By Grace Bennett
Ruth Reichl generously shared her adventures, insights and wisdom about dining out–and about life, in general–with an audience hungry to learn as much about Reichl and her career as possible during a sold out, early May event at the North Castle Public Library.
The celebrated restaurant critic, former Gourmet magazine Editor-in-Chief, Food Network host, restaurant owner, and of course, best-selling author regaled the audience with an array of anecdotes–particularly those surrounding her legendary disguises/characters as ‘beautiful Chloe,’ or “wild Brenda” or “Stella, the raunchy blonde who wore too tight clothes.” The goal, of course, was to never be detected as a critic and to capture the restaurant experience honestly–the good, the bad, and the ugly.
“I liked to take her (Stella) out to the fancy Upper East Side restaurants,” Reichl related, conveying her elf-like mischief but also her basic mission to serve the reader, not the restaurant–two key elements of a signature style over decades as a restaurant critic.
“Is it wild or is it boned,” Stella asked the (snooty) waiter about the salmon that arrived.
“It’s wild,” he answered her. “It comes from about where you come from: Coney Island.”
The waiter’s remarks ended up in her review.
“There’s an unwritten contract between the restaurant and the dining customer,” Reichl explained. “You agree to pay for a meal and they agree to give you great food and make you feel like a special, privileged person–regardless of where you are from.”
By her talk’s end, and in answers to audience questions after, Reichl continued to depict a remarkable career now in full blossom with her newest title, 136 Recipes that Saved my Life. Reichl was also introduced by Nori Fromm, board member of the Friends of the North Castle Public Library, as “the most important woman in the world of food in the last 50 years.” To which she immediately offered: “My 25-year-old self would have laughed hysterically at that. My husband and I lived on a commune in Berkeley,” she related, eliciting just the first round of hearty laughter in the filled-to-capacity library auditorium.
Her first break was with San Francisco’s New West magazine, whose editor she had both cooked and written for. He told her, “You are a much better writer than you are a cook, but you know food.” He asked her to try her first restaurant review. “My first thought was: free food!” said Reichl. “The idea that they’d give me money for a meal was real exciting.”
Ruth went on her first assignment accompanied by several members of her commune. “I quickly learned that as a critic the worst thing that can happen is to have your friends trying to help you,” she giggled, poking fun (kindly) at some of the absurd comments friends make. She played around with the experience, however, and described an ‘epiphany’ which led her to write the review as a kind of ‘film noire script.’ “It was not a restaurant review in the classic sense,” Reichl said.
After she handed it in, she said she panicked. “I went into a tailspin, and called the editor to tell him to disregard it and that the real review was coming. There was silence on the phone. ‘I already read it, Ruth,’ he told me, ‘and it’s fantastic. You have the job–but I want you to continue to stretch the form.”
And truly, that’s just what Ruth has been doing ever since with her unique wit and with what would strike anyone familiar with her writing as undeniable confidence.
The lesson she shared: “When in doubt, take a chance.” Her fans are glad she did.
Grace Bennett is the Publisher and Editor of Inside Armonk and Inside Chappaqua who remembers thoroughly enjoying Ruth Reichl reviews over the years. For Reichl’s full bio, visit ruthreichl.com
A Chance to Dine with a Culinary Icon
Members of the Friends of the North Castle Public Library’s Speaker’s Committee had a wonderful opportunity to enjoy some light appetizers with Ruth Reichl at Restaurant North, prior to her appearance at the Library, related Speaker Committee Chair Debbie Heidecorn. “Her warmth radiated with all of us and she was totally engaging, candid and gracious,” said Heidecorn. “It felt like any casual dinner with one of your best girlfriends!
“While expressing her delight over the squid pasta she showed us some great pictures she had taken with her phone of beautifully plated food; she is truly down-to-earth… it was a meal to remember for us.”
Committee member Hilary Chavkin related that Ruth spoke of her childhood to them, “how she loved to cook as a young child with her aunt, and how her mother was not the best of cooks, as well as her stint in a cooperative restaurant in Berkeley. She also lived in a commune in San Francisco and learned to “dumpster dive!” She has had an amazing career and has always been able to recreate herself.”
Board member Nori Fromm, who had introduced both Reichl and North’s Chef Eric Gabrynowicz at the event, said they learned from Reichl that her life had taken a “different turn” after studying Art History in college. “She said that although she has written extensively about food she does like to cook and often cooks for her husband after a day of writing at their home in upstate New York.”
Reichl also has a keen interest in food sustainability, Fromm added. “I was impressed during the Q&A period when she spoke about food, sustainability and how people can bring about change in food preparation, as was the case with McDonalds.”
And finally: “She was so gracious after the event and signed the cookbooks that were not sold,” said Fromm. “They are on sale at the Village Book Store in Pleasantville.”
For upcoming programming for the Friends of the North Castle Public Library, visit: friendsncpl.org.