Q&A: Ruth Reichl
Former Gourmet magazine editor chats about this weekend's Good Food Awards; transitioning to the digital age, and her East Bay foodie roots.
Ruth Reichl has had an impressively long, prestigious food journalist resume, having been awarded six James Beard awards over a 40-year career in which she worked as food critic and food editor at the Los Angeles Times, critic for the New York Times, and editor-in-chief of Gourmet until that magazine shut down in 2009. Now, this old-school print journalist has reinvented herself, signing on as editorial advisor of Gilt Taste, the new online magazine/marketplace focused on artisan food products. Reichl is also the keynote speaker at the Good Food Awards taking place Friday January 13, which recognizes the top artisan, sustainable food producers and farmers in the United States. (If you're reading this on Friday evening or after, go to goodfoodawards.org for the list of winners, and CLICK HERE to check out descriptions and summaries of around 40 winners and finalists by the editors at Gilt Taste.
Diablo: So, why did Gilt Taste decide to sponsor this year's Good Food Awards?
Ruth Reichl: Well, I had a lot to do with that. I've known [Good Foods founder and director] Sarah Weiner for a long time and really admire her, and I remember she started talking to me about this idea she had which just seemed like such a great idea to me. It was the same reason I went to Gilt Taste in the first place, the missions are exactly in line with each other. I have been thinking for a long time that the important new people in the food movement has moved from the chefs, to the producers of food. It's so exciting about what's happening in the United States with this whole movement to grow great food and raise animals that've lived decent lives, making our own charcuterie and cheese and jam and bread, the whole beer and spirits movement. It's really what's making us the food capital of the world now, and the idea of instituting awards for these people who are always overlooked just seemed like the right thing to do.
Right, there doesn't seem like there was one official place to recognize artisan food producers before the Good Food Awards...
Yes, and actually, if Gourmet hadn't died, we had been planning to do these kinds of awards. So its absolutely in my wheelhouse and when I went to Gilt Taste, one of the first things I said was that we really ought to be doing this.
It also seems like it's helpful to separate the producers that really practice sustainability versus those that maybe just pay lip service to it?
The Good Food Awards is not about industrial organic. The food community is really small and people really do know who the people are who are doing good work and should be recognized. And I think this is really helpful in saying that these are the people who you should be paying attention to. They're not the people who are making jam from four-year-old organic apples from China.
You're giving the keynote speech at tonight's awards, and you'll be discussing the birth of the artisan food movement in Berkeley in the '70s: what was it like back then?
It was an amazing time. Of course you never know it at the time, so looking back you think "oh my God, what happened?"
I've heard Alice Waters say how she didn't invent the food movement but just rediscovered things that had been forgotten: there must have been a real sense of discovery back then.
There really was. And Alice can say that but in fact, so much of it had been lost. One of the things I'm going to talk about tonight is that I think it's really hard for people who weren't there to really understand what it was like. A world without farmers markets, you know? A world where the only place you could really get fruits and vegetables was you went to the supermarket and bought what was there. I remember when I wrote my first cookbook in 1971, my editor made me change the recipe for moussaka because no Americans could buy ground lamb. It's hard to remember a world where the food was so constrained.
Is it strange for you to see a generation of chefs and food producers who take all this stuff for granted?
It's so exciting, you should be taking it for granted. That's where we want to get: a place where everyone knows what an apple really tastes like.
It's interesting, the movement has really been very much one step forward and two steps back until about six or seven years ago when suddenly America became a food culture. There was a real change, a real moment when things changed. I gave a series of lectures at Yale seven years ago where I was talking about all the probelms we have with food and it was a revelation to people, they were just stunned: the devestaion of the oceans, pesticide runoff, confinement animal facilities. And today, people just look at me and say, 'Yeah, why are you telling me all this stuff?' There's been a huge and very recent change and it's really wonderful to see a generation of kids who see that eating is an ethical act. This really is the first generation that understands that.
At the same time we’ve had this parallel and opposite food movement that’s given us a crisis of obesity and diabetes and unregulated food.
You were a judge this year for the Good Food Awards: how was that experience?
It was amazing. You’re in this room for a day, this silent room where there were probably 100 of us, each divided into groups and judging different things. We were tasting from about 9 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon with an hour break! It was very serious, surrounded by all these people I really admire—my little group was me, Alice Waters, and [Newman’s Own Organics founder] Nell Newman—so you had a real sense for the sort of seriousness of this enterprise. It was wonderful.
Did your experience as a food critic help?
Not really. The thing about food is everyone knows the difference between good and bad. If you concentrate on it, you don’t need to be a food critic: just say ‘this is wonderful, this is terrible, and this is sort of in the middle.’ I think we all sort of have that ability, some of us just spend more time thinking about it than others.
You were a food critic for a long time: do you think there’s still a place for food criticism in the age of Yelp?
