As you probably know, Ruth Reichl was recently in town for a launch party at Mozza for Gilt Taste, the shopping-as-literature site of which she's the editorial advisor. We caught up with her over coffee at José Andrés' Tres: frilly patisserie, coffee urns, decor like Monty Python meets Versailles.
It shouldn't come as a surprise to you to learn that Reichl is both extremely charismatic and articulate, a formidable combination. She also looks a good decade or two younger than she is, the vicissitudes of Gourmet and Si Newhouse notwithstanding. She sits crosslegged on the couch like a middle-schooler. It is difficult not to stare at her hair, which would make Steven Tyler weep with jealousy. What did she talk about?
What you would think, only better: the launch of Gilt Taste, her take on the L.A. food scene — Reichl was once, after all, the Los Angeles Times food section editor as well as that paper's restaurant critic — as well as her upcoming movie and a bit about food TV. So turn the page.
Squid Ink: So how's Gilt going?
Ruth Reichl: It's great. I'm so happy with the stuff we're doing. I feel like nobody else is still doing the kind of journalism that we were trying to do at Gourmet. Really written pieces. Really edited. Really thought about. So we can get all kinds of really great people to write for us. We actually pay, although we don't pay thousands of dollars.
SI: It's almost atavistic, in terms of the quality of the writing and the visuals and the fact that it IS actually edited.
RR: It feels great. And I feel like we're also publishing things that need to be said. We get to do political stuff when we want to.
SI: Barry Estabrook!
RR: And we sell incredible stuff that's hard to find. Great fish sauce. Finger limes. I remember in Gourmet we did this piece, I think in my first issue, about finger limes, but you couldn't buy them then. These exist, but you can't have them. Now you can have them. And you can get the great meat that Thomas Keller uses, and black garlic. And Melissa Clark will come into the office and say, What should I be doing recipes for this week? And you hand her the black garlic. It's really exciting finding all these artisans who don't have a good path to market.
SI: It's like a jigsaw puzzle: you have the stuff and you have a network of really well curated stories to go with it. It's like a virtual magazine, which I'm sure was the idea.
RR: Yeah, and for someone like me who watched my magazine die — not because people didn't like it but because in the recession the advertising went away — I was fascinated by the notion of doing good journalism that was not supported by advertising but was actually supported by commerce. And what is the result when you tear down the firewall. Which doesn't really exist anyway. What if you just tear it down and say: Editorial and commerce are going to march hand in hand. So we then have control over what we're selling.
SI: You're not just waiting for some advertiser to roll in. Or out.
RR: Right. What often, too often, happens in magazines is that you end up with a great editorial product and then you're selling things that you don't really approve of. And so on the one hand, you're going: Read this article. And on the other you're sort of thinking…
SI: Why am I looking at a Target ad?
RR: Although, I'd have loved to have had Target ads in Gourmet. They do beautiful ads. But a lot of times you're thinking: Why am I looking at a kitty litter ad? There was a famous Gourmet example when they got ads from I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. This was before I was there. And then they were trying to do recipes with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.
SI: That's kind of tragic.
RR: In really good times, you say, No, I'm not taking that ad. But in bad times, you'll take anything. And we're not in that situation. We'll never sell stuff that we don't like; we just won't do it. That really did happen before I got there. And people were still laughing about it. And, on top of that, when I walked in to talk to them, most of the people who work there are late 20s, early 30s. This generation of food people completely blow me away with their passion, their intelligence and their extraordinary knowledge.
SI: So how you think the food scene has changed?
RR: It's just remarkable. It's this generation of educated young people who took food on as something that they really cared about. They really know how to cook. So many of these kids, with Harvard MBAs and Stanford engineering degrees, decided to go to cooking school for a year because they love it. And they come out of it with this amazing knowledge, which nobody in my generation had. There was this real divide between intellectual stuff and…
SI: The home cook, circa Joy of Cooking.
