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Podcast: Ruth Reichl on the Creative Process

 

Let’s start with perhaps the biggest question here that I think writers will sort of be able to hone in on. That is the question of mistakes. Are there mistakes, big mistakes, that reviewers or writers make that you’ve seen?

Ruth Reichl: There are a lot of mistakes. The biggest mistake that any critic, and this would be true of any kind of review, is many people tend to review the restaurant, the book, the movie, or whatever, that they wanted that person to make. You go to a new Jean-Georges Restaurant and you have an idea of what it’s going to be or what it should be. You review not what he wanted to do, but what you wanted him to do. That’s a really big mistake.

 

What is your scale for reviewing? How do you measure a restaurant?

RR: I think you try and figure out what it is that the restaurant is trying to be and then you judge it on its own pretensions. How successful is it in doing what it sets out to do? If you use that as your criteria, you can judge a hot dog stand and a three-star restaurant.

 

I want to jump to your time at Gourmet and transitioning into that editor-in-chief role. How would you say your leadership style was there?

RR: This is a hard thing to ask me to judge. But I’ll tell you what I hoped to do. I’m not sure I was totally successful in that. I was fortunate enough to go to CondĂ© Nast. They pretty much let you run your shop the way you wanted to do it, rather than giving you marching orders and telling you it must be done a certain way. The way I saw my job was to try and hire people who were smarter than I was and to run interference for them. My managing editor was a much better editor than I am. I leaned on him and never wrote a memo that I didn’t ask him to vet before I sent it out. He was a better hirer than I was. I got him to help me do all the hiring. I hired people I think are better line editors than I am to actually do the line editing. My art director, I would not have told him how to do things. He’s much better at that than I am. In many ways I tried to have it be run by a group rather than by me. I think in contrast to the way many editors work, I thought it was very important for my staff to feel invested in the magazine. This meant I sometimes ran articles that I didn’t like. If it meant a lot to an editor, it felt more important to me for them to have a stake in the magazine than for me to think everything in the magazine was actually to my taste. I really tried to run it from the bottom up and to have people go out and find their own writers, and to try and make everyone feel as if they were doing this together rather than me telling them what to do.

 

Are there particular moments during your time there that stick out for you as the most memorable?

RR: I would say it was really way in the beginning. I got there and I had no idea what I was going to find. I was kind of afraid that I was going to come in and say we had a mandate to change, but nobody would have any ideas. But when I got there I found that they had never had meetings, ever. In fact, there wasn’t even a room big enough in the old building for us to have a meeting with everyone in it. In the first meeting, we were sitting on the floor and desks, crowded into this little room. But I said we had this mandate to change and I was prepared to do all the talking myself, and I didn’t say another word for a few hours. The pent-up energy was so fantastic and we all had the same goal. People say I changed the magazine. But we changed the magazine. This is a group of really smart and passionate food people and everyone wanted to talk about what was going on in the farms and happening in the food system. It was really exciting. It sort of went from there but that, for me, was a really important moment and I realized this was going to work and we’d do it together and have a lot of fun doing it.

 

When that chapter closed, did you know Gourmet was going to stop printing? How did you find out that it would stop?

RR: I literally was called while I was on book tour with the second Gourmet cookbook. I was told I had to come back to New York. I thought I was going to get fired. It never crossed my mind that they would close the magazine. I found it out with everyone else. It was just a complete and utter shock. I’m still shocked by it. Sure, fire all of us and make changes. But close a magazine that had that kind of connection with readers? It still strikes me as completely insane.

 

Do you sympathize with seeing what happened with Food Arts last year?

RR: I do, but it seems to me to be a very different thing. It was a small, mostly industry-oriented magazine. Gourmet, over its almost seventy years, had a connection with its readers that people would kill for. Any publisher would die to have people just renew regularly, to think of themselves as Gourmet people. There is literally not a day of my life that someone doesn’t tell me how much they miss the magazine. This is seven years later.

 

It’s such an interesting time for food. We’re seeing a lot of big establishment writers leaving publications and newspapers. You see Russ Parsons who recently said he is retiring, Dana Cowan moving on from Food & Wine. What do you think is coming next?

RR: You know what’s happening that makes me both sad and thrilled is that you have mainstream publications paying attention to food in a way that nobody ever has before. You have a Ted Genoways doing brilliant stuff in the Atlantic. I would imagine that the New York Times will find somebody to replace Mark too to be the public intellectual on food. You have The New Yorker doing really fascinating stuff on food science. There is a lot going on in writing about important food issues that just wasn’t happening even eight years ago. But at the same time, I see that the food publications are retreating in a way that’s really sad. You don’t have food sections doing really important stories that are into cooks and the epicurious magazines are all sort of retreating back into recipes and gossipy kind of things. It seems to me that it’s really important for this important food information to go to cooks and that cooks increasingly need good advice on how to make their food choices. It’s really the consumers who are driving the changes in the food business. You have things like Purdue buying Niman Ranch. They’re doing that because they see the writing on the wall and they see that increasingly consumers are saying that they don’t want to buy tortured animals. They don’t want battery chickens and so forth. I think that movement is going to be increasingly important, which is why I think it’s increasingly important for the really big stories about what’s going on in the food system to be aimed specifically at cooks. It makes me sad that it’s not happening.

 

I have one more question for you. What is next for you do you think?

RR: It’s an interesting time. I still owe Random House three books. I’m working on the next novel and the Gourmet memoir. I’ve also been offered another really interesting book project with a charity hook on it, which really interests me. I’ve also been approached by a group who want to do a magazine. I don’t know!

About Gary Duff

Host of 710 WOR's Gary Duff Show.

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