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Critic a master of disguises

For six years during the 1990s, Ruth Reichl was the restaurant critic for The New York Times, possibly the most powerful restaurant reviewing job in the world. Operating in and out of disguise, Reichl elevated the restaurant writing at the Times with her stimulating narratives and attention to high-quality ethnic cuisine.

In her new memoir, “Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise” (Penguin Press, $25), Reichl details the cat-and-mouse life of a restaurant critic, using different characters to hide from restaurant owners to review anonymously New York’s best and most expensive restaurants.

Reichl focuses on her six most famous disguises: There is Molly, a wealthy, if slightly dowdy, Midwesterner; Miriam, Reichl’s own late mother, who sends all food back to the kitchen; Chloe, a breathy, sexy blonde who gets picked up by a wine fanatic; Brenda the hippie; Betty the anonymous old lady; and Emily, your typical toxic New Yorker.

Pinning up her curls under nondescript wigs, Reichl reigned in New York. Her legendary review of the pompous Le Cirque restaurant, where celebrities are lionized and commoners are abused, has already gone down in criticism history. Stripping a star off the restaurant caused an outcry, as Reichl chopped up a sacred cow and commented on the steaks.

“Garlic and Sapphires” is a fast-paced, witty memoir that explores the meaning of reviewing, the stuffy culture at the Times and Reichl’s ongoing love affair with food.

Reichl, 57, was raised in New York City and educated at the University of Michigan. She was restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times before she became the New York Times’ critic from 1993 to 1999. She edits Gourmet magazine and is the author of two previous memoirs, “Tender at the Bone” and “Comfort Me With Apples.” Reichl lives with her husband and son in New York City. She spoke recently in the Manhattan offices of Gourmet.

Q: Why did you choose to write a memoir about your experiences at the Times?

A: When I wrote the first book, an editor who was rather famous asked, “Why do you want to write about your childhood? Who cares? All people want to know about is being the restaurant critic of the New York Times.” The question people would ask me was, “What was it really like to do the disguises?” I thought I’d answer these questions in a book.

Q: Why did you hang the book on your six main disguises or characters?

A: I really don’t have an answer for that. I started with Molly, because the Le Cirque review will be on my epitaph. When I sat down to write, these were the characters that floated into my head. Becoming Miriam was so powerful to me. It was an extraordinary experience. I could not imagine anything more horrendous than becoming my mother. Discovering that I have it in me to behave like my mother was worse. I discovered that it was fun, that kind of outrageous behavior. She had a great skill of getting through life by making demands.

Q: Could you explain the power of being the Times restaurant critic and the danger of letting that power go to your head?

A: The subtitle of the book should have been “How to be the restaurant critic of the New York Times without becoming a jerk.” The truth is what happens when you get this job is people flatter you and tell you how wonderful you are. You have power in this food-obsessed city. When I left the Times and came to Gourmet, (New York City Mayor) Rudy Giuliani said that it was a disaster for the city. If you believe that kind of stuff, you become a monster. The power of the Times is frightening. If you don’t have enough maturity to handle it, it could warp your personality.

Q: Do you believe that the Times restaurant reviews are the most read in the world?

A: I think that is probably true. When I was at the L.A. Times, we told ourselves we were important, but the truth is we weren’t the same at all. People in power all over the world weren’t reading the L.A. Times reviews. You become anointed as the New York Times restaurant reviewer. People assume you know everything about food, even if you don’t.

Q: Your famous review of Le Cirque was actually a double review, illustrating the difference in treatment you received as Molly and as yourself. What happened?

A: It’s the thing that everybody knows happens, and it doesn’t just happen at Le Cirque. To put myself in the position of being humiliated was a more unpleasant experience than I had anticipated. Feeling Molly inside of me and looking respectable. I was showing up to be treated beautifully for a few hours. They essentially said to me, “You are nothing. We’ll get to you when we have time. Don’t expect us to treat you nicely. And on top of that, you are a woman.” As I sat there as Molly, I got angrier and angrier. This humiliation turned into serious anger. I realized this happens to several customers a day.

Q: Why do you think people go to New York restaurants like Daniel and Lespinasse, where meals can easily cost $150 per person?

A: I think in this city that restaurants have very much replaced theaters as people’s form of entertainment. Theater is very expensive. You can sit in the dark with your friends, but if you are a very busy person and want to spend time talking to people, you can take the $100 you’d spend at the theater and spend three or four hours sitting around a table. Restaurants in New York have become a public extension of private space.

Q: What were the logistics of reviewing restaurants for the Times?

A: I’d certainly never go to a restaurant fewer than three times. One of the great things at the New York Times is they don’t care how much you spend. My theory was to go until you’ve eaten everything on the menu. You go with a small group and you go to lunch and dinners. You go on weeknights and weekends. All these things are important because you are trying to get a sense of the entire experience. In my case, I always went a couple of times in costume and out of costume as myself.

Q: The previous Times restaurant critic, Bryan Miller, organized a poison-letter campaign against you. What happened?

A: I am grateful that the powers that be at the Times did not tell me they were getting negative letters about me. I was scared enough as it was. In theory, you have a thick skin, but I don’t know anyone who has skin that thick. When you are a Times critic, you have the key of the city in your hands. Bryan gave that up, thinking that it belonged to him after nine years of being the restaurant critic. When you don’t have the job anymore, no one cares.

Q: After the Times, you became the editor of Gourmet magazine. How is it going?

A: I feel unbelievably blessed that this job fell into my lap, and it really just did fall into my lap. At this time in America, we are at such an important point. We are culturally very focused on food. Our food is being messed with more, in terms of genetic modification and technology, than it ever has been in history. We are able to make very good choices and bad choices about the food supply. I wanted to be a voice for cooking and what is happening with the science and politics of food. To be talking to people who are interested in this subject in a forum like Gourmet is incredibly exciting.


 

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