Ruth Reichl On Her Lifelong Passion for Food

Walter Isaacson sits down with restaurant critic Ruth Reichl to discuss her new memoir, “Save Me the Plums,” and her life-long passion for food.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And we turn now to a giant in the world of food writing, a born storyteller with an unwavering love of food, Ruth Reichl made her name as restaurant critic for the “L.A. Times” and then later for the “New York Times.” As a child, she fell in love with “Gourmet Magazine” which she would go on to helm for a decade as its editor in chief. And it’s all chronicled in her new memoir “Save Me the Plums.” She opens up about all of this to our Walter Isaacson.

WALTER ISAACSON: Tell me about the first time you saw “Gourmet Magazine”.

RUTH REICHL, AUTHOR, “SAVE ME THE PLUMS”: I was 8-years-old and my dad was a book designer, and he liked to spend his weekends looking through old bookstores, and he would take me along. And usually, he would just get a pile of magazines and sit me on the floor with these magazines. And I guess one day he couldn’t find anything else so he found these, like, really vintage “Gourmets” from the ’40s and it was a revelation to me because the magazine — the story I opened to was one that was written by Robert Tristram Coffin who was a Pulitzer Prize winner, the poet laureate of Maine, and a really beautiful writer. And he wrote about rolling out to — with lobsterman. It’s like late at night, they pull out the lobster pots. They rode to a deserted island. They built this huge bonfire and you see the flames crackling up in the air and you smell the lobsters cooking and they eat as much as they can. And then, they fall back on the damp sand and the stars are up above and the fish are leaping in the water and they fall asleep. And they wake up with the rising sun and they get back in the boat and they follow the sun’s path.

ISAACSON: And as an 8-year-old, you read that?

REICHL: As an 8-year-old, I read it and it changed my life because I had been reading about princesses on glass mountains and flying horses and magic. And suddenly, I saw that real life was as interesting as anything magical. And it was about paying attention. And so I became not only interested in food but interested in nonfiction, in words. And I begged my father to get me a subscription to the magazine.

ISAACSON: So it’s a bonding experience, too, with your father as you’re growing up, right?

REICHL: Yes, to my mother’s horror. My mother thought food was ridiculous and was a truly frightening cook. The first story in my first book is about my mother inviting people to a party for my — to celebrate my brother’s engagement and putting 26 of them in the hospital with food poisoning. So I’m not from a family of great cooks. And suddenly, you know, I’m cooking, I’m looking at these recipes in the magazine and my dad decides to start taking me — first he takes me to Yorkville, where he first came to the United States as a German and lived in Yorkville. And then we go to Chinatown and Little Italy and Spanish Harlem.

ISAACSON: So all over New York City, and you’re trying everything from pickled herring to all these dishes that your father loves, right?

REICHL: Yes. And my dad who was a very formal, reticent European man, he suddenly was opening up to me. And I understood that food would be a way to get to know people. So the magazine really meant something to me. It changed my life in an important way.

ISAACSON: And then you go out to Berkeley and you’re sort of part of the hippie back to the earth food [13:40:00] movement that revolutionizes American cooking back then. You helped run a restaurant, right?

REICHL: Right. I opened the restaurant with a bunch of people and people say, you know, oh, she’s a chef, I’m not a chef. We were a group of overeducated people who loved to cook. And it was kind of like, oh, let’s open a restaurant and we baked our own bread and made salads. And it was Berkeley. It was the ’70s. And you know, Alice Waters was doing her thing and there was a group of food people who all knew each other. Meanwhile, my husband and I are living in a commune and we’re dumpster diving and we’re living a really alternative life. And one day, I was writing about art, which was the — I have a masters in art history so I was writing about art for magazines. And one day, one of my editors came into my restaurant and it was literally as if a lightbulb went off over his head. He just looks at me and says, you know, you’re a much better writer than our restaurant critic is and you know food. Have you ever thought about writing restaurant reviews? Now, I have to tell you that my first thought wasn’t, oh, this is my new career. My first thought was free food. I mean, my husband and I are dirt poor. We are living on nothing. We aren’t going to restaurants. I don’t have a credit card. And suddenly, they’re giving me hundreds of dollars to go to fancy restaurants. My thought was, you know, most restaurant reviews are really boring, you know? They’re consumer reviews. They say, you know, buy this, don’t buy that, this is too salty, the service wasn’t so good. And I thought, why would you write like that? And so I wrote these little short stories and I kind of wove the review through them, but they were probably the weirdest restaurant reviews ever written.

