Turning failure into a recipe for success

Story highlights

  • Ruth Reichl was the editor of Gourmet magazine for 10 years before it was closed in 2009
  • Reichl used cooking as her therapy in the aftermath
  • Her memories and recipes are collected in a new book, "My Kitchen Year"

(CNN)When Conde Nast shuttered Gourmet magazine in the fall of 2009, Editor-in-Chief Ruth Reichl realized she was losing a job that she would have gladly done for free.

"It was like losing a family, not just losing a job," Reichl said. "We were a very tight group, and I realized we were never going to be in the same room together. I'll never have the privilege or the joy of creating with these people again. I couldn't believe we were losing this extraordinary experience."
    Reichl had been at the helm of the 69-year-old culinary magazine for 10 years. One colleague, Richard Ferretti, remarked to her, "I think we had the last fun job."
    "I knew things were tough in the industry," Reichl said. "But it never crossed my mind that they would close the magazine. People loved it in the way that most never connect with a magazine. It was a bible."
    Ruth Reichl
    As Reichl put it, she had always seen the world "food first." And in 2009, at age 61, she found herself full of disbelief and questions. She wondered about her identity and self-worth without a job or if she would ever work again.
    Eventually, though, her lifelong talents -- cooking and writing -- would become her salvation.
    Reichl had worked for the last 45 years, starting at age 16, and began writing about food in 1972. She co-owned a restaurant and was a critic and food editor for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times before coming to Gourmet.
    Because of lingering obligations to Gourmet -- a cookbook tour for its collected recipes and final shoots for the TV shows -- Reichl was constantly traveling and forced to confront the end of Gourmet over and over again in interviews. She was also riddled with guilt at the thought of her beloved staff losing their jobs under her watch.
    When Reichl was home, she kept finding herself in the kitchen, rather than eating in restaurants in the city. And when she wasn't cooking, she was lingering over the experience of shopping at local farmer's markets near her home in the Hudson Valley. Reichl enjoyed connecting with the vendors as a way to defeat her depression and loneliness. Cooking and conversation became her therapy.
    "The thing about cooking is, you really have to be in the moment," she said. "You're chopping with knives and cooking over open flame -- you can't do that with half of your mind. You just come into the kitchen and let it all go. It's a meditation. I think that's why it becomes such a way out of yourself."
    Reichl's husband and son became the ultimate support system, and she found herself both creating new recipes and making meals from old family favorites. They kept telling her that everything was going to be OK, until she started to believe it. Reichl also kept closely in touch with members of her former staff.
    One weekend, when it could no longer be avoided, Reichl had to return to the city and pack up her old office. Four close friends showed up, and after a fun-filled weekend of adventure and eating, they helped her pack. After a particularly crushing radio interview about the fall of the magazine, they came over and made homemade pasta and Bolognese sauce.
    It made her realize that while being an editor-in-chief for a magazine under the Conde Nast umbrella had been "a real princess job" full of living large, it was all a fantasy world. Her friends and family were what really mattered, and the support they gave her was life-changing.
    All of these moments and recipes coincided with her healing over the course of a year. Reichl hadn't set out to write a book, and she refers to her latest, "My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life," as an accidental one.
    "It was a book that grew organically," she said. "Writing this is the only thing I've ever done that wasn't hard."
    Reichl used Twitter during her time with Gourmet to talk about the magazine and its features. After the magazine folded, she sent out tweets that captured a snapshot of her day or how she was feeling. It let her friends know how she was doing, even if she didn't see them.
    Tweets from the fall of 2009, like "Mysterious misty morning. Crows wheeling, cawing. Storm is on the way. Coffee black. Eggs fried. Toast burnt. Gourmet's over. What now?" eventually gave way to more optimistic musings a year later: "Clouds coming in. Chilly outside. In here the generous scent of chicken stock swirls through the air. A solace and a promise."
    In talking with her editor, Reichl saw the tweets as anchors to the emotional turmoil of that year. Combined with the recipes for each season, a cookbook/memoir hybrid emerged. Photographer Mikkel Vang came out to their farm to take natural photos of her, the seasons and the food. There wasn't a food stylist, props or lights in sight. Like the recipes she included, Reichl wanted the book to feel open and approachable.
      Growing up in a publishing household, Reichl was as inspired to write as she was to cook. She credits telling stories at the dinner table as a child with teaching her how to write. Her two joys overlapped while working on "My Kitchen Year." She didn't expect to find such joy after losing Gourmet, but pure passion helped her make it through.
      "Not everyone finds joy in the kitchen," she said. "My advice to anyone going through this kind of experience is to find whatever gives you the most pleasure in life and give yourself permission to do it. That will be your salvation."