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Interview With Ruth Reichl, Editor-in-Chief of 'Gourmet' Magazine

Aired October 5, 2002 - 16:30   ET


RUTH REICHL, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, "GOURMET" MAGAZINE: The brouhaha about this in New York was unbelievable. What I had done was serve notice to the restaurants of New York that the way things have been done was going to change.
WILLOW BAY, HOST (voice-over): The firebrand critic who shook up New York City's eating establishments.

REICHL: It's a mousse (UNINTELLIGIBLE) with a little mountain of caviar.

BAY: Has a new assignment. Editor-in-chief of "Gourmet" magazine.

REICHL: This will be a nice cover to have.

I didn't have a clue how to do this job is the real truth. But I'm pretty good at faking it.

BAY: Faking it? Hardly. With a handful of irreverence and a healthy dose of respect, Ruth Reichl, is stirring up a magazine industry institution.

REICHL: Probably five million people a month read the magazine.

BAY: Editor-in-chief of "Gourmet" magazine, Ruth Reichl, and the big business of food, on this edition of PINNACLE.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can we take a meter reading, please?

REICHL: I'm sure that we can lift this up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's looking very good. It's a little bit light.

REICHL: Perfect.

BAY: For more than 60 years, "Gourmet" magazine has been the voice of the epicurean establishment, a culinary institution.

REICHL: It's sort of not only chronicled the history of American food, but sort of been out there as a cheerleader for the expansion of America's interest in food. (voice-over): For 30 years, Ruth Reichl has been the voice of food's counterculture, from the front lines of the food revolution in Berkeley in the '70s to the tables of Manhattan's elite eateries in the '90s.

In 1999, Reichl was hired as editor-in-chief of "Gourmet" magazine. And an unlikely partnership in culinary heaven was born.

BAY (on camera): You said that when you arrived here, your mission here was to throw open the windows. What did that mean for you?

REICHL: What I had seen happen with the magazine was a sort of narrowing of focus, where it became increasingly recipe-driven, and the travel was very Euro-centric. And my idea is that food and food culture encompass everything. We hired correspondents all over the world, and we got 22 of them. And their job is just to e-mail us constantly about what's going on in their city.

We really have to get going on the next month so we get it.

BAY: Reichl expanded "Gourmet's" news gathering, and those correspondents got the word out right away.

REICHL: When I came here, everything was planned out a long time in advance, which I just don't think is a good idea.

BAY: To add a little spice to the mix, she brought in new writers.

REICHL: The magazine had increasingly had a sort of what I think of as "Gourmet" speak. That it all had this sort of well-modulated, polite tone. And I wanted a sort of cacophony of voices. In my first issue, I had Pat Conroy, who speaks in that sort of rich, Southern voice, and Spalding Gray, who has that very edgy, New York tone.

OK. Let's just take a look at the reviews.

BAY: And the former restaurant critic revamped "Gourmet's" reviews. The magazine used to publish a reader's restaurant poll. Not anymore.

REICHL: I don't care what a lot of anonymous strangers think about restaurants. What I want is for the magazine to have a voice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That will be good actually, because that's a very popular street (ph).

BAY: Here in the home office, she encouraged those voices.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have some ideas.

BAY: With an open-door, open-mind policy.

REICHL: Some magazines are run from the top down, where the editor-in-chief decides what every article is going to be and who's going to write them, and then they're doled out. My idea is to do it the opposite way, to do it from the bottom up. My idea of management is that what your job is as the boss is to find really good people and empower them and leave them alone.

BAY: She's also left alone the backbone of "Gourmet," its legendary lush photography. But to this art, Reichl applied greater science, shining a spotlight on test kitchens that rival those at "Good Housekeeping."

REICHL: I've been a food editor before. I've never seen anything like this. I mean, when you develop a recipe, the process is meticulous.


BAY: More than meticulous, it's obsessive. "Gourmet" has 10 test chefs, each of whom begins developing a recipe a year before its publication.

REICHL: She develops the first recipes. And at the point that it's cooked, she'll call out, "taste," and everybody in the kitchen will go. All 10 cooks will go to taste it.

Taste, guys!

BAY: The team offers suggestions. Then it's back to the cutting board.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's the sharpness of the mustard and the sweetness of the maple syrup are reminding me of seaweed.

REICHL: And she'll do it again, and then we'll taste it again. And make more suggestions. And this goes on eight or 10 times until we get a recipe that we all think is absolutely worth our readers' time.

We might want to make a recipe for it.

BAY: Next, the recipe writing process begins. Draft upon draft.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thyme, salt, sesame seeds.

REICHL: Everyone will critique the writing of it. You say, cook until golden. It will be much more useful to say, cook for 36 minutes. And that recipe as written then goes to a cross tester. Our cross tester is a passionate amateur cook, but not a professional. And he has to make this recipe and be able to do it with no glitches. It makes our recipes absolutely foolproof.

