the Los Angeles Times and New York Times; EIC of Gourmet magazine) precedes her — is about to embark upon a whirlwind of a book tour for her first cookbook in over 40 years: My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life. It chronicles the year after publisher Condé Nast folded Gourmet magazine (in 2009) and laid off its staff — including Reichl — in an abrupt, financial-based decision that left thousands of readers, cooks, chefs, and food editors reeling. After the shock wore off, and as her colleagues applied for other jobs, Reichl looked around and realized she was nearly 62 years old and had no plan. "A thing like this, it changes you in the way that all of life changes you," Reichl says, "I am a different person today."
Six months after being laid off, she writes in her new book, while gathered with ex-staffers over a meal, Gourmet's former travel editor William Sertl asked if she missed her pricey dinners out. "When was the last time you were without an expense account?"
It stopped me cold. I did the math."Nineteen seventy-eight."
I love restaurants, and for thirty-two years I'd been able to eat anywhere I wanted, anytime, on someone else's money. I spooned the last of the fried rice into a box and closed the flaps."I've been so happy in the kitchen," I said, the words coming slowly,"that I haven't even thought about fancy restaurants."
"Really?" Bill stared at me. "Then maybe you should be writing a cookbook instead of looking for another job."
It's now been six years since Gourmet magazine shuttered, and Reichl has risen to become an even greater force in the culinary world. She has more than 350,000 followers on Twitter; a few years ago she signed a three-book deal with Random House (the new cookbook is book number two; the first was her novel, Delicious); she's frequently invited to speak on panels about the state of the food world; and she's a highly sought after interview. (I was able to snag a few minutes with Reichl while in Mexico City, where she was part of a roundtable at Mesa Redonda, an annual culinary conference.)
One of my goals in life is to get people cooking again, and if cookbooks can do that, we need more of them
Where she was once focused on encouraging readers to try a new restaurant, or coaxing commentary out of award-winning writers like David Foster Wallace, Reichl says her primary goal in life now is to get people to cook at home. She explains, "Food is growing and changing so much, and the way we think about food is changing so much, that I think that there continues to be a need for cookbooks, and one of my goals in life is to get people cooking again, and if cookbooks can do that, we need more of them."
Reichl thought this cookbook would look more like a straight memoir: "When I first envisioned the book... I said 'Look, I don't want pictures, I don't want drawings... let's just make it a little tiny book, a really little, little book that you would take to bed to read.' And [my editors] agreed to that until they got the book. And then they said, 'No, we really need pictures...'" After conferring with the former creative director of Gourmet, Richard Ferretti, Reichl called photographer Mikkel Vang who insisted he work one-on-one with her — no assistants, no lights, no food stylists. The resulting art is as open and honest as the story.
She continues, "One of the things that was so exciting, one of the things that I miss about Gourmet was the collaboration, but this became a sort of collaboration." So here Reichl presents 136 recipes organized not by meal period (breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert), but first by season and then simply by taste memory. The third recipe in the book is for a sandwich: "I will never make or eat a steak sandwich without thinking of the woman at Newark airport who bought me my steak sandwich the day after I found out Gourmet was over." For Christmas one year, she bought herself a seven-pound dry aged rib roast, and "thought... by this time [the following] year it would probably be beyond [her] reach." Woven throughout are a few of Reichl's tweets from 2009 to 2010, musings that might have otherwise stayed lost in the ether.
A good cookbook should make you want to get up and cook
Fans of Reichl who loved her memoirs (including Comfort Me With Apples and Tender at the Bone) will relish this cookbook as it contains her signature warmth and candor, even in how each recipe is written. Instructions for oatmeal: "Begin by melting a dollop of unsalted butter in a small pan until it becomes fragrant and slightly golden. Toss in the oats and worry them about until they're fragrant and slightly golden, have turned brown; it should take about 5 minutes." Her hope is that the casual tone will inspire confidence in the kitchen.
And, Reichl says readers have reason to trust these recipes. "I hired a recipe tester yes, but I also had my assistant, who has little in the way of professional cooking equipment, test the recipes at home too. I mean I worked at Gourmet, where we tested recipes to literal absurdity, like 15 times, and so I went a little crazy at the end with the testing. Plus, I cooked everything again for the photos."
Will My Kitchen Year stand out from the crowd of cookbooks coming out this year? Certainly Reichl's name helps to sell books. But she's also taken her own advice: "Cookbooks are books, after all, and so what makes a cookbook great is the voice, is the writing. A good cookbook should make you want to get up and cook."
My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life hits bookstores on September 29; it is now available for preorder. Find a preview, below.