Optimistically Cautious

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ruth Reichl's "Garlic and Sapphires"

There are many types of celebrities in the food world, including chefs, restaurateurs, and network hosts. Another group, and one that is almost counterintuitive to include among these revered connoisseurs are the critics who write about food.

One of the most well known critics in the United States is Ruth Reichl. Currently the Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet, previously the restaurant critic at the New York Times, and before that, the food editor at the Los Angeles Times, she has garnered a reputation of "democratizing" expensive eats and even expressing guilt about her indulgence in the face of those who can't afford food at all.

I remember seeing her name here and there, especially on Ganda's blog, but I didn't really know that she had written anything other than brief columns until I saw her most recent memoir, titled Garlic and Sapphires, in Barnes and Noble in New York. I bought a copy upon my return to Edmonton, and actually managed to finish the book (my idiosyncrasy as of late is an inability to complete books I begin...shame).

A narrative about her stint at the NY Times, it is a journey through the many disguises she dons in attempts to hide her true identity from restaurants seeking to woo her with the hopes of striking a good review. In the process, she uncovers personalities within that she didn't know she had.

That arc, in my opinion, is enjoyable, but is also the weakest link of the book. It's easiest to relate to Reichl when she writes as the fun-loving, down-to-earth woman who simply enjoys good food. But it is also a bit contrived, the reviews and dining experiences carefully chosen to demonstrate the gradual development and learning Reichl went through over her six years at the paper.

That said, I have much to learn from Reichl - beyond wishing for her impeccable palette and appreciation for the expansive edible spectrum New York has to offer, I would imagine many also strive to capture the essence of food with words the way she does. Those who know my tastes know that I do not eat sushi, but after savouring Reichl's descriptions of the authentic Japanese eatery Kurumazushi, with fresh fish sliced so thin it literally melts on your tongue, even I would consider changing my stance on raw seafood.

Some things I could have learned elsewhere, but was easier within the context of Garlic and Sapphires:

  • Daniel Boulud and Jacques Torres both worked at Le Cirque;
  • Chilean sea bass is also known as Patagonian toothfish; and
  • before handing down a verdict, Reichl would dine at a location at least three times, if not more. This allows a restaurant to have a 'bad night', especially when a negative review from the Times can really tip the fortunes of a place, but boy, what a luxury (more than multiple visits by one person, I favour one visit by many people, as can be found in Frank Bruni's recent review of the Second Avenue Deli).

Even amongst anecdotes of four-star pampering, evenings amongst the elite crowd, and a position that saw Reichl accepting phone calls from Hollywood celebrities to ask for restaurant recommendations, I found myself most drawn to her quiet moments with her too-precocious pre-school son Nicky. Ever-supportive of his mother's wild guises, and always eager to lend a helping hand in the kitchen, his presence ground the story - and her life - as more than just a byline.

At the end of it, Reichl and I both on the same page on the absolute non-negotiable aspect that eating out is an experience, and any restaurant not catering to this sort of theatre and hyper reality doesn't understand its diners. In the next few months, I would like to try out some of the recipes included (which she deliberately substituted in place of photos), and (fingers crossed) finish reading her second memoir, Comfort Me With Apples.

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