A&E

Ruth Reichl sinks her teeth into fiction

Former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet editor-in-chief talks dining disguises, her new novel and the best thing she ate in the last week

For many years, Ruth Reichl was not Ruth Reichl.

She was Brenda, a red-headed hippie so friendly she would often receive tastes of food from neighboring tables at restaurants.

She was Chloe, a sultry diner who proves that blondes truly do have more fun.

Perhaps most famous was her stint as Molly, a frumpy woman from Michigan who revealed two very distinct dining experiences at Le Cirque in New York City, published in a 1993 review divided into two sections: "Dinner as the Unknown Diner" and "Dinner as a Most Favored Patron."

Reichl donned these disguises for six years while dining as The New York Times restaurant critic, bringing a new flavor and focus to the Grey Lady.

Long before that, she was a starving 20-something in Berkeley, just starting what would become a legendary food-writing career -- she's the author of multiple cookbooks, memoirs, winner of six James Beard Awards, was editor-in-chief of now-shuttered Gourmet Magazine and starred in Food Network specials.

Her most recent writing comes in fictional form, and brings her to Palo Alto for a talk at the Oshman Family JCC at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 20, at 7. "Delicious!," a novel set in contemporary New York City, follows Billie Breslin, a 21-year-old from Santa Barbara who snags a job at nationally renowned food magazine "Delicious!" only to see it shut down by its ruthless owner (not unlike Conde Nast's abrupt closure of 70-year-old Gourmet in 2009).

Billie is asked to stay on to take readers' complaints about recipes, mandated under the Delicious! satisfaction "Guarantee." In her time alone at the defunct magazine's office (a beautiful New York City mansion) she discovers a hidden room full of letters from 12-year-old Lulu Swan to the food pioneer himself, James Beard. The letters, written during World War II, revolve around food and recipes, but underlying references to the war provide a historical tilt that draws Billie into the past.

On weekends Billie works at a family-owned Italian deli (which becomes the subject of her first break-through piece for the magazine). She writes letters to an older sister she misses dearly and reminisces about a gingerbread recipe that she made with her aunt, the sister of her dead mother.

"Delicious!" is a departure from Reichl's past works -- fans best know her memoirs, "Tender at the Bone," "Comfort Me with Apples," "Garlic and Sapphires," and "For You Mom, Finally" -- but there are traces of her life and career throughout.

In our Q&A with Reichl, she opened up about her new book, her past, why the Bay Area is a haven for culinary innovation and the frittata she can't stop thinking about.

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What inspired you to make the switch to fiction?

I love fiction. It's my greatest love. ... In times of trouble, what I do is I leap into a book. I just vanish and I love that ability to vanish into another world. I thought, 'I wonder if that's what it's like writing a book?' So that was a big part of it. I was very sad about the closing of Gourmet and a year later, I was finally in a better place. I'd been in the kitchen for that year mostly and I thought, 'Now I'm going to do this.' I had this idea -- I had been working at Gilt Taste, and I met all these fantastic 20-something-year-old women who were so different than my generation and so fantastic. I admired them so much --their energy, their optimism and I thought, 'I wonder what it's like to be 21 and coming to New York?' I'm going to create this character and see what happens.

I know most first-time novelists say their books aren't based on reality, but a lot of what happens to Billie seems to resemble your life. How much of "Delicious!" was autobiographical, whether it was purposeful or not?

Emotionally, she's very much not like me. She's shy, which I am certainly not. And she's in trouble. When I was 21, I was already married. And I really think this generation is a very different time. (In my generation), we had no trouble getting jobs. You got out of school and there were a million jobs. You could do anything you wanted. This generation of kids just getting out of college ... if you have a job, be grateful. Yes, I wrote about the world I know; I wrote about a food magazine and food people, but I would say if there's anybody that I resemble in the book, it's much more Lulu. I was a little girl who cooked.

What was it like when Gourmet closed? (Editor's note: In "Delicious!," after the owner shuts the magazine down, the staff spends the night at the office clearing out the liquor closet, and then heads to a house in Brooklyn for a "proper wake.")

That was, I would say, pretty much like what happens in the book. It came at me out of the blue. We had a little book party last night and a lot of Gourmet people were there. They were all saying, 'That's just what it felt like.' We did go and have that party. We gathered up everything in the kitchen and all the booze and we went to my house and had a party.

I was so flummoxed at the time. It was also very strange because I was on a book tour for the Gourmet cookbook when it happened. I was contractually obligated to be on book tour for another month, which was very strange. It wasn't my book; I wasn't getting royalties for it. It was a very strange time. There is a certain similarity (to the book) in that when I came back, everybody else had gone. Everybody else had packed up and left and I came back into this empty building.

Is there a personal significance to the gingerbread recipe? (Billie gets the job at "Gourmet!" by making the gingerbread on the spot at her job interview. The recipe is also printed in the back of the book.)

