BY DAYNA NORRIS
Hearing "Are YOU going to eat THAT?” from her airplaneseat companion, Ruth Reichl, LA Times restaurant critic, on her way to theBig Apple to interview for the same position at the NY Times, turned in surprise. “Doyou know me?” she asked. When told by the New York restaurant workerthat Ruth’s picture was already posted in every kitchen in the city,long before she had been publicly offered the critic’s job, Ruth realizedthat a large hat like Mimi Sheraton’s would not be a sufficient disguise.When she learned that her husband’s and her child’s photos werealso displayed, she could not doubt substantial camouflage would be necessary.
In her warm, humorous, and delightful book Garlic andSapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic, Ruth narrates how as the matronly Molly, her first persona,she was just tolerated at the famous Le Cirque—long wait, poor table,specials unmentioned, indifferent service. As herself, she of course got thefull VIP works—immediate seating (even as the King of Spain waited atthe bar), the best location, personal specials from the chef, perfect service,enormous desserts. Her double review notoriously reduced Le Cirque’sfour stars to three and shook up the staid Francophile “Living Section.”
Later, incognito as the blond, sexy Chloe or an imitation of her mother,Miriam, or the elderly Emily, or the snooty Brenda, Reichl dined throughoutthe five boroughs. While lavishing four stars on the rising Le Pinasseand retaining them for the venerable Daniel, she one-starred (trashed)the sluggish Tavern on the Green (amen), the Box Tree, and Windows on theWorld (lost on 9/11). She brazenly bestowed three stars to Kurumazushi(“only sushi”) and other unknowns, as well as the wonderfulUnion Pacific. Even if not a gourmet diner or food warrior, and while someof the elaborate meat descriptions may be nauseating to vegetarians, onecan soak delightfully in the magnificent art of describing taste: of scrambledeggs—“Each forkful was like biting of a piece of the sun.”
How does one grow up to be the NY Times restaurant critic? In her firstbook, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, Ruth tells of coveringfor her culinarily incompetent mother, making apple dumplings with theBarbados-native cook of her grandmother’s, savoring exquisite mealsat the home of her French-Canadian boarding school pal, appreciating farmcheese and fresh fruit tarts while counseling at a summer camp in France,winning a handsome hubby with her cooking and charm, stretching food tofeed 9 or 10 at her 1970s Berkeley Commune, apprentice cooking at Berkeley’sThe Swallow, and then segueing into reviewing at New West magazine. Inthe sequel, Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventuresat the Table, Ruthcontinues her savory saga with full immersion into the 1980s Californiafood explosion—Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, Wolfgang Puck’sChinois, Danny Kaye’s home kitchen—and culinary globe-trotting:Paris, Spain, Thailand, and China.
From the other side of the restaurant’s swinging door, the kitchen,come two amazing books by Michael Ruhlman: The Makingof a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America and Soulof a Chef: The Journey Towards Perfection. Now such a classic that it is required reading at theCulinary Institute (henceforth, the CIA), Making of a Chef is an imaginativebook, taking the reader class by class through ten-hour days of the demandingcurriculum. From Culinary Math to Cooking Skills, Hot Foods, Seafoods,Patisserie, American Regional, Asian, and International Cuisines, Ruhlmanmeasures, dices, stirs, grills, steams, and bakes along with the otherwould-be chefs. Sharing their passion, he endures the kitchen heat, theburns, and the instructors’ criticism to finally triumph in cookingsuccessful meals for the CIA’s four public restaurants.
In Ruhlman’s second book, The Soul ofa Chef, he first returnsto the CIA to document the grueling 10-day, 16-hour-day CertifiedMaster Chef certification examination. Ruhlman next details lifeat Chef Michael Symon’s creative Cleveland restaurant, Lola.Near Jacobs Field and famous for its corn crepes, Lola managesto keep the tab for its delicious entrees under $20. How it allworks—ordering, hiring, cooking, serving—is a fabuloustale. Lastly, he allows all those yet to savor America’smost heralded restaurant, Napa Valley’s The French Laundry,the literary equivalent of its five-course extravaganza. How doesCream of Walnut Soup sound for a starter? Chef Thomas Keller’saddition of a glass-walled kitchen to the old laundry buildingwhere he spends most of his life symbolizes the sunlight he hasbrought to American cuisine.