Memoirs of a gastronaut

Her mum's iffy cooking drove Ruth Reichl to a career as a food reviewer.

'Coming home to the smell of something cooking is soothing," food writer Ruth Reichl says. "Even if the end result is not as delicious as you'd hoped."

Reichl would know. Her mother, Miriam, who she dubbed "The Queen of Mould", was an adventurous, though not accomplished, cook. Fond of using ingredients well beyond their use-by date, she caused Ruth much childhood embarrassment, and more than a handful of dinner guests food poisoning.

Miriam's abysmal culinary forays drove young Ruth into the kitchen, igniting a passion for cooking and food that would set her on a path to become one of the most celebrated food writers of our time.

Reichl has long been paid to eat. First as restaurant critic and food editor at the Los Angeles Times, then as restaurant critic for The New York Times, followed by a decade as the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. She has penned three best-selling memoirs and edited more than a dozen books.

A master of the restaurant review, Reichl will visit Sydney next month for the Crave Sydney International Food Festival (Crave SIFF). As part of the festival's Chefs Showcase and its new Talks & Thoughts program, she will join the Herald's Terry Durack and a restaurant correspondent for the Financial Times (Britain), Nicholas Lander, to discuss what makes good food criticism.

The director of Crave SIFF, Joanna Savill, says Reichl is a coup for the festival. "Ruth is US food royalty," Savill says. "She has done it all, from reviewing to editing America's best-loved food magazine of its era. She retains a beautifully fresh interest and gracious appreciation of food after a long and amazing career."

A master's graduate with a degree in fine arts, in the 1970s, Reichl co-founded a community restaurant in Berkeley, California, before moving to full-time writing at the Los Angeles Times. "They gave me the food section to reinvent," Reichl says. "It was utterly exhilarating to spend my time thinking about how a really good food section can not only reflect the city it's in, but also change it."

Following success in Los Angeles, Reichl returned home to New York, taking up the post of restaurant critic for The New York Times. Her weekly reviews were keenly anticipated; many in the industry believed she had the power to make or break a restaurant.

"I don't think a bad review can kill a restaurant," she says. "But a good one can certainly change a restaurant's life."

With her raven locks and wide smile, Reichl is easily recognisable. Her photograph was soon pinned to the walls of restaurant kitchens across the city. Deciding she needed to restore her anonymity, Reichl began dining in elaborate disguises, creating a host of characters.

Her incognito exploits are chronicled in her third memoir, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, currently being developed into a feature film. Reichl is on board as an executive producer, with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig set to direct. Actress Catherine Keener has been rumoured as a possible lead.

Retiring her characters and costumes, Reichl joined Gourmet, which, at the time, was America's most important food publication. The magazine became a casualty of the GFC when publisher Conde Nast abruptly pulled the plug in 2009. "There's not a day that goes by that someone doesn't tell me how much they miss Gourmet," Reichl says.
Reichl continues to do what she has always done: she writes and cooks and sometimes tweets. Her genteel 140-character haikus are infamously parodied by @RuthBourdain, an anonymous tweeter who regurgitates her words in the voice of brash US chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain.

She feels strongly about the state of Western food culture and the fact the US government spends $US150 billion ($144 billion) a year on diet-related healthcare. "A result of industrialised farming methods changing the very nature of our food," she says. "Twenty years ago, industrialised food wasn't a topic of discussion anywhere.
But, she warns, "we need to teach people to cook".

"It's crucial that we change the way kids eat. There is a reason that Japanese kids love rice and fish, and that American kids want hamburgers. They aren't wired differently, it's learnt behaviour.

"As parents, we have this notion of 'quality time', but there is no such thing, there's just time."

Eating together is an important use of that time, Reichl says. "When your kid comes home and you ask 'What happened today?', you always get the same answer, 'Nothing."'

She believes the dinner table is where a family's connective tissue is reinforced. "That is where you find stuff out," Reichl says. "The power of dinner, for me, is not so much that it has to be the greatest meal, but that you hear about what is going on in everyone's lives."

The Crave Sydney International Food Festival runs from
October 1-31. For details, see cravesydney.com.