Ruth Reichl still reigns as queen of America’s culinary scene

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NOBODY KNOWS more about what Americans are cooking and eating than Ruth Reichl. As a food writer and restaurant critic for both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times as well as the author of several best-selling memoirs, she’s established herself as a keen observer of the American culinary revolution.

She served as editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine from 1999 until its demise this fall and picked up a James Beard Award for coproducing the PBS series “Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie.” With all of it, Reichl has helped foster an American food culture that celebrates seasonal, regional and artisanal cuisine like never before. It would not be an overstatement to describe her as the most influential food person in America today.

“I don’t wear the mantle lightly,” she recently confided over lunch at Seattle’s Tamarind Tree restaurant. “I mean, I feel 

so lucky. I can’t believe I get to be me.” At the same time, she is fully aware that her position didn’t just happen. “I’ve probably done everything in the food industry you can do except go to culinary school.”

The Pacific Northwest, she added, is one of the places that helped forge her sense of a food culture.

Born in 1948 in New York City, Reichl attended the University of Michigan, where she met her first husband, the artist Doug Hollis. In 1970, when she graduated with a master’s degree in art history, she and Hollis came to Washington to work with sculptor Buster Simpson at what would become Pilchuck Glass School.

At Pilchuck, “we cooked communal meals. We would get this amazing salmon from the Lummi Indian tribe and cook it over an alder fire. I would gather berries and apples for pie, and we would have these feasts! It’s no wonder that a potlatch culture developed here. It’s one of the only places in the world where nature just gives you everything you need.”

For years, after she moved to Berkeley, Calif., Reichl and Hollis would come up to visit Simpson, who moved to Belltown in 1972. “He built 

this crazy oven from the insides of a commercial washing machine, and we would come every Thanksgiving and roast a turkey in his Belltown loft.”

In California, Reichl had joined the Swallow restaurant as a chef and co-owner. “I was really lucky in that I had the opportunity to do what I did when I did it, because I got to learn everything on the job. Now, you would have to have all sorts of training.”

These days, she says, “I want to use my position to influence this emerging food culture.” At Gourmet, she’d found an audience that needed to be converted. “Ten years ago, when I took the helm of the magazine, they would never have run stories about farmers and about social-justice issues.”

Eating, she contends, “is an ethical act, and every choice we make in the kitchen impacts the world.” She hopes that the new “Gourmet Today” cookbook — larded with little essays on topics ranging from heirloom vegetables to sustainable seafood — will encourage people to make better choices in the kitchen, but the first step is “just to get people cooking” again.

Even after she learned that Gourmet was folding, Reichl continued the cookbook tour, “tweeting” to report on what she was eating on the road and how people were responding to the book. In an e-mail sent a week after the magazine shut down, she wrote, “Gourmet was a magazine that meant so much to so many people, and they reacted as if a trusted family member had died.” But that apparently has not slowed her down.

A new PBS series, “Adventures with Ruth” premiered in October; it chronicles Reichl’s visits to cooking schools all over the world. (One episode was taped in Seattle with yours truly as the cooking instructor.) Now, she’s planning a fifth book in her series of memoirs based on the years she spent at Condé Nast. One way or another, she says, she’ll continue to spread the word about the importance of cooking and eating consciously.

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“When people tell me they don’t have time to cook, I tell them no, no, no; what you’re telling me is that you don’t have time to shop. If you took 30 minutes on the weekend to plan what you were going to cook all week, you could make sure you had everything on hand. If you knew what you were going to cook, you could cook dinner every night in less than 30 minutes.”

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~ by elevatedsouthern on 2009/11/10.

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