Ruth Reichl

"Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise"

(Reviewed by Pat Neuman JUN 4, 2006)

“.. when Nicky saw me he came running, joyfully calling, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” as he leapt into my arms like an exuberant puppy.

“Who are you?” he asked, fingering the red wig.

“Brenda,” I said.  “Do you like her?”

He leaned back and gave me a critical stare.  “Yes,” he said solemnly.  “You look like a very nice person.”

… “Daddy, can we take Brenda out to eat?”

“… Where’s your Mom?” Gene [the doorman] asked Nicky when we got into the elevator.

“… But my son did not blink.  “She had to go somewhere for her job,” he said, as if pretending that I was someone else was the most natural thing in the world.

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

Have you ever dreamed of not only getting the red-carpet treatment while dining at some of the world’s greatest restaurants – but getting paid to do it?  Well – believe it or not – this is a two edged sword.

Even before Ruth Reichl decided to accept the job that brought about her move as the food critic for the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times, she learned that many of the finest restaurants had already posted her picture in the kitchen with special instructions to impress her enough to win a money-making review.  In order to get the data for an honest review, she finds that she must go to elaborate lengths to disguise herself when doing her research.  This book is about some of these stories and the columns that they inspired. 

Reichl’s vast experience as a cook, caterer, and food reviewer makes her authority friendly, authentic, and informative.  Her writing style is fresh and surprisingly compelling.  She sweeps you along as she brings you along her “adventures.” In the process, she is extremely candid about herself and her feelings, and open about sharing aspects of other relationships in her life.

She makes it a policy to never base a review on only one dining experience and often goes back to the same restaurant up to six times to ensure that her over-all impressions are representative of what her readers can expect.  Of course her reviews cover everything; the food, service, attitude, ambiance, lighting etc. that comprise a total dining experience.  There is a lot of interesting “inside” information that reveals the nature of the business – that is both the food business and the New York Times.  She writes about all kinds of restaurants from the priciest to the most humble – anywhere that she encounters an experience that she wants to share – always looking for that happy expression of the joy to be found in food. While she sincerely endeavors avoiding becoming a “food warrior” or “food snob” she has to work very hard to keep her personal knowledge about food from overwhelming that of her readers, and to keep the voice of her reviews honest and down-to-earth.  She’s on a crusade with like-minded people, even naming one chapter “The Missionary of the Delicious.”  Her descriptions of the food she tastes are tangible and sensuous, her enthusiasm infectious. 

“Pow!

The food…. comes out shooting.  With your first bite you know that you are in for an exciting adventure.  These are flavors you have never tasted before…. Each meal is a roller coaster of sensations…  the risotto always comes with a contrasting dish: one night the creamy rice was slicked with a tiny casserole of sliced salsify and black truffles.  The creaminess of rice was emphasized by the crunchiness of the black truffles just as the delicate perfume of the white truffles emphasized the deep musky flavor of the black ones.”

Reichl’s sometimes zany, often frustrating attempts to get the true picture of a restaurant make highly entertaining reading. Struggling to avoid the pressures of giving an undeservedly high rating, Reichl has a mind of her own.  In one case, because she was recognized on one visit to a restaurant when she received a red carpet treatment totally unlike an earlier experience there in disguise, she writes a dual review to cover both, letting her audience read between the lines.

Her disguises get more and more elaborate, (sometimes with the gleeful help of some of her friends) as they each get their own wig, make-up, wardrobe, voice, and sometimes even a credit card!  They quickly take on a life of their own.  To her surprise, they actually blossom into full personalities. She ends up naming them and filling out details of a brief biography for each in her head.  One of her favorites was Brenda, an aging “Earth Mother” who’s blowsy good looks even change the way she walks, the way that she smiles at people and they way they smile back.

Then there is Chloe, a “bad imitation Marilyn Monroe” divorced blond with a sad story replete with details; Mollie, a retired high school teacher, in “her dowdy Armani suit, three sizes too large” who, in spite of having a reservation, was relegated to wait in the bar in the hope that she’d give up and go away; Betty Jones, one genteel step slightly above a “bag lady” being treated to a meal at “Tavern on the Green” by a generous friend; and even Ruth’s own (deceased) mother, Miriam.  Each of these personalities presents a unique view of their dining experience as their appearances trigger the way that they are received and treated in the various restaurants.  In fact, they even take over the writing of the review.

Much to her astonishment, these disguises fool almost everyone, including her colleagues and even the doorman of her building that she sees every day.  Except Nicky.  It is especially touching the way that her young son not only instantly sees right through her disguises but plays along with the new personality like a pro, never tipping anyone off to who she really is.  This is a charming insight into what kind of person (and mother) Ruth Reichl really is.

She becomes determined to break the mold of her predecessors and describe a more democratic dining experience that anyone would be able to duplicate.  When she realizes that “… I receive weekly letters from people who think that it is indecent to write about $100 meals while half the world is hungry… all I’m doing is telling rich people where to eat, [then] I realize how much the world has changed.  Yes, there are still restaurants where rich people get to remind themselves that they are different from you and me.  But there are fewer and fewer of them.  As American food comes of age, American restaurants have changed.  Going out to eat used to be like going to the opera; today, it is more like going to the movies.”

Another aspect of this book that is really interesting is to compare the chapter about each experience and then see how she handled the final review when it was published.  As an added bonus, she also includes some simple, basic recipes for some of her favorite dishes.  Reichl’s writing seems effortless and there is a lot of humor, honesty and wisdom in what she has to say.  Garlic and Sapphires is a highly readable book that anyone will enjoy.  Better yet, it would make a much appreciated gift!

  • Amazon readers rating: from148 reviews


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About the Author:

Ruth ReichlRuth Reichl was born in 1948 in New York City where she was raised, except for the years that she went to a boarding school in Montreal, Canada. She holds a B.A. and an M.A. in the History of Art from the University of Michigan.

As chef and co-owner of The Swallow Restaurant from 1974 to 1977, she played a part in the culinary revolution that took place in Berkeley, California. In the years that followed, she served as restaurant critic for New West and California magazines. In 1984, she became restaurant critic of the Los Angeles Times, where she was also named food editor and in 1993 she went to work for The New York Times as restaurant critic. She joined Gourmet as Editor in Chief in April 1999.

Reichl has been honored with three James Beard Awards (two for restaurant criticism, in 1996 and 1998, and one for journalism, in 1994) and with numerous awards from the Association of American Food Journalists.

She lives in New York City with her husband, Michael Singer, a television news producer, and their son.

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