The Hippie From Berkeley

Ruth Reichl, one of the most famous food writers in America, debuted her new book, “Save Me The Plums,” at Books & Books in Bal Harbour this last Tuesday. The minute I heard about the event, Eliot and I signed up because we wanted to meet the legend.

It was definitely a good decision, at least for me. Reichl chronicled her career before she spoke about her book. While she is famous and I am not, her experiences were so similar to mine. I felt like we had the same long satisfying career. It had nothing to do with how much money she made over the years, and who gave her accolades. It was all about the journey and the experience she brought to her readers.

She never wanted to be a typical restaurant or food critic. Telling readers that a certain dish at a restaurant was too salty, or the waiters were rude, never appealed to her. She wanted to report on interesting new twists that young chefs were trying out, or what new foods were being discovered in local farmer’s markets.

That