If you're going to do this, I think you've got to really up the mango in it. It's wimpy.

BAY: The result?

REICHL: Today, the magazine speaks to a really broad cross section of people, from everyone who really wants to entertain beautifully and lavishly, to people who want to go home and put a 15- minute dinner on the table.

BAY: In her three years at the helm of "Gourmet," Reichl has cooked up quite a success. Circulation has been on the rise. And this month, circulation rate base, the number promised to advertisers, is expected to reach an all-time high, approaching a million, up 100,000 since she took over. Readership, the number of readers of a single issue, is also up to 5.5 million.

And she's not just getting more readers. She's attracting the next generation of subscribers.

REICHL: Our fastest growing category is 18 to 25-year-olds. The whole sort of landscape of food has really changed, and it's young people who are most interested.

BAY: The delicious landscape of Ruth Reichl's formative years, when PINNACLE returns.


REICHL: I came from a family where, you know, we sat down at the table every night, and you better have a story to tell. My father never wrote his stories down. And you know, I learned that they went farther if you wrote them down.

BAY: Reichl turned a lifetime of stories into a career. A career that includes chef, restaurant critic and author.

Two best-selling memoirs, "Tender at the Bone," and "Comfort Me With Apples." But reading about her childhood in New York's Greenwich Village, it's hard to imagine she'd grow up to have a life devoted to the finest meals on earth.

REICHL: My earliest memory is watching my mother go through the refrigerator and literally scraping the blue stuff off of the top of everything she found in there and going, "a little mold never hurt anyone," and she stuck it in the oven.

The first story in the book is a very true story about my mother inviting all of my brothers' future in-laws to a party and putting 26 of them in the hospital with food poisoning.

On the other hand, for me as a future restaurant critic, it was great training, because I can eat anything.

BAY: Writing her first book, "Tender at the Bone," also gave Reichl a chance to confront a less comic side of family life -- her mother's battle with manic depression.

REICHL: When I turned the first draft of the book in, my editor said, "there's a secret hidden in this book and I don't know what it is." And I said, "well, I really didn't want to write about my mother's mental illness." And she said, "Well, I don't know what you're going to do, but you're going to have to do something because it's not quite working this way." And so I took a deep breath. And I dealt with the fact that she was severely bipolar. And she really was someone who went to bed every night not knowing who she would be when she woke up in the morning.

BAY: From early on, Reichl drew comfort from cooking and started experimenting almost as soon as she could operate a stove. Through lonesome years at a Montreal boarding school, the teenaged angst of public high school in Connecticut, her days at the University of Michigan. By her early 20s, she'd written a cookbook, and moved with her artist husband to Berkeley in 1973.

REICHL: If there was going to be one place that you were a food person and you would want to be in the early '70s, Berkeley would have been it.

BAY: A countercultural hotbed for years, Post-Vietnam Berkeley became the red hot center of a culinary revolution.

REICHL: People really started thinking about what does what we eat mean? And can't we have better food in this country? And I was the person who was there chronicling it all.

BAY: At Berkeley, she helped start a community-owned eatery, the Swallow.

REICHL: We made quiche at a time when quiche was so unknown that people would come in and say, what's a "quee-shay"?

BAY: Reichl's career took a dramatic turn in 1978, when a customer who loved her cooking and knew of her writing talent offered her a job, as restaurant critic for "New West" magazine.

(on camera): What was the reaction to the news you were going to become a restaurant critic?

REICHL: First I walk into the communal household that I'm living in, and the first roommate that I tell looks at me and says, "let me get this straight. You're about to tell spoiled rich people how to eat too much food?" And my parents were horrified. My father said, "you're going to be a restaurant critic?" And the way he said it was, he might as well have said "garbage collector." I mean, it was just...

BAY: But you did it anyway.

REICHL: I really wanted to do it. And I really felt that as I tried to explain to my husband, I can do this in a way that it hasn't been done before. I'm going to put everybody at the table with me.

BAY (voice-over): By her second review, it was clear. Reichl's readers were in for quite a trip.

REICHL: And I had this sort of epiphany. I would write it as a short story. I wrote it like a film noir, like a mystery. After I turned it in, I got very scared because I thought, OK, I've thrown this job away. It's gone. But this was new journalism. This was the '70s. And my editor was thrilled. And he said, "just take this form and stretch it as far as you can."

BAY: Reichl stretched so far, she caught the attention of the "L.A. Times." Hired in 1984, she tried to stretch the form there, but the response was quite different.

REICHL: I wrote this piece where I imagined Gloria Swanson coming to dinner with me and swooping through the room. And my editor called me in and he said, "Ruth, this is a newspaper." And I said, "I know that; so what?" And he said, "you can't make stuff up. Gloria Swanson wasn't with you at the restaurant. She's dead. And you've got to tell the truth."

