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Ruth Reichl on Tasting Menus, Women in the Kitchen

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Former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl says although there's yet to be a female Daniel Boulud, there are more women than ever in kitchens.

Despite the emergence of leading women in food such a Barbara Lynch, Elena Arzak, Christina Tosi and others the two sexes make different long-term choices in the kitchen.

"I think a lot of women have opted for security over fame and I think women are doing better in the industry than if you just look at the fame index," she said.

If you've never read Reichl's work you've most certainly read her famed parody Twitter account, Ruth Bourdain. It's a mash-up of Reichl's lavish, insightful prose blended with the moxy of the once heavy smoking, pre-fatherhood Anthony Bourdain.

Reichl, in town for a talk late last week at the Brickell Literary Society, spoke with Short Order about everything from the faults of the 20-plus-course tasting menu to the state of current restaurant criticism to Ryan Sutton's recent takedown of Thomas Keller's Per Se. Here are a few highlights:

On what's compelling in food today

The ethical food movement keeps moving forward and getting to a new place. There's a whole new push for justice for food workers. Dan Barber's book The Third Plate raised a whole new bunch of issues. It's not farm to table, it's seed to table and people are taking a look at how we really change the food system.

We really have a kind of bifurcation of food, the difference between the haves and have nots has never been wider. I think if we can teach children to eat well the problem will be solved. Eating is learned behavior, and we've taught three generation of Americans to eat really badly. We've got to train the next generation of Americans that their food choices really matter.

On a resurgence in fine dining

I'm on record three years ago saying this would happen. The people who really spend money on food are young the kids who have jobs but don't have families yet. I think that... generation is going to get tired of going out, spending a lot of money to have food thrown at them. They're going to say wait a minute I don't want just food I want an experience.

You get out and you think that really tasted good, but wouldn't it be nice to have a conversation or to feel like something more happened at that meal.

On the power and pitfalls of tasting menus

There will be always a place for these if they're really exciting. I cannot say there will be a time when a meal like Grant Achatz's is not going to be an amazing experience. But increasingly there are people who aren't that good doing these 25-course menus and halfway through you go oh please let me out of here. I think that if they're going to take your time and they're going to be dictatorial about what you're eating they really have to deliver. Increasingly a lot of these places just aren't.

On Per Se's recent poor review

It has to hit him where he lives. I've been following him for the beginning of his career I think he's been deeply influential. I'm sure that that review really bothered him. I'm sure they went back and looked at everything that happened there. He's interesting because in many ways Grant Achatz (who trained under Keller) never wants to do the same thing twice. Keller is someone who just wants to get it perfect and keep it there. He's had oysters and pearls on the menu since day one.

On today's restaurant critic

We've never had better critics than we have right now and it's precisely because they are competing with the bloggers. Bloggers have taken over the consumer reporting functions. Bloggers say should you spend your money here or not. A really good critic is someone who enhances the experience, gives you tools to experience a meal in a richer way. When you go to a restaurant they've put it in context, they've shown you how to taste something in a new way, made you more aware of what's great about the service or what's not. They have explained the cuisine.

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