Ruth Reichl would cringe if she heard herself referred to as the First Lady of American Food Journalism, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration. A native New Yorker, she started her career as a restaurant critic at New West magazine before assuming the position of Los Angeles Times restaurant critic and, later, food editor.
From there, Reichl went on to greater fame as the New York Times restaurant critic, where her incisive observations and infallible palate brought her a huge fan base. That led to her post as editor in chief for Gourmet magazine, which ceased publication two years ago. Reichl is the author of many successful books, among them Tender at the Bone (Random House, 1998) and Garlic and Sapphires (Penguin Press, 2005), the latter of which chronicles her travails as the New York Times critic and her attempts—often unsuccessful—at anonymity. (The book has been optioned for a script.)
These days, Reichl—who recently visited Las Vegas—can be found on the lecture circuit, online (she’s the editorial adviser of GiltTaste.com), on television (she was a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters’ Season 3 last spring) and in her kitchen in Columbia County, N.Y., cooking with passion.
What does the closing of Gourmet say about the state of American food journalism?
The odd thing is that it doesn’t say much. Our renewal rates were great, and we had the highest circulation ever. Gourmet closed because our advertisers were luxury advertisers, and they were in trouble. Not a single day goes by where at least one person doesn’t come up to me and tell me how much they miss the magazine. No one has replaced Gourmet; there is a hole where Gourmet used to be.
At Gilt Taste, the business model is based on commerce, not advertising. We make our money on the products that we sell. We introduce great artisans to Americans.
Do you feel that the multiplicity of food bloggers and sites such as Yelp dilute the message of real professionals like yourself?
Not at all. What’s happened is that places like Yelp have become like Consumer Reports. Critics today have to be better and do what critics are supposed to do. I like it; it’s pushed food writing to a better place.
What’s your response to all the hype about Vegas being the “Dining Capital of the World”?
I haven’t spent enough time here to say, but I can tell you that I had one of the best meals of my life at E Bar [José Andrés’ restaurant at the Cosmopolitan], a great meal at Raku [5030 W. Spring Mountain Road], and loved Monta [5030 W. Spring Mountain Road] for ramen. The thing that amazes me about Vegas is that almost nothing is open at 1:30 a.m., which isn’t the case in New York. The only place open at the Cosmopolitan at that hour was Blue Ribbon Sushi and that secret pizza place, which had something like a one-hour line. Why aren’t they staying open later?
I’m also impressed by the service here. Vegas has lots of professional restaurant people—they’re not actors doing this as a sideline. And the level of professionalism is really impressive.
What’s on your current wish list in terms of what you’d like to see from the American food scene?
I’m pretty happy with what’s been going on. I feel like Americans are becoming more knowledgeable diners. My 22-year-old son’s generation are ethical eaters; many of them are vegetarian, even vegan. My wish is for Americans to start tackling hunger, more social justice for food workers, making sure poor people in this country are well fed. [Michelle] Obama has been great on these issues. At a certain economic level, you eat spectacularly well in this country; there are farmers markets everywhere. We are hoping the new generation will avoid processed foods. The obesity crisis costs us $150 billion a year.
How have American tastes changed during your tenure as a writer and editor?
American tastes have changed dramatically. There is an increased tolerance for spice; new cuisines such as Latin American food, Sriracha on every table in America, the idea that sushi is sold in supermarkets—when I started writing about food, no one even knew what sushi was. Raw fish grossed people out. Immigration has brought whole new groups of Chinese, Indian; the whole ingredient base has expanded enormously.
Who are the five people you’d most like to have dinner with?
Mike Nichols, the director—he’s the best company you’ll ever have [because he] knows something about every subject. Jancis Robinson, the Financial Times of London wine writer, because she’d bring great wine. Robert Irwin, the conceptual artist who did the garden at the Getty Center (in California]. Bill Clinton—he’s the most charismatic person I have ever met. And Ferran Adriá of elBulli, because he’s the most cutting-edge chef there is.
What’s next for Ruth Reichl?
I don’t know. I’m living day to day. I’m writing books, and hope my movie comes out. Today I’m cooking; I roasted a chicken and have spicy kale, fresh corn, new potatoes and blueberry pie on the menu.