Food writer and former Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl weighs in on food criticism, no-tipping policies, and her favorite trends in food. Catch her in-person at the North Castle Library in Armonk on May 4.
Q: There’s been incredible backlash toward current New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells for applauding casual restaurants and decreasing the star rating at Per Se. What’s your response to people who say you can’t give a casual eatery the same rating as a fine-dining restaurant?
A: I think that’s ridiculous. One of the things that I’m best known for when I went to the New York Times was casting a wider net. My second review was for a fabulous soba restaurant that I gave three stars to and there was a huge outcry about it. Oh my God! She’s diluting the standards of the New York Times. And I said, ‘No it’s just a perfect restaurant. Soba is very hard to do. Everything they do, they do as well as it can be done. It’s not trying to be Daniel or Jean-Georges.’ If you judge a restaurant on meeting its own goals, you can judge a hot dog stand in the same way you can judge a four-star restaurant.
Q: Do you think there’s still a role for formal restaurant criticism in the age of social media when anyone can publicly critique a restaurant online?
A: I think that there’s never been a more important role, precisely because Yelp and social media are taking over consumer reporting. It’s leaving professional restaurant critics to do the job that they’re supposed to do, which is not to tell you how to spend your money, but to give you what you need to better enjoy the experience. A good critic points out what you should be looking at, what you should be paying attention to, where this places sits in the context of history. I think we have the best critics we’ve ever had precisely because they have to be smarter than the yelpers.
Q: Danny Meyer announced in October that he would eliminate tipping at his restaurants and now several other trendsetting restaurants have followed suit. What do you think about the new non-tipping policies?
Ruth Reichl, food writer and former Gourmet editor-in-chief
A: It’s a really complicated issue. As a former waitress in college, I would work a four-hour shift in this very fancy restaurant and come home with [a lot of money]. It was great. On the other hand, it’s totally not fair that the front of the house makes so much more money than the back of the house. There were professionals in the kitchen who weren’t making as much as I was as a waiter. There’s an idea that tipping is like a favor. As Danny Meyer said in a piece in the New York Times you don’t tip your doctor, you don’t tip your lawyer. People think of restaurants as important. They ought to think of restaurant jobs as important as well. It’s time to professionalize it.
Q: You were on Netflix’s Chef’s Table docu-series about Dan Barber. What do you think it is, specifically, that’s so special about Dan and Blue Hill?
A: I’ve been a fan of Dan’s for years. I think Dan has the most interesting food mind in America right now. He’s someone who keeps pushing the envelope. When people were saying farm-to-table, Dan went, ‘Forget farm-to-table, it’s seed-to-table.’ He’s always thinking about the next step. He will look around the restaurant and go, ‘Here I am raising my own animals and vegetables. What about this flour that’s coming in here?’ And the next thing you know, he’s growing his own wheat and taking aim at the notion of this product that we all use in our kitchen everyday. He’s never complacent. He never sits still. He’s always going on to the next issue in sustainability and it’s remarkable.
Q: Do you have a favorite food trend right now? Is there an emerging trend you hope will really take off?
A: I’m really thrilled about what I call the Ottolenghi effect. I’m just thrilled that Middle Eastern flavors have become part of our flavor palate. What I expect to see soon is the increasing regionalization of Mexican food. It is an extraordinarily sophisticated food culture and we barely know the tip of the iceberg. I expect that in the next few years, we will know the difference between Oaxacan food and the food of the Yucatan and the food of Northern Mexico.
Q: When Gourmet closed, it was a big shock. Do you think the other major food magazines will also ultimately close?
A: Oh no. Take a look at Lucky Peach. They thought they’d sell 10,000 copies and it’s thriving. Look at Cherry Bomb. Look at Modern Farmer. More and more food magazines keep opening all the time. The question is: Will the mainstream magazines succumb to onlinezation? Maybe. Because I think that with social media, we have a fracturing of media, where everybody’s slicing and dicing things into smaller niche markets. Is there going to be an ongoing place for a mainstream food magazine? I’m not sure. I think the people who want Lucky Peach well get Lucky Peach. The people who want recipes will go online for them.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your cookbook that came out in September?
A: It’s not a straightforward cookbook. It’s really about the year after Gourmet closed. It’s a book with a narrative arc. The subtitle is 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, and it really is the story of how, when the magazine closed, I was devastated. I was shocked. I didn’t see it coming and I went into a real slump. [The book] is how I cooked my way out of this terrible place and grounded myself. There are 136 recipes and it’s got beautiful pictures, but it’s also the story of coming back from defeat.