I mean, you have to remember, this is like the ’70s. And so I wrote science fiction and I wrote love stories, I wrote Westerns. So these reviews got a kind of cult following. And so I wrote these for six years and I never — I thought this is what I’m doing until my real life happens. I mean I still thought I was going to go teach art history somewhere.

ISAACSON: When you move over to become food critic for “The New York Times,” do you have to write in a different voice?

REICHL: It was a shock, I have to say. Because when I got to New York, I discovered that every restaurant had a huge picture of me in the kitchen with “Wanted” written across the bottom and they were offering a bounty to anybody on the staff who spotted me in a restaurant. And I suddenly realized that the impact that “The New York Times” restaurant critic has on restaurants is enormous. And I decided that if they know who I was, I was going to have to be someone else. And so I wore really elaborate disguises.

ISAACSON: Tell me about one.

REICHL: OK. So, one of my favorites was Chloe.


REICHL: Chloe was a blonde. To be Chloe, I bought the most expensive wig I had ever bought and I went and got a make-up person to — I mean I do not normally wear make-up and suddenly I’m this woman. Chloe wore a lot of make-up and she had long red fingernails. And I had a vintage couture suit made by Chloe, which is where the name came from, and she wore very high heels and she would go out. And one of the things that Chloe liked to do, to my husband’s horror, was sit in the bar of a very high-end restaurant by herself and wait for a man to come along and say, you know, would you join me for dinner? And I want to tell you that there is no disguise better than having dinner with someone who doesn’t know that you’re in disguise.

ISAACSON: Take me through the process of reviewing a restaurant, especially for “The New York Times.” How many times do you go? What do you order?

REICHL: Well, at “The New York Times,” you never go fewer than three times. And for important reviews, for instance, the Le Cirque review which was my — which I did very early in my tenure at the “New York Times,” I think I went 11 times,  sometimes in disguise and sometimes not in disguise. I mean that review was — I mean I think it’s what I will end up being most remembered for. I went many times in — disguised as a frumpy Midwestern housewife and was treated abysmally, really abysmally. And the last time I went, I decided — I didn’t make a reservation in my own name but I decided not to go in disguise. And my nephew, who was working on Wall Street made the reservation. He said, well, I could only get a 9:30 reservation but let’s go at 8:00 and see what happens. We go at 8:00, and the owner, Sirio, sees me, and there are all these people milling around and he parts them like the Red Sea, takes my hand, leads me forward, and says, “The king of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready.”

And then they dance around and you know, “may we — can we bring you some champagne, white truffles, black truffles, caviar.” And I ended up writing about what happens to an ordinary person, which was not very nice, and then what happens to the restaurant critic of the “New York Times”. And I wrote it in two takes, which was my way of saying anonymity is really important. I mean, it’s who you are in a restaurant can change how a restaurant is for you.

So for that reason, I always went sometimes in disguise, sometimes not in disguise. I would go with a small group and a large group. I would go weekday, weekend. I almost always went once alone because it’s a very different experience as a woman alone, eating. So I mean, at “The New York Times,” I once said, you know, “what is my budget?” And they said we’ll let you know when you go over it.

ISAACSON: Tell me about getting a phone call from James Truman.

REICHL: OK. So I am the restaurant critic of “The New York Times,” and I pick up my phone at home one day, and it’s someone who says, this is James Truman. And I honestly didn’t know who he was. And he said, “You know, I’m the editorial director of Conde Nast. Conde Nast was the premier luxury magazine company. It owned — I mean it was owned by the Newhouse family. S.I. Newhouse famously spent more money than anybody else. I mean it was a lavish lifestyle there and they owned “Vogue,” “The New Yorker,” “GQ,” “Allure,” “Brides,” “Vanity Fair.”

ISAACSON: And most importantly, the magazine that you as an 8-year-old fell in love with.

REICHL: And “Gourmet.” And so I go to meet James Truman, thinking that he’s probably looking for a new restaurant critic. And literally, when he said, I’m looking for a new editor in chief for “Gourmet.” I dropped my spoon into my cup. It was just like, what? And you know, I had loved that magazine so much. It had meant so much to me. And I had felt that it had gotten increasingly stodgy. It had been a wonderfully adventurous magazine for much of its history but as it matured, it became, I thought, a magazine for rich people who, you know, gave the recipes to their cooks and —

ISAACSON: But aren’t you worried about things like being a restaurant critic, and being “New York Times” restaurant critic, and then Conde Nast, publications that you’re sort of catering to rich people?

