Q & A With Ruth Reichl: Gilt Taste, L.A. Food, The Role of The Restaurant Critic, Her Movie + The Corrective of Food TV
As you probably know, Ruth Reichl was recently in town for a launch party at Mozza for Gilt Taste, the shopping-as-literature site of which she's the editorial advisor. We caught up with her over coffee at José Andrés' Tres: frilly patisserie, coffee urns, decor like Monty Python meets Versailles.
Marqui Akins Ruth Reichl
It shouldn't come as a surprise to you to learn that Reichl is both extremely charismatic and articulate, a formidable combination. She also looks a good decade or two younger than she is, the vicissitudes of Gourmet and Si Newhouse notwithstanding. She sits crosslegged on the couch like a middle-schooler. It is difficult not to stare at her hair, which would make Steven Tyler weep with jealousy. What did she talk about?
What you would think, only better: the launch of Gilt Taste, her take on the L.A. food scene -- Reichl was once, after all, the Los Angeles Times food section editor as well as that paper's restaurant critic -- as well as her upcoming movie and a bit about food TV. So turn the page.
Ruth Reichl: It's great. I'm so happy with the stuff we're doing. I feel like nobody else is still doing the kind of journalism that we were trying to do at Gourmet. Really written pieces. Really edited. Really thought about. So we can get all kinds of really great people to write for us. We actually pay, although we don't pay thousands of dollars.
SI: It's almost atavistic, in terms of the quality of the writing and the visuals and the fact that it IS actually edited.
RR: It feels great. And I feel like we're also publishing things that need to be said. We get to do political stuff when we want to.
SI: Barry Estabrook!
RR: And we sell incredible stuff that's hard to find. Great fish sauce. Finger limes. I remember in Gourmet we did this piece, I think in my first issue, about finger limes, but you couldn't buy them then. These exist, but you can't have them. Now you can have them. And you can get the great meat that Thomas Keller uses, and black garlic. And Melissa Clark will come into the office and say, What should I be doing recipes for this week? And you hand her the black garlic. It's really exciting finding all these artisans who don't have a good path to market.
SI: It's like a jigsaw puzzle: you have the stuff and you have a network of really well curated stories to go with it. It's like a virtual magazine, which I'm sure was the idea.
RR: Yeah, and for someone like me who watched my magazine die -- not because people didn't like it but because in the recession the advertising went away -- I was fascinated by the notion of doing good journalism that was not supported by advertising but was actually supported by commerce. And what is the result when you tear down the firewall. Which doesn't really exist anyway. What if you just tear it down and say: Editorial and commerce are going to march hand in hand. So we then have control over what we're selling.
SI: You're not just waiting for some advertiser to roll in. Or out.
RR: Right. What often, too often, happens in magazines is that you end up with a great editorial product and then you're selling things that you don't really approve of. And so on the one hand, you're going: Read this article. And on the other you're sort of thinking...
SI: Why am I looking at a Target ad?
RR: Although, I'd have loved to have had Target ads in Gourmet. They do beautiful ads. But a lot of times you're thinking: Why am I looking at a kitty litter ad? There was a famous Gourmet example when they got ads from I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. This was before I was there. And then they were trying to do recipes with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.
SI: That's kind of tragic.
RR: In really good times, you say, No, I'm not taking that ad. But in bad times, you'll take anything. And we're not in that situation. We'll never sell stuff that we don't like; we just won't do it. That really did happen before I got there. And people were still laughing about it. And, on top of that, when I walked in to talk to them, most of the people who work there are late 20s, early 30s. This generation of food people completely blow me away with their passion, their intelligence and their extraordinary knowledge.
SI: So how you think the food scene has changed?
RR: It's just remarkable. It's this generation of educated young people who took food on as something that they really cared about. They really know how to cook. So many of these kids, with Harvard MBAs and Stanford engineering degrees, decided to go to cooking school for a year because they love it. And they come out of it with this amazing knowledge, which nobody in my generation had. There was this real divide between intellectual stuff and...
SI: The home cook, circa Joy of Cooking.
RR: Right. And now you've got people who have really traveled, so when you're talking about Thai food, you're talking about people who've been to Chiang Mai and know the difference between the food of north and south Thailand and have been to Korea and South America, and it changes the whole idea of authenticity. If you know what's authentic, you can say, Okay, this is something else.
SI: The current generation knows a lot. The kids even.
RR: My son is 22, and when he gets a new computer, the first thing he does is throw out the instructions; it's intuitive. They know how to use these mechanical objects, and food is like that for them -- it's not like they're learning it, it's in the culture. They know it.
SI: Do you find that as well with the actual cooking?
RR: Their knife skills are good. You know, I'm a home cook and I'm constantly embarrassed by twentysomethings who really do know the mechanics of cooking. How to build a sauce.
SI: Is that because they watch it on TV?