I never did anything like what Jake (the magazine editor) does. I never had anyone cook for me. I thought if you were smart, if someone did ask you on the spur on the moment to cook something, you would to try to think of something that was unique but not pretentious. And gingerbread just seemed to me like a perfect thing. It's a classic American dish. It's not a really show-off thing. I would have been impressed if I had asked someone and they had made me the best gingerbread in my entire life.

There's a reference to Palo Alto and Sunset Magazine in the book. Where did that come from? (One of the Delicious! chefs decides to take a job at Sunset, now based in Menlo Park, and move with her husband, who got a job at a startup in Palo Alto.)

I spent the first 10 years of my career in San Francisco. At the time, Sunset Magazine had the most amazing person who was in charge of food there. She was gorgeous; she was smart. If there's a reference, it's kind of to that. I've always admired Sunset.

What were your first big breaks as a writer?

We had this collective restaurant (The Swallow) in an art museum in Berkeley and I had done some very small pieces for New West (magazine), mostly about art, which is what my real background is. One of my editors lived in Berkeley and used to come into our restaurant all the time for dinner. One night he just looked at me and said, 'You know you're a much better writer than a restaurant (worker)? And you can cook. Have you ever thought about writing about restaurants?' I honestly was not thinking, 'Oh, this is going to be my next career.' To be perfectly honest, all I was thinking was free meals. I had no money. Never in a million years did it cross my mind that I was going to end up with a career about food. It was just a fantastic break and I was absolutely determined to make it as incredible a restaurant review as I possibly could.

I ended up writing what was basically a short story. It was not like any restaurant review anybody had ever seen before. It was a short story with the restaurant info kind of woven through it. It was a restaurant called Robert in the Marina. I called the piece 'Cops and Robert' -- a little film noir.

Can you talk about your time in Berkeley, the early days at Chez Panisse?

Berkeley in the early '70s was really an amazing place. It was all filled with people who were very political. And the war ended and we all felt really great that we had ended the war. We felt very powerful and we started looking around -- what's the next cause? Food seemed like a really good thing to take up. We were looking at the beginning of the industrialization of food, vertical integration of agribusiness and to a lot of us, restaurant work seemed like very honest work. It was honest labor.

Our restaurant, The Swallow, was ... (made up of) a group of really over-educated people who were really passionate about food, but none of us were professionally trained. Chez Panisse was kind of like that too. Alice (Waters) had no professional training. Jeremiah (Towers) didn't. It was this time of -- we were all kind of learning on the spot, learning as we went, very optimistic about what we might accomplish. None of us were business people. When Alice opened Chez Panisse, her idea was that everyone -- it didn't matter if you were a dishwasher, waiter or cook, you were going to get the same wage. There was no business plan. We were kind of the same at The Swallow. It was kind of a wonderful time. It was a wonderful kind of innocence.

On the other hand ... we were like this tiny band of people who cared about food in a world that really was completely oblivious. And today what you have is food as popular culture and certainly the most knowledgeable dining public that this country has ever had.

What do you think has driven that huge shift?

I think an awful lot of it is (the) beginning of TV food networks and all of these food shows on TV. I think there's this generation of kids who grew up watching food TV.

When I first started, one of the first big stories I did for New West was about the opening of Michael's Restaurant in Santa Monica. What was remarkable about it was it was five chefs, all of whom were American. All the chefs we knew were French or Italian. There weren't American chefs. They were all young; they were all college educated. And they were trying to use California products. In 1978, that was a story. So the whole status of being a food person changed. All those kids' parents were horrified. You want to do what? You want to be a chef? Today, if somebody with a PhD says, 'I think I want to be a chef,' nobody thinks that's strange.

You have had feet in both the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City dining worlds. Can you talk about the differences between the two?

The hugest difference is it's so easy to be a good home cook in the Bay Area. I come out there and I go to a place like Bi-Rite Market (in San Francisco) or the Berkeley Bowl and I'm just so jealous. We don't have anything like that in New York. You have a completely different home-cooking culture than we do. It means that restaurants, I think, have license to be more experimental in the Bay Area because people can cook great, simple food at home. I don't think people in the Bay Area go out to eat as much. New Yorkers don't have kitchens; they don't have access to easy great food; people order in. They just don't cook at home as much. That changes the nature of restaurants.

Can you tell me about a few of your favorite disguises from your time at The New York Times?

My absolute favorite was Brenda, who was kind of wild, red-headed hippie. She's just so nice. Even my family liked her better than me. She was one of those people who saw a line somewhere and she would get in it and make friends with everyone in line. People in restaurants, people at the next table would offer her tastes (of food). It was very fun to be her. She was my living proof that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I've loved being Chloe, the sultry (one). I've always wanted to be a blonde. Being Chloe was just so much fun. Blondes do have more fun. She was kind of a ditz. She had a very good time in life.

What made you decide to use such elaborate disguises?

When I realized that they all (restaurants) had photographs of me and I was going to have to do something about it ... My mother had a really close friend who was a theater coach. I called her up and asked, 'Where do I go to get a wig?' Claudia said 'No, no, no. You can't just put on a wig. You have to become these people.' She really insisted that I know every character's back story and where they came from, who they were, how they dressed, who their families were. It was incredible practice for writing fiction. It was like living fiction.