REICHL: I didn’t think that for any reason I was the right person to be the editor in chief of “Gourmet.” I mean I was a writer, not a manager. I didn’t know anything about budgets. I mean, I was basically an ink-stained wretch. I mean I wrote about a life of luxury as a restaurant critic but I took the subway to the restaurants. I did not live in that rarefied world of the Anna Wintour’s, but I loved the magazine and I really wanted it to be great again.

ISAACSON: Why wasn’t it great?

REICHL: It had lost its ambition. I mean, the owner, the man who started it, had had a vision of what the magazine could be. And in the early years, it had shared writers with “The New Yorker,” you know, amazing articles were in that old magazine. You know, Ray Brad Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” started as an article in “Gourmet Magazine.”

ISAACSON: You had the most beautiful magazine, partly because you attracted Richard Ferretti, an amazing art director. Tell me how that relationship worked and what did he do for you?

REICHL: Richard pushed the envelope in so many ways. I mean one of the things he said was, you know, all the magazines use the same food photographers. What if we got people who have never worked with food? What if we got news photographers?

ISAACSON: So you get journalistic photographers and suddenly it’s not sort of a stylized chocolate cake but a story you’re telling.

REICHL: But it’s a story. And then Richard started actually storyboarding the shoots as if they were movies. You know, let’s invite people to a party every month and let’s — you know, we knew what conversations were taking place at that table. We really were trying to give you something to dream on. I mean, I always imagined that people took “Gourmet” to bed and that they sat there looking at those centerfolds, those beautiful vistas that Richard created, and that they dreamed themselves into them. And that’s what print can do that digital doesn’t do.

ISAACSON: Why in heaven’s name, then, did Conde Nast and the Newhouse’s shut it down?

REICHL: You know what? I don’t know. I mean there’s no question that, you know, our advertising went really south. In the last year, our ad pages, we lost more than half of them and “Gourmet’s” ad strategy had always been to go for luxury ads. And as one of my publishers explained to me, if you’re Tiffany’s and your ad spend has been cut in half, are you going to cut “Vogue”? Are you going to cut “Gourmet”? And he said that’s going to happen to us everywhere, and it did. I still do not understand why — I mean we had a million dedicated subscribers who loved the magazine and to this day, not a day goes by that somebody doesn’t come up and tell me how much they miss the magazine. And you know, as a magazine editor, you would kill for that kind of connection to your readers. You know, this was a magazine that really mattered to people. And you know, they could have fired me, gotten rid of staff but I do not understand why they didn’t save the brand.

ISAACSON: Your book is not just about food and magazines, but it’s about your life. Your life as a mother, your life as a writer, your life as a woman, your life juggling the many things that you have to juggle from weird male bosses to family issues at home. Tell me a little bit about that.

REICHL: Well, I really wanted this book to be useful to people who were not food people. And I mean one of the most — for me, the most exciting things about the reaction to the magazine is I’m hearing from so many young women who are, you know, in their 30s are juggling how to be a mom and to be a boss. And part of what I also wanted the book to be was like I really — I had to learn to be a boss and I think that I was a very different kind of boss than most men would be. I mean I actually went into the magazine and said to people, I don’t know what I’m doing, help me. And it was extremely collaborative. I mean I think that most men would not want to say to the people who work for them, I don’t know what I’m doing. And I realized as a leader that the best thing you can do is hire people who are smarter than you. So, you know, when I hired Richard Ferretti, I wouldn’t have dreamt of telling him how to run his department. Zan Stewart, who ran the kitchen, I wouldn’t have dreamt of telling her how do you do that. I hired a managing editor and said, you know, teach me how to manage people, help me write these memos. I don’t know what I’m doing. And I went to the staff and said, we have a mandate to change this magazine. What are your ideas? And they remade the magazine. I didn’t. And I feel like that message is an important message for other women who are, you know, becoming managers. I mean there’s no real training to be a manager and we all sort of get, you know — we get pushed upstairs and suddenly we’re given jobs that we don’t know how to do and there’s no shame in saying to people who are working for you, you know, let’s do this together, help me.

ISAACSON: Ruth, thank you so much for being with us.

REICHL: Thank you. This is really a pleasure.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour hosts a round-table with Kori Schake, Karin von Hippel and Mark Hannah to discuss the U.S.’s attempt at peace in the Middle East. Christiane also speaks with Susan Dynarski about the burden of student debt affecting Americans nationwide. Walter Isaacson speaks with Ruth Reichl about her life-long passion for food.