The renowned food critic and former gourmet editor-in-chief ruth reichl
talks life, career—and the recipes that inspire her.
Get to know Ruth Reichl: distinguished restaurant critic, cookbook maven and Gourmet magazine doyenne, whose forthright and do-whatever-it-takes approach to food writing has made her an industry favorite for over four decades. In MY KITCHEN YEAR: 136 RECIPES THAT SAVED MY LIFE, her first cookbook in over 40 years, Reichl explores the healing power of cooking and community, entwined with recipes organized by season. Here, she shares her thoughts on career, home life and what she loves (and loathes) to eat, plus a quintessential fall recipe for you to enjoy.
- For background, where did your love of food begin? what is your earliest memory of cooking?
- I grew up in Greenwich Village, and my walk to school took me past old-fashioned butcher shops, French bakeries and fragrant Italian fruit stands. The scent of fantastic food floated out of restaurant doors. My schoolmates were a diverse lot — Chinese, Italian, Japanese — and I loved eating at their homes. As for me, the first thing I ever made was a cheese fondue, standing on a stool at the stove, when I was five.
- You nicknamed your mother ‘the queen of mold'. did her apathy towards preparation and tendency to serve rotten food influence your interest further?
- Absolutely! I distinctly remember a moment — I was about two — when my mother served me refrozen melted ice cream that had been left uncovered in the freezer. It was gray and tasted disgusting; it had absorbed all the flavors in the refrigerator. The texture was almost furry and it buzzed against my tongue. I tried to swallow it; I couldn't. Mom took a taste and looked at me, puzzled. “What's wrong with you?” she said. “This is delicious!” I knew, right then, that she was dangerous. From then on when Mom gave me something to eat I took a tiny taste, trying to find out if it would kill me. It was the perfect training for a restaurant critic.
- You were raised in manhattan, but came into your own (professionally and personally) in Berkeley, CA. what happened there that galvanized your career?
- Berkeley, in the early Seventies, was such an interesting place. We were all political, had ended the Vietnam war, and started looking around for another movement to espouse. Food seemed perfect; we opened co-ops, planted gardens, stopped eating meat. We believed, passionately, that if we could fix the industrial food system we could save the world. And while we were focused on food, we all became cooks.
- You became a household name among foodies as the restaurant critic for the new york times, and were known to don disguises in order to evade special treatment. Tell us about that.
- I realized that restaurants all had photographs of me, but I was determined to remain anonymous so I could tell my readers how they would be treated when they went out to eat. The only way I could do that was to try to turn myself into someone else. My first persona was Molly Hollis, a stout Midwestern housewife. When Molly's cover was blown, I jettisoned her and became Brenda, a wild redhead (my elevator man, who was in love with her, never figured out that it was me). Over time I turned myself into a dozen different people (including my mother). But my most effective disguise was Chloe, a soigné blonde, who occasionally had dinner with men she met sitting in the cocktail lounge. It was the perfect disguise: they had no idea a critic was hiding beneath Chloe's platinum wig.
- what were some of your favorite moments at the new york times?
- The Nineties were wonderful years for restaurants in New York. My favorite review was probably Honmura-An. It was a classic Japanese soba restaurant with perfect, simple food. When I gave it three stars there was a huge uproar. I loved reviewing Lespinasse too; Gray Kunz was one of our most exciting chefs, and his food thrilled me. Trying to figure out the flavors was like unraveling a mystery; great fun. I also did my best to introduce New Yorkers to the joys of Korean food. At the time it was a sadly under-appreciated cuisine, and it gave me a thrill to try and persuade them to come taste this delicious food.
- You next went to gourmet to become the editor-in-chief in 1999. tell us about that.
- It was very much a group project. We were given carte blanche, and we tried to reinvent the epicurean magazine, to take a bigger bite of the world. We added politics and sociology to the mix. We did investigative pieces on fish farming, genetic engineering, the conspiracy behind trans fats. We asked world-class writers to contribute, including David Foster Wallace, Ann Patchett and Julian Barnes. We tried pushing the envelope on our photography, hiring artists who had never worked with food before. But my proudest moment was the piece Barry Estabrook did about tomato workers in Florida; he came out and said that they were slaves — and that we had to change the way our farm workers are treated. That piece had a tremendous impact.
- Let's talk about 2009 and what happened after gourmet unexpectedly shuttered.
- I was so devastated; the magazine had lasted almost 70 years and closed on my watch. I felt like an enormous failure. For the first few months I was touring for our cookbook, Gourmet Today, but when I finally went home I just disappeared into the kitchen. Cooking is, for me at least, extremely therapeutic. I rediscovered the joy of little things.
- Guilty pleasure?
- I love fried clams. And onion rings.
- Is there a food you loathe?
- Honey. It makes me gag.
- One meal for the rest of your life – what is it?
- Good bread and cold, sweet, cultured butter.
- You have a place in the city and a place in the country. Does what you eat and/or cook differ from place to place?
- Completely. In my country home I'm surrounded by farmers, and cook almost exclusively local foods that change with the seasons. So when I'm in the city I take advantage of all the ethnic markets. I just roam around the city, collecting groceries, take them home and figure out what to do with them.
- In my kitchen year, each recipe begins with a tweet. how has social media changed the way we eat and think about food?
- In the old days, when you cooked you were alone in the kitchen. What I discovered, in that year after Gourmet closed, was that I now had a community of cooks all over the world. I'd tweet what I was cooking, and people would tweet me back with suggestions. It's changed the way I cook.
- Must-have kitchen tools?
- If you have a sharp knife, a sturdy pot and a good source of heat, you don't need too much more. I'm not a huge believer in gadgets. I can always roll out pie dough with a wine bottle.
- It's apple picking season, so let's talk apple crisp, one of the recipes in your book. how do you bake a winner?
- Crisps are so easy; you can throw one together in a few minutes. And the rules for making a great apple crisp are easy: buy a big variety of apples. Some that will fall apart, some that will hold their shape. Some that are sweet, some tart. Try to go for heirloom varieties; each has such a unique personality.
This classic dessert is apt for crisp (pun intended) fall days. It's easy to make and won't leave a hole in your wallet — or your appetite. Ruth recommends serving with a pitcher of cream, but you can also top it with a scoop of vanilla (or better yet, salted caramel) ice cream.
- 5 heirloom apples
- 1 lemon
- 2/3 cup flour
- 2/3 cup brown sugar
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Peel a few different kinds of apples, enjoying the way they shrug out of their skins reluctantly.
- Core, slice and layer the apples into a buttered pie plate or baking dish and toss them with the juice of the lemon.
- Mix the flour with the brown sugar, and add a dash of salt and a grating of fresh cinnamon.
- Using two knives — or just your fingers — cut in the butter, then pat the mixture over the top of the fruit.
- The cooking time is forgiving; you can put your crisp into a 375-degree oven and pretty much forget it for 45 minutes to an hour. The juices should be bubbling a bit at the edges; the top should be crisp, golden and fragrant.
Black birds swooping onto orange trees; beautiful ballet of the air. Ashmead’s Kernels whisper from their skins. Apple crisp! @RuthReichl