Yes, it’s a different role now. It used to all be about opinion. In the old days, the critic was kind of the arbiter. Now it’s much less about opinion and more about how much can you enhance my knowledge and my pleasure in this restaurant? So I think the burden for the critic has become much bigger: it’s not just ‘I like this, I don’t like this.’ Now it’s more ‘where does this sit in the spectrum of restaurants? How do I evaluate this in a really smart way? What is the chef trying to do?’ I think it means bringing a lot more to the table. And what you want from a good critic is that sort of excitement of ‘hey, let me tell you about this great restaurant.’ Or ‘let me tell you about this awful meal I had.’ But you also want some really informed commentary on who the chef is, what they’re trying to do, what’s interesting about it, the background on all the dishes. When you read a good review you want to come away with a better ability to appreciate that restaurant.
Do you think that’s because consumers and diners are a lot more educated now about food?
Oh my God, there’s no question. You’re dealing with a completely different public that you were 20 or 30 years ago. When I started writing about Thai food I could pretty much know that none of my readers had been to Thailand. Today you write about Thai food, and you can pretty much bet that half of your readers have been there, and they know the difference between the food in Phuket and the food in Bangkok. You’re really dealing with people who are much more knowledgeable.
The chefs have changed too. When I started, being a chef was definitely blue collar work and now it definitely is not. Now it’s an aspirational job. When I started, chefs were mostly uneducated. I remember being astonished when I heard about Robert Del Grande, a chef in Texas who had a PhD. Everyone was stunned: a guy with a PhD decides to be a chef? Now today you don’t think twice about it: half of them do!
You were at Gourmet for years. What has it been like to work at Gilt?
Absolutely fascinating. For me, it’s just been an incredible learning experience. It’s a different world, I’m surrounded by these passionate, brilliant, hard-working young people who are so knowledgeable. And it moves so fast, you can change so fast. When you do a magazine, it can take more than a year before you know if you’re hitting the things you want with readers. Online, you know within weeks whether you need to make adjustments or not. The kind of engagement you have with your readers is so intense and so immediate, it’s really wonderful. One of the reasons I went to Gilt in the first place was having been in traditional media for such a long time I understood that I needed to be in a place with a real programming platform: the engineering is so important here.
Have you been working with multi-media?
Well, one of the things we learned was that we were doing these gorgeous video recipes—It’s a series that we did called 'By the Smoke,' a whole meal with six different, six-minute videos—but it turns out that people don’t go online to watch six-minute videos. So we quickly realized that we were putting so much energy into these videos, but it’s not what people want. People go online and they have very short attention spans.
But what we’ve seen is that people really like our longform read pieces—Gilt is one of the last places you can find a really long, thoughtful piece on food—but they read them on the weekends. Little bites are what people want during the week and on the weekend is when they sit back and read a longer piece. So we’re changing our format: I’m doing a quick weekly column about how to make things (scrambled eggs, grilled cheese) better. But if we had been doing this at Gourmet it would have taken us a lot longer. Gilt is only six-months-old and in six months we’ve learned so much about what our readers want from us.
You used to live in the East Bay. What’s your take on this area’s importance in the slow food movement?
I lived in Berkeley for ten years and I still think of myself as a Berkeley girl. I think Berkeley really shaped my palate. I have never stopped liking wonderful products, very simply cooked. I still have that incredible reverence for the integrity of the product and when push comes to shove, you just cannot overestimate the importance of Alice Waters in American food. In every way: in terms of technique, product, the people that she’s changed, and her deep moral ethic of food, she has been a driving force for the last 40 years. And Alice herself was deeply shaped by living in Berkeley. There’s a reason why the Smithsonian is unveiling her portrait in the national portrait gallery next week. That’s not an accident. Other chefs have opened other restaurants and made themselves millionaires and Alice has taken her considerable celebrity and is worrying about how poor people live and how children eat. As my husband once said, she is a true revolutionary. She’s still fighting and she’s got this incredible new program she’s working on: a whole new school program that she’s doing in Sacramento. She’s amazing.
Finally, you’ve been working with all the artisan food products: is there one area you think is really exciting these days?
Actually all of them. But what’s happened in cheese is really astonishing. When you think about the evolution: when you think about when Laura Chenel started her goat cheese company in the ’70s, nobody else was making goat cheese. And there was almost no artisanal cheese in America and now there’s not a state in the country that doesn’t have like 15 or 20 really good cheese makers. Almost anywhere you are, if you want to stick to local cheese, you can do it.
And the other thing is the charcuterie movement has been stunning. The idea that you would have prosciutto in this country that makes you not long for San Daniele is amazing, and now we’re recognizing these great ham makers. And a new and interesting bacon product comes out every few weeks. I remember the first time I met a chef who was making his own salame was right here in San Francisco, and I was like ‘I didn’t know you could do that!’ And now it seems like every restaurant I go to has its own home-cured this or that.
To check out Reichl's new column, "How to Make a Better..." on Gilt Taste, go to gilttaste.com/stories. CLICK HERE for Gilt's profiles on around 40 of the Good Food Awards winners and finalists. And go to goodfoodawards.org for the complete list of finalists and winners and more information on the awards.