Ex-New York Times food critic reveals allAs a front-row spectator to the major trends in the American food scene for the past 30 years, Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl has amused millions of readers with tales of her culinary adventures, beginning with “Tender at the Bone,” in which she described her childhood experiences with cooking and her start as a professional food writer.
The second memoir, “Comfort Me with Apples,” was more grown up, revealing her extramarital affairs, one of which led to her current marriage, and her first major newspaper job, running the Los Angeles Times’s food section.
In her latest book, “Garlic and Sapphires,” she continues to entertain readers as she dishes the dirt about her stint as the chief food critic at the New York Times from 1993 to 1999, where she was famous for wearing a variety of disguises to visit restaurants.
She made a name for herself early when she busted Le Cirque down to three stars from four after the shabby treatment she received when she was unrecognized, which contrasted sharply with the fawning showered on her later when she went as herself.
“The king of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready,” Le Cirque’s owner tells her.
She also scandalized many longtime readers by giving three stars to a soba restaurant and expanding her reviews to include ethnic restaurants, a sharp departure from her Francophile predecessor.
As she explored New York undercover, each of her characters brought out different, and sometimes disturbing, aspects of her personality. Chloe was a blond, glamorous divorcee, Molly was a dowdy Midwesterner, Brenda was a flamboyant redhead, Betty was an elderly wisp of a woman, and Emily was a shrew. She even went as her late mother, Miriam, which was unsettling.
It was as Emily that Reichl realized it was time for a change. While at a subpar restaurant, a friend, fed up with Reichl’s snippy remarks, told her, “These disguises have gone too far. I hate the person you’ve become.”
Being the most powerful food critic has its rewards, but for Reichl, it became wearying. The frosty environment at the Times didn’t help either. Those who like gossip will enjoy her willingness to name names, with some exceptions, and describe former colleagues in less-than-flattering terms. But even then, she doesn’t come off as petty, which just shows how Reichl’s warmth dominates her writing.
Garlic and Sapphires
By Ruth Reichl
Penguin Press, 333 pp.
26,200 won ($26)
by Sei Chong