Ruth Reichl on Food Criticism: "It’s Just an Opinion"

When Gourmet magazine shuttered in 2009, its 62-year-old editor-in-chief, Ruth Reichl, went through a period of self-loathing. She blamed herself for the publication's demise and panicked over no longer having an income. That being said, the former New York Times and Los Angeles Times food critic sought solace from her fears and sadness in her favorite place of all — the kitchen.

Speaking to a group of admirers at a recent luncheon at Books & Books at the Arsht Center to celebrate her new book, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, Reichl said she took advantage of her free time to not only cook but also really engage with butchers, bakers, and farmers' markets. Fast-forward six months, and Reichl was attending a Gourmet reunion at a cheap Chinatown joint in New York when a former colleague asked whether she missed being able to eat at the top restaurants in the world on an expense account. Her response was a plain and simple no. She says she told him: "I have loved being in the kitchen, and I feel I've rediscovered the core of myself in the kitchen. My mission in life has always been to get people in the kitchen cooking." It was then that her friend suggested she write a book about exactly that topic. 

Indeed, My Kitchen Year is a mix of recipes and memoirs that go into detail about what Reichl cooked that year and her evolution as a chef and an individual. For the luncheon, James Beard Award-winning chef Allen Susser created a menu comprising dishes from Reichl's book. The multicourse meals included pink deviled eggs, tandoori chicken, and an apple crisp for dessert. A six-time James Beard Award winner herself, the author raved about Susser's cuisine and the ease with which he took recipes intended for home cooks and scaled them to serve a large crowd. She also mentioned that Miami is fortunate to have one of the best independent bookstores in the nation. 

Reichl spoke with New Times for a few moments before she had to depart for the airport to catch yet another flight as part of her jam-packed book tour. The renowned author and editor discussed the current state of food criticism, the easiest dish to prepare at home, and what excites her about the food industry. 

New Times: Who would benefit from your new book, My Kitchen Year?
Ruth Reichl: Everybody. I think it’s different things to different people. I think for beginning cooks these recipes are really easy and I talk you through them. The message of the book is enjoy cooking, don’t think of it as a task or a performance; If you make a mistake it’s not tragic. It’s also very much a book about how when I lost my job I was 62-years-old and I think there are lots of people who are losing their jobs and who are terrified of losing their jobs, and it’s very much a book about learning how not to define yourself by your work. For me, cooking is my passion and it’s where I rediscovered myself, but for you it might be singing or painting, and I think the message is the same that it’s about throwing yourself into something that you love and rediscovering your core and reconnecting with something that’s really important.

What's your advice for someone who doesn't necessarily have a lot of free time but who is still looking to take more pleasure in cooking?
My advice is there a million of really simple things to cook; the notion that cooking has to be complicated or fancy is ridiculous. One of the best things on the face of the earth is a baked potato, you basically put it in the oven and you don’t have to think about it and no one doesn’t like it. Mussels you can buy, they’re not expensive, and you put them in a pot with onion and wine if you want, or just water, and five minutes later with a loaf of bread you have dinner. My advice is don’t think you have to be a chef in your own home — you’re not. You’re just a home cook and you shouldn’t try doing really complicated stuff unless that’s the kind of stuff that gives you pleasure.

Is there anything happening in the food industry that has you particularly excited?
There are lots of things. I think the stuff that’s happening in Silicon Valley and the technology field is really exciting. Our biggest problem right now is that we waste half of what we produce. Well, why? And there are all kinds of new and interesting technological solutions to that. People are thinking about water and how to use water in a better way. I’m very excited about possibilities for the future that are coming out of Silicon Valley. 

In your earlier book, Garlic and Sapphires, you wrote about how you would wear disguises and adopt different personas while being the food critic at the New York Times. What would be your advice for a food critic in this social-media-saturated day and age? Should a critic try to disguise him- or herself? 
I think it’s really important not to announce that you’re coming. Given what social media does, and social media essentially takes care of the consumer reporting aspect of restaurant criticism, I think it’s really important now for critics to really behave like critics, which is not to just say this is good or this is bad but to actually give people tools that will enhance their experience when they go to a restaurant. This means giving people context, pulling in history, and talking about a cuisine. It’s more important than ever to be really knowledgeable and to impart that knowledge and to make yourself really useful to the public in a way that you didn’t used to have to do. When I just started out, you were really just telling people where they should go and spend their money, and now you have to work harder, you have to be a better writer, you have to be a lot more knowledgeable about food. When I started, you didn’t need to know much about cuisines of anything except Europe, but now if you’re writing about Thai food, you can be sure probably a quarter of your audience has been to Thailand, so you don't want to appear stupid.

When you were a critic, what was your response to people who would say, "Why should I listen to your reviews — they're just your opinion?"
They’re right, it is just my opinion, and I think it’s important for people to know that. For all critics, it’s just an opinion. One of the things I love about today is that we have so many voices that you can get to know a critic and discover whom you trust and whom you don’t trust. I’m not necessarily right, and you may or may not agree with me, but I’m telling you this is something I’ve spent my entire life thinking about so I have a lot of experience. But still, it’s just an opinion. 

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Valeria Nekhim was born in the Ukraine and raised in Montreal. She has lived in Manhattan and Miami. Her favorite part of food writing is learning the stories of chefs and restaurateurs.