Real life heroes: Food critic Ruth Reichl
On the eve of a trip to New Zealand, the revered food writer is engagingly forthcoming, finds Nici Wickes
It's risky talking to your writing heroes. What if they turn out to be ordinary, their words much less spectacular and cleverly constructed than those that proved so gripping on the page?
I sit looking at the phone number I've been given for US-based food writer Ruth Reichl and wonder if it's better to flag the interview than risk dashing the fantasy. She writes so enthusiastically and passionately about food. She makes Anthony Bourdain and AA Gill look like a pair of miserable bastards full of disdain for their subject.
Reichl became renowned for her entertaining, brave writing style when she took up the role as restaurant reviewer first for The Los Angeles Times then in 1993 atThe New York Times, and following that, for her decade-long editorship of Gourmetmagazine.
In her bestselling book, Garlic & Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Restaurant Critic in Disguise (2005), Reichl revealed what went on behind the scenes during her eight years as New York's most revered restaurant critic.
She told of how she disguised herself, literally, in the name of finding the truth about what the anonymous diner experiences in New York City's restaurants, from the most important to those that were as yet undiscovered.
But it was through her heart-warming memoir, Tender at the Bone, published in 1998, and the sequel, Comfort Me With Apples(2001), that I first heard her voice.
Through both books we are with her as parts of her life threaten to unravel and as she begins to triumph in her pursuit to make a living from writing about the very things that interest her most - her tremendous passion for food and an insatiable curiosity about people.
Comfort Me With Apples picks up with her living in Berkeley, in her mid-30s, grappling with a decision to accept the position as restaurant critic for the LA Times. So begins the riotous ride as she throws herself into becoming one of America's most influential food writers and restaurant reviewers.
In her most recent book, Delicious!, she branches out into fiction for the first time. She's coming to New Zealand, hence the interview.
I dial the number. Somewhere in up-state New York the phone rings and then, "Hi, this is Ruth."
For close to an hour I babble, stifle nervous giggles, try not to ask too many self-interested questions and try even harder not to pant too loudly down the line. Here's what Ruth Reichl told me in one of the most enlightening and articulate conversations I've ever had about food, eating, cooking and life.
"I wish people would cook more. There's too much stress around it now. It's just a meal. There'll be another one along in a few hours. Cooking is such an easy way to have a sense of accomplishment - to get your hands into the food, it's sensual and sensory. You're missing so much by not cooking.
"All this eating out, I find it upsetting that we spend so much of our private lives in public places. It is an act of bravery to invite people into your home now.
"They get to see the real you, that your children misbehave, the untidiness perhaps. There is a real intimacy in inviting people into your home. You are giving a real piece of yourself."
This, from someone who ate out most nights for The New York Times.
"I adored every minute of being a food critic because I am social. People often think that to be a good food critic you must be able to eat well, but it's more than that. You must enjoy and be able to spend time at the table and to like people because you spend many hours sitting with others.
"During my time there I got to go out with so many interesting people. I probably should have been taking out my bosses but, instead, I had a group of friends, starving artists and strangers who I would ask to join me. No one who accompanied me ever said no, and the socialness was such great fun. I had grown up in New York but then moved to California so, when I arrived back in New York City in 1993, I felt like I'd arrived in the middle of a revolution where everyone had started taking notice of food.
"Before that, no one cared too much but, suddenly, it was top of mind and to be in a position where I was letting people know where to eat, to alert them to little-known places and constantly making discoveries in the city, it never got boring.
"To turn up at a place that was empty, where the food was fantastic, and know that through my voice, my words, I could help to fill it, was a tremendous feeling."
She admits, however, that when she moved on from her restaurant critic role to become editor of Gourmet, it was nonetheless a welcome change.
"I loved being able to work alongside chefs again, to tell their stories in a different way. I didn't need to stay aloof anymore.
"When I first arrived in New York City it was an advantage that I didn't know the food scene there and I remained relatively apart from it for the entire time I was the restaurant critic in that I didn't go to openings or socialise with restaurateurs and chefs.
"You make enemies, whether you like it or not. That's what ends up happening. It's not nice, you don't like it and it was hard for me because I like people so much, but it's part of the job and if you're taking the good then you'll get the bad too. The job of a food critic is to be straight up and playing favourites won't get you anywhere.
"One day when I was in a bookstore doing some book signings, a father came up to me with his 7-year-old and told me how he'd lost his job as a result of what I'd written. That is not a good day in a dream job."
I'd read that when Reichl was editor at Gourmet one of her strategies was to empower her writers to "do the one thing they are best at" and so I ask her what her "one thing" is.
"I think outside of the box really well. I take risks and I have a huge desire to do things better. My first restaurant reviews were stories - love stories, stories about 18th century, sci-fi adventures - and I let the food lead those stories.
"That's what gave Gourmet its advantage, too. We wrote about what people were beginning to be curious about; producers and their stories, where food was coming from. I was not about to run with 'safe stories' as I knew that wouldn't add anything to the landscape."
Writing fiction for the first time, she says, was a wonderfully freeing experience, not to be constrained by the facts and yet her novel, Delicious! contains a lot of historical facts as one of the key storylines is set during World War II.
"I am fascinated about World War II because it seems that was the last time we all ate the same food. We showed a patriotic duty to eating only what our rations allowed for, eating mindfully and using our imaginations. These days, in the US at least, the rich eat gorgeously while one in eight citizens goes hungry. We are talking about sustainability but we are still living literally high on the hog. We talk about "nose to tail" but we don't really adhere to it.
"I think it's shameful to talk about being "sustainable" until everyone in the US is eating well as a right, not a privilege.
"Recently, I've been working with rural and migrant workers. They are the people who are picking the pristine produce in our country but who can only afford low-quality, fast food for themselves. It's a disgrace. We care for animals more than we do our fellow human beings."
And so the conversation went, with Reichl funnier, effortlessly interesting, entirely enthusiastic and generous in sharing her stories and views.
Was I disappointed? Is she ordinary? Not on your life. She is every bit the hero I've held in my imagination for 15 years and I've no doubt she will be wildly entertaining when she appears in Auckland to share her insights at Delicious Dining, an event brought together by the Auckland Writers Festival, NZ Guild of Food Writers and WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival.
• Tues August 26, 6.30pm, The Great Room, The Langham Auckland. Tickets $195 (includes three-course dinner with wine) Book at eventfinder.co.nz.