BAY: Telling the truth gave a turbo charge to her career.

REICHL: I started thinking about writing about who was in the restaurant, and really training myself journalistically to notice detail.

BAY: Her eye for detail and her enthusiasm earned her a job as the paper's food editor. And then in 1993, the "New York Times" came calling, with one of the most prestigious food writing jobs in the country.

REICHL: I had told the powers that be at the "New York Times" that they really shouldn't hire me if they expected me to continue doing reviews the way that they had done them. And one of the things that I brought with me was a real interest in cuisines that were not European. So my second review was of a Japanese noodle house. I think it's one of the best restaurants in America. I really do. But it is, as many people of the "New York Times" said, "oh, my God, she's giving three stars to little Japanese noodle joints!" And I thought it was really important to announce early on it's not just European restaurants.

BAY: It was the beginning of six years of reviews done Reichl's way. She took on the city's finest, and New Yorkers took notice.

REICHL: Probably the best known review I will ever have written will be Le Cirque, which was about my fifth or sixth review at the "New York Times."

BAY: She went to the elegant and expensive French restaurant Le Cirque in full disguise and exposed a distasteful double standard.

REICHL: It was me and another woman. We were made to wait 45 minutes for a table. We were given a terrible table. But the real moment of indignity was I got the wine list, and after a couple of minutes, the maitre d' came and snatched it out of my hands and said, "I need that wine list," and took it to a man three tables down. I was in a rage.

And I thought, OK, I'm going to write about the difference between what happens to someone in disguise, and on my last visit, I am not going in disguise. REICHL: As she suspected, off came the disguise, and out rolled the red carpet.

REICHL: We had been getting raspberries that were this big on the desserts when I was in disguise, and suddenly these giant raspberries are appearing on my dessert. And the entire experience is totally different.

BAY: Reichl's ensuing review revealed the snobbery and stripped Le Cirque of one of its coveted stars.

REICHL: What I had done was serve notice to the restaurants of New York that the way things had been done was going to change, and that they better be nice to everyone because they were never going to know when it was me.

BAY: Ruth Reichl's latest guise -- "Chic" magazine executive, and stay-at-home-for-dinner mom next on PINNACLE.


BAY: Shaking up the food establishment as "The New York Times" restaurant critic was exciting, but it was also tough on Ruth Reichl's family. Eating out 600 meals a year meant she was rarely home for dinner.

(on camera): How is your life different now that you have this job?

REICHL: The biggest difference in my life now is my life is very normal. You know, I go to work in the morning, I come home at night, I sit down to dinner with my family, I cook dinner.

BAY (voice-over): Life at home may be more normal, but her transformation from restaurant reviewer to editor-in-chief of "Gourmet," a magazine industry institution and an important player in the Conde Nast empire was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

REICHL: I didn't have a clue how to do this job, is the real truth. But I'm pretty good at faking it.

BAY (on camera): So what did you have to learn, and learn fast?

REICHL: I really had to learn the magazine business. It's nothing like the newspaper business.

BAY (voice-over): Instead of taking on the establishment from the outside, she has to court it from the inside, persuading advertisers to buy ad space in her magazine.

REICHL: That's good positioning.

Yes, it is.

BAY (on camera): What is it like when you go into an advertising agency and have to talk about your vision? Is it like being a saleswoman on a certain level?

REICHL: You know what it's most like? It's most like being on book tour. The magazine is pretty much an extension of my personality, and my books are that too. So it's like basically going out and selling yourself.

BAY (voice-over): Only this book tour would be long on style and cash, done the Conde Nast way. Home to some of the most famous and sexy magazines in publishing, Conde Nast boasts titles that reflect, celebrate and define the culture.

(on camera): Did you experience a bit of culture shock when you landed here?

REICHL: Only in, I would say, the very best sense. I come from a newspaper background, a sort of subway mentality. And Conde Nast does everything beautifully and expensively. It's entering a kind of luxury lifestyle that I was completely unaware even existed.

BAY (voice-over): But Reichl being Reichl, still takes the subway, and we saw no visible signs of manicures or (UNINTELLIGIBLE). But Conde Nast resources let Reichl do much more than ride to work in the company car.

REICHL: There is nothing that I can't do if I want to do it. I can hire the best photographers. I can spend whatever I need for a great location. We can spend whatever we need in the kitchens. We can hire the best writers. I mean, the resources allow you to think very big, to dream big for the magazine.

BAY: Those resources allow Reichl to keep throwing open the windows, to new worlds and new tastes for her readers.

With circulation up, it appears as if they're all loving the breeze, and the conversation.

REICHL: My idea of food is that it's not about does it taste good; it's about what happens around the table. And given the choice on any day between a great meal in boring company and a mediocre meal in great company, I'll take the great company any day.

BAY: Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of "Gourmet" magazine. And clearly great company, too -- on this edition of PINNACLE.



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