Ruth Reichl is one of the most influential names in food. Her storied career includes stints at the Los Angeles Times as a restaurant critic and food editor, as well as the restaurant critic for the New York Times. She is also the author of five bestselling books, the recipient of six James Beard Awards, and spent 10 years as the Editor-in-chief of the now defunct Gourmet magazine.
But as any resilient woman will tell you, when one door closes, a few other doors open. She’s now an editor-at-large for the mega-publisher, Random House, is currently writing three new books, and on April 6th, will make her debut as one of the new judges on Top Chef Masters.
She was kind enough to carve out some time to chat with me while on a recent trip to Palo Alto for a speaking engagement. I asked her about how life has changed since the closing of Gourmet magazine, how she feels about food bloggers, and what she really thinks about Ruth Bourdain.
ELAINE: What was life like after Gourmet magazine shut its doors?
RUTH: At first I thought, “Oh my God, I’ll never have another job!” and I immediately made a deal to write three books, which I’m working on, and that’s great. I’m finishing my first fiction novel, and I promised to write a cookbook and then a memoir about my time at Gourmet and its closing.
But then about eight months after the magazine closed, I was literally getting a job offer a day. The most interesting is one I can’t talk about. Let’s just say it’ll be the food magazine of my dreams. I’m very lucky. (NOTE: We know now that Ms. Reichl will be running the Gilt Groupe’s “Gilt Taste” website.)
ELAINE: And you’re going to be on Top Chef Masters! What made you want to take that offer?
RUTH: I just thought it would be fun! I was kind of curious about how reality shows worked and it seemed like a learning experience. But I had already agreed to be a fellow at Dartmouth, so I’m not in every single episode.
ELAINE: What was the experience like?
RUTH: Top Chef Masters was such a surprise. They could not have been more passionate and respectful of the chefs, judges, guests and I loved every minute of it. And they take it all very seriously. I thought the judges would surely have to lean on the producers to make the decisions about who gets cut, and the producer probably would’ve liked a different outcome in some cases, but I never heard it from them.
And Curtis Stone (the new host) is so good looking, you’d think he had to be an idiot. But he’s so smart and has a heart of gold. He’s honestly one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. He insisted on cooking for the entire crew a multi-course meal after the show wrapped. He’s totally for real. I was so sorry when it was all over. It felt like family. You really get to know everyone. It’s very intimate.
ELAINE: What are your thoughts on the new Gourmet Live app for the iPad?
RUTH: …I’m not going to say. It is what it is.
ELAINE: What do you think about the new generation of food bloggers? Are they changing the landscape of food writing in general?
RUTH: A lot of them are really, really good. I think it’s changed for restaurant critiquing in particular. You can read 30 reviews and make up your mind yourself. A professional restaurant critic’s word shouldn’t matter that much. People should bring their own intelligence to it. What real criticism should do is give you a better way to appreciate food and give you the tools you need to enhance your experience, good or bad. And food bloggers have put the burden back on the professionals to be good educators and good writers, and maybe even be a little bit more humble about their own opinions.
ELAINE: You’re fairly active on Twitter. Why do you use it?
RUTH: I just don’t have time to keep up with so many blogs. But if someone I follow on Twitter tells me to read something on a blog, I will! I love the social and political aspects. There are people I don’t see much but I keep up with them on Twitter. And as a writer, I feel like there’s a voice that I didn’t know I had using Twitter. There’s a real discipline to putting something into 140 characters. I’m trying to actually make a word picture in 140 characters and it’s been really fun for me. It turns out to be a very natural voice for me.
ELAINE: What do you think of Ruth Bourdain getting nominated for a James Beard Award this year for Humor?
RUTH: I think it’s great! I agree with Tony Bourdain! If we can’t have fun with food, what are we gonna have fun with? I hope he/she wins so they’ll have to get up and accept the award!
But I actually think it’s a “he,” and I don’t think it’s any of the people that have been talked about. I think all the theories about who this person is are all wrong.
ELAINE: As a former Bay Area resident, what do you miss about the area?
RUTH: At the moment, if you go to the farmers market in New York there’s not much. In the Bay Area you’re spoiled with fresh produce year round. I really miss that. And there’s an incredible energy with farmers and food producers here. There’s a great artisan food community here that you don’t get anywhere else.