It was an amazing lesson to me in how much in control we are of how people see us. I never thought about that before. (I thought) you are who you are and you're stuck with it. Putting on all these disguises, I realized ... you're totally in control of how the world sees you.

So what made you realize that wasn't right for you anymore?

Ultimately, I got offered the job at Gourmet, (it) was irresistible. At first, I said to my husband, 'This job is great, but I'm not ready to leave being the restaurant critic of The New York Times.' He said, 'Think about this for a minute. What are you going to do in a couple years when you keep saying you'll be done with doing this in a couple years?' And I said. 'Well, I have a deal with The New York Times: When I'm done with (being a restaurant critic), I'll be an editor.' He said, 'Wouldn't you rather be the editor of your own magazine?'

I had this meeting with James Truman, who was the one hiring (at Gourmet) and I said to him, 'I don't want this job, but I can tell you what I think you should do with the magazine.' I suddenly realized I really did know exactly what I thought an epicurean magazine should be and that it would be really fun to try to make a magazine that was a part of the national conversation about food.

What are some food magazines you love and read now?

There are all these interesting independent magazines. I love Lucky Peach. I love Cherry Bombe. Fool (Magazine), I think is interesting, and Modern Farmer. I'm really excited about this proliferation of other voices and other ideas about what a magazine can be.

So print food journalism isn't dead?

It is definitely not dead. It's just doing something else. Cherry Bombe is two women putting out a fantastically produced magazine with real writing and a real point of view. It's done with passion and effort and fervor and imagination and it finds an audience.

Is there a food trend today that you hate? Or one you celebrate?

The one that I most celebrate at the moment is, I love the way that Middle Eastern spices are finally coming into the table and I think its all due to (well-known Israeli chef Yotam) Ottolenghi and the success of (his cookbook, "Jerusalem"). They're spilling over into restaurants and we're suddenly getting this entirely different flavor palate and I love that.

This isn't exactly a trend, but one of the things that really worries me is in the whole sustainable food movement, we are really overlooking an important part of it. Both restaurants and agriculture in this country essentially run on undocumented workers. These people are exploited. We did an article in Gourmet about tomato workers in Florida who are virtual slaves. But it isn't just Florida. I think its time that we got out of this rut of sustainability and what's good for me; I don't want to eat pesticides; I want the land to be pristine for my children and so forth, and expand the notion of sustainability to the people who are growing this food for us.

Now that your novel is successfully out the door, what's next?

I have just turned in a cookbook that comes off my Twitter feed. It starts with Gourmet closing and each page is the tweet and then the kind of diary of what was going on my life and then the recipe that I was tweeting about. It's seasonal; it goes an entire year. It's really how I went into the kitchen and just healed myself. And it's about how I reconnected with cooking and really re-grounded myself in the kitchen.

Now, I'm working on my next novel. After I finish this novel, I'm going to write the Gourmet memoir. But I wanted a little distance from it. I didn't want to just leap into it, I really wanted to be able to pull back. By the time I write it in another year or so, I'll really be writing about a vanished world. That world of Conde Nast, which is a world of unbelievable freedom and luxury, I think, is a thing of the past. But it was a magical time.

What was the best thing you ate in the last week?

Right after the (James) Beard Awards ... I had this really absolutely simple but delicious broccoli rabe frittata. I cannot get the flavor of that out of my mouth. It was so delicious and light and slightly bitter and the sweetness of the cheese. It was just perfect.

Is there a new dish you cooked recently that you loved? Or perhaps, an old favorite?

My go-to favorite dish is spaghetti carbonara. I've always got dry pasta in the cupboard and I've always got bacon, eggs and Parmesan cheese in my refrigerator. At the drop of a hat, I'll go home and make myself spaghetti carbonara.

No, I take it back. The most delicious thing I ate last week -- my son went to a Japanese market and brought me home as a present a tray of uni and some yamamimo -- a Japanese mountain potato which when you grate it gets wonderfully slimy -- and some salmon roe. I made this dish of grated yamamimo with uni and salmon roe and a little bit of soy sauce. The market is called Sunrise Market in New York, right down by Astor Place.

Do you have any dining plans set for your Bay Area trip?

Unfortunately, I'm there for three days but all my meals are at events that I'm doing, so I don't get go to anywhere. That really makes me sad. There are so many restaurants I want to go to. The State Bird Provisions people were at the (James) Beard Awards and I want to go to Tartine (Bakery) and I want to back to Chez Panisse and Zuni. There are so many places I want to go.

If you're going...

WHAT: Ruth Reichl in conversation with Angie Coiro, talk radio host

WHERE: Schultz Cultural Hall, Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto

WHEN: Tuesday, May 20, with 6:30 p.m. check-in, 7 p.m. program and 8 p.m. book signing

TICKETS: General admission: $20 non-members, $15 members, $8 students (with valid ID). Premium (priority seating and copy of book): $45

INFO: www.commonwealthclub.org

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