A Chat With Famed Food Writer Ruth Reichl

Prior to her Brattle Theatre appearance, the former Gourmet editor discusses memoirs, the state of food criticism, and the personal struggles that led to her latest cookbook.

ruth reichl

Ruth Reichl will appear at the Brattle Theater on September 30. Photo provided

Ruth Reichl found the inspiration for her latest book in the kitchen—where she began.

The former editor-in-chief of Gourmet was struggling with the death of a beloved magazine, the loss of her job, and her survivor’s guilt when she started self-soothing with a whisk. Reichl has been the restaurant critic for the New York Times and LA Times, a Top Chef Masters judge and a James Beard Award winner, but “unemployed” was a title she felt unprepared to claim. After writing her first novel and developing a Twitter presence, she decided to publish her first cookbook since 1972. Part memoir, part free-form recipe collection, My Kitchen Year openly discusses her depression and ingredient-first cooking with 136 recipes she claims “saved her life.”

Reichl chatted with us before her return to Boston on September 30 when she’ll appear with John “Doc” Willoughby, the former executive editor at Gourmet at the Brattle Theater.

The last time you were here, you had dinner with Barbara Lynch at B&G Oysters. Are you going to go back to a Lynch restaurant while you’re here?

I have no idea. When I’m in Boston, I leave it to Doc [John Willoughby]. But I’ll tell you, that night was so much fun. We ate mountains of fried clams and drank champagne. You can’t have better company than Barbara.

You’ve been posting a lot of vintage Gourmet recipes—very classic stuff. In an era of funky kimchees and sriracha, what’s the appeal of filet of boeuf en gelée?

I did not even post that recipe; I just put the picture. There were a couple days, and that was one of them, where I put up recipes that just struck me as, “Who would do this? Why would you do this?” Thank God we’re not doing this anymore! It’s tortured food. You’re torturing yourself to do it and what you end up with is something I don’t think any sane person would want to eat.

What constitutes a well-written recipe?

I am interested in the evolution of the way recipes are written. In my book, I tried to initiate a new style of recipe writing that’s very conversational. For a long time, we’ve done the Fannie Farmer scientific method where you’ve had all the ingredients listed above clear, cold directions. A recipe is not a prescription, it’s a suggestion, and it should nudge you in the right direction. I try very hard to write these recipes in the way that I cook, which is a little of this and a splash of that, and to try to make it evocative.

My Kitchen Year is clearly a cookbook, but it seems to interweave recipes with passages of memoir. Talk to me a bit about your writing process and how it differs from past books you’ve written. You’ve written several memoirs, but it’s been a while since you’ve written a cookbook.

This was kind of an accidental book. I was in a really bad place in my life. I had lost my job; I had lost many other people’s jobs. I was feeling very much like a failure. I started cooking because it was the most soothing activity I could do. When I’m depressed, I go into the kitchen. Talking about it with a friend, he said, “You know, you’re always talking about how you want people to get back into the kitchen—maybe this was what you were meant to do. Maybe you should make a cookbook.” It happened very organically. I looked at the Tweets and the notes from the recipes, and I started putting it together. It just happened.

You said, “I had lost many other people’s jobs.” Do you really feel responsible for [the closing of Gourmet]?

I was the boss. If your company closes and you’re the boss, you have to take some responsibility for it. In retrospect, I don’t think there was anything I could have done, but at the time I thought, “This is my fault. I should have seen it coming.” I still feel like they should have fired me and not killed the magazine if they didn’t like what was going on.

Do you see a similar fate coming for any other magazines, or do you see it as a fluke, a publication caught in a really awful time for print journalism?

Magazines close all the time, and you always hear rumors. There does seem to be a kind of niche-isation. In the interim you have these wonderful publications like Cherry Bomb, Lucky Peach, and Fool, which have a much narrower audience. All of the publications that seek a wider audience are probably in for changes. The way we use the internet changes the way we absorb information.

Speaking of the internet, when you were at the New York Times, you famously disguised yourself to evade a biased meal. In an internet age, when someone’s face is so easily Googled, how does a critic find an honest meal?

It’s really hard. I feel lucky that I was able to do all those disguises at a time when people didn’t carry phones around with them. The bar has gotten higher, but I still think it behooves critics to be as anonymous as they possibly can.

Beyond that, many restaurants are now so inhospitable to critics. And with websites like Yelp and Chowhound, there are so many places where people now look to find restaurants. Would you want to be a critic now? Is there still a place for criticism in the world of food writing?

Absolutely, precisely because of social media. There are a lot of things that critics do, and one of them is consumer reporting. Social media has taken that up—If you want to know what’s on a menu, and what a bunch of random people think about it, you can go to Yelp. What good criticism does is give you better tools to evaluate your own experience when you go. The real function of good criticism goes way beyond, “Should I spend my money here?” It’s why I think we have the best critics right now—better than we’ve ever had. The best people are writing, because they need to be smarter.

Interview was edited and condensed.

$34.75 per person, Sept. 30 at 6 p.m., Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge; harvard.com.