RR: Right. And now you've got people who have really traveled, so when you're talking about Thai food, you're talking about people who've been to Chiang Mai and know the difference between the food of north and south Thailand and have been to Korea and South America, and it changes the whole idea of authenticity. If you know what's authentic, you can say, Okay, this is something else.
SI: The current generation knows a lot. The kids even.
RR: My son is 22, and when he gets a new computer, the first thing he does is throw out the instructions; it's intuitive. They know how to use these mechanical objects, and food is like that for them — it's not like they're learning it, it's in the culture. They know it.
SI: Do you find that as well with the actual cooking?
RR: Their knife skills are good. You know, I'm a home cook and I'm constantly embarrassed by twentysomethings who really do know the mechanics of cooking. How to build a sauce.
SI: Is that because they watch it on TV?
RR: I think it's because they watch it. It's because a lot of them decide that they want to go to a stage [a short-term unpaid apprenticeship] in a kitchen. They know chefs. That's the other thing: The class division of cooking has really changed. Not only gender-wise, where cooking used to be women's work and it so isn't anymore. For that generation there was no difference for who does the cooking: it's not the girls necessarily. But also the huge change in how a chef is perceived from 30 years ago, when it was blue collar work to now, when it's college graduates going into the kitchen and deciding that's what they want to do. So it means that educated people have chefs who are friends. If a kid wants to go work in a kitchen, you know someone you can ask. A 13 year-old can ask, Can I come work in the kitchen for a summer? That didn't used to happen.
SI: When I was a kid you'd work at a bagel place or an ice cream shop, not apprentice at a great restaurant.
RR: You quickly find out if what you want to do is peel 20 pounds of squid in the basement.
SI: The role of a restaurant critic is another thing that has changed quite a bit in the last few years. Or maybe not. Has it?
RR: I think what it's done is put the onus on the critic to be better than ever before. Because it used to be that the role of the critic was essentially consumer reporting. Do I spend my money here or there? And now I feel like the bloggers have taken up that role. Yelp can do that. Chowhound can do that. There are a lot of places where you can find that. The critic has to do more of what the book critics and art critics have done in the past. Which is give you a context for understanding the restaurant, give you a better way to appreciate it, give you the tools to go in there and be a more informed diner who can get more pleasure out of the experience. And that's a very different role.
SI: One could argue that it makes the critic even more important. There's such a cacophany of stuff out there that you need the critic even more than you did before.
RR: Oh, I think you do. You need someone like Jonathan to say, You may never have had this before, but this dish comes from Rene Redzepi, it may look incredibly inventive to you, but… And this is why it's out of context here, or this is why it really is in the chef's wheelhouse. This is what the chef's trying to do. I think it's important to know if the chef is trying to be authentic, is he not.
SI: You need context.
RR: And that's what the critic does. Or it's what the good critic does now. Because it's a very different thing to have that kind of connoisseurship under your belt, where you've eaten around the world thoughtfully, you've eaten tens of thousands of meals and you have that all in the back of your head. It's why everybody's so interested in what's going to happen to The New York Times critic.
SI: Any ideas?
RR: I don't have a clue what they're thinking. I know they're doing a real search. There are lots of really good people out there. It would be great to have someone who's really knowledgeable, and someone who can really write in that position. It's still an incredibly visible perch.
SI: Especially with newspaper food sections shrinking or becoming aggregated, The New York Times is becoming even more important.
RR: It's sort of become the national paper.
SI: So you were the food section editor and the restaurant critic at the Los Angeles Times for a long time, and you've been back here a lot, right?
RR: I was here last winter for a month, shooting Top Chef Masters. But we didn't eat out a lot — we were shooting all the time. Those were long days. You get done at 2 in the morning.
SI: And it's L.A., so of course nothing's open except taco trucks. Do you have a sense of how the L.A. food scene has changed?
RR: You know, I arrived in L.A. in '84, which was an amazing time to come here, because I felt like all the food energy in the country had been in northern California. And then it shifted down here, and there was so much that was interesting happening here. Wolfgang had just opened, Michael McCarty had just opened, you had this new young chef movement and you had these people doing the kind of food that wasn't being done anywhere else in the country. It was like anything was possible. Mauro Vincenti opened Rex, maybe the most beautiful restaurant ever created anywhere. People were growing things. There was so much great energy. Then in the early '90s, the recession hit and you just watched all the energy go out of food. And all anybody opened was copycat restaurants; it was like they were all clones of Italian pizza places, one after the other. And you sort of felt like, Oh, I thought L.A. was a food city but maybe it isn't.
Then the energy moved to New York. But I feel like there's so much energy about food here now, and there are so many interesting chefs doing things, and so many farmers markets. The Hollywood Farmers Market was just starting when I left in '93. And as ethnic food has come into the culture, L.A. is the place you want to be. We have a few Korean restaurants in New York, but there's nothing like here. And you have the food trucks. The Kogi truck had a national influence. And then you've got all these young chefs doing things: Salt's Cure, Lazy Ox. Just really interesting food. It's interesting: for that kind of food energy, you've got Brooklyn and you've got L.A., where you have a lot of young people who are knowledgeable about food, just going out and saying, Bring it, bring me anything. It's an amazing place to eat right now. In New York, you watch Manhattan losing that; it's become the place for old people.
SI: Fine dining here was never what it was in New York, and it seems like we've always been meant to be a casual food city. Like the recession almost knocked us back to where we should have been in the first place.
RR: I think that's right. You didn't need have happen here what happened in Paris, when all the young chefs just turned their backs on 3-stars and said: Take back your stars, I don't want them, I want to cook for my friends. And you didn't need that to happen here. It just kind of happened organically. As it's happening in Brooklyn organically. Let me open a place in a cheap space I can afford to and just serve killer food.
SI: Or in my kitchen.
RR: Or my kitchen or my truck, or in a little diner that's empty. The pop-up concept pretty much started here and has taken root other places. I'm also thinking about L.A. versus San Francisco, and San Francisco is so convinced of itself as a food city. Here you get this pugnacious quality of, Yeah, we are good; we are good. So in some ways it's even more interesting energy.
SI: I wanted to ask you about food television now: Do you think that can get over-saturated?
RR: I feel like it's kind of a correction that we're making in the culture. That we were so stupid about food as a culture for so long.
SI: How do you mean 'stupid'?
RR: We just didn't care. We weren't a food culture. We're one of the few cultures in the world that just threw food away, or didn't care. When you think about the Chinese greeting each other by asking if you've eaten, and most educated countries being countries where part of the education is about food. Europe, Asia, South America, where if you want to consider yourself an educated person in the culture you know about food. And I think because of our Puritan background, we just turned out backs on it, and said, We eat to live, that's the bottom line, and we're not going to learn about food.
Now we're having this correction, and we have a long way to go. We've been doing it for what, ten years, fifteen years? We have a lot to learn. So I feel like when people say that it's saturated, there's so much: No. It's just that there was so little.
So, The Chew? Well, why hasn't there been someone on national TV talking about food and food issues. I just hope they do it well. I don't like the fact that the chefs are men and then there are these pretty women. It doesn't bode well. I would like to see one really bright, articulate woman chef there.
SI: Right. Barbara Walters if she could cook.
RR: Yes. And those people certainly exist. But it worries me.
SI: Oh, one last thing: your movie! Garlic and Sapphires. You're both producer and writer and Anne Hathaway is playing you, right?
RR: No, she's not; she was attached and is no longer. We don't have a shooting script right now. There's a really great director who now wants to do it — I can't say who — a true food person who has a really great take on the story. We've had five scripts so far, the last of which was mine. But he wants to do something really different with it and much more substantial. I'm excited and I hope it happens. But, you know, it's Hollywood.