I loved Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl’s reflective book about her childhood. She was Executive Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet Magazine when it folded last year, and previous to that, restaurant critic at the New York Times. The San Francisco Chronicle has a wonderful interview with her this week, and I feel very gratified that she gives credit to artisan food makers as the new heroes of good food in the US. Thanks, Ruth!
Nowadays, former Times critic and former Gourmet editor in chief Ruth Reichl is traversing the country as the editorial advisor for Gilt Taste (not to be confused with discount site and Bad Deal Hall of Famer Gilt City).
In between Vegas stints, she popped into San Francisco for one day last week, and was kind enough to stop by Chronicle Food HQ for a quick chat.
Here’s the first half of the interview; stay tuned for the second half on Monday.
PL: Let’s start with Gilt Taste. How did you land there, and why?
Ruth Reichl: I was just curious about what these people were doing; I had absolutely no intention of going to work there. I went to talk to them because I’m very interested in what’s going on in the media space in general, and having had a magazine that died –not because people didn’t like it, but because the advertisers didn’t have any money – I’m very skeptical about the advertising model. I keep thinking about the next spin of the wheel.
What appealed to you about Gilt Taste
One, I love the idea of the site that is supported by commerce as opposed to advertising. But more than that, I love the energy of this place. I feel like I’m in there and surrounded by really smart young people who are incredibly passionate about food and way more knowledgeable than people of my generation.
The other area it intersected with my passion is that I really feel like the chefs have let people down. There was this whole movement for restaurants, because we loved the fact that the chefs were giving us food. And suddenly, the successful chefs are flying around the world, they’ve got 25 restaurants, they’re here, they’re there. You go into their restaurants and you don’t see them actually cooking food.
I feel like the new heroes are the butchers, the bakers, the cheesemakers, and the farmers that are really transforming American food. I think maybe you have to be of my generation to really understand what a profound change this is.
I mean, I remember when Laura Chenel was the only person making goat cheese in America. When the ideal American cheese was Velveeta. There are now thousands of young cheesemakers making amazing cheese. Or the idea that you don’t have to go to Italy to get amazing prosciutto, that La Quercia is doing it in Iowa. People are raising heritage breeds of birds, and pigs, and cows. It was unimaginable in America 30 years ago.
What’s your role in this?
A lot of these people are incredibly passionate and do what they do well, but they don’t know how to market their product. If they’re in the Bay Area, it’s not a problem. Here, you’ve got plenty of people who want to buy what they do, but if you’re in Hope, Minnesota, and you’re making the best butter in America, how do you tell the rest of America that you have this product?
So how do you — or Gilt — find that butter in Hope, Minnesota?
A lot of it is stumbling across it. A lot of it is chefs coming to you. Eric Ripert called me up and said that he found the best chocolate maker in America and no one knows about it. So we sell it.
Getting back to the chefs – the words you used were “letting people down.” Why do you think that is? Money?
I don’t think it’s chasing money or ego. I think most Americans have this romantic idea of what a chef is: you know, a chef is a person who feeds you. When in fact, restaurant cooking is – with the exception of some of the little places that the Bay Area is great at – it’s assembly line cooking.
It’s not home cooking. It’s a bunch of people each doing their little piece of it, and a chef is a great CEO. So of course the great chefs are the great managers and the ones who have the ability to marshal their troops. And if you’ve got an organization that is working really well and you have to promote your people, what do you do? You open another restaurant, because you’ve got all these good people.
So it kind of makes sense, but it’s not that romantic notion that Americans have of what a chef does.
Does media play into it?
Part of what all of the cooking shows do is continue that romantic notion of the chef, because you’re seeing these chefs cook. Most of these chefs don’t cook all the time. They’re making deals, buying, and managing — and that’s what they’re supposed to do.
I have this whole other notion, too. It’s that we have all this — the food television, food memoirs, food writing and food movies — because cooking is necessary to us as a species. As people don’t cook as much anymore, people still need to see it, so they watch it. It’s interesting that a big part of who watches the Food Network is children. They watch it because they don’t see their moms cooking, so they turn on the TV and watch it. I think that we want people who are making food for us. And now, it’s really the artisans, the bakers, the farmers.
Is America’s romantic perception of those artisans accurate?
I think it’s accurate. The farmers are out there farming. You don’t farm because you want to be a millionaire. It’s a seven day a week job. It’s relentless work and not about money. I think that they are what we wanted from the chefs.
Could you foresee a day where the cycle comes around, when that romantic notion is no longer accurate?
It’s not impossible, but I don’t think so, because the psychological profile of an artisan is different from the psychological profile of a chef. Chefs, in their nature, have to get their troops to translate their vision. They’re managers. I don’t think artisans are managers. They really are people who like to get their hands dirty. Not that every chef is like that! I know lots of chefs that aren’t happy unless they’re not in the kitchen. But I think they’re the exception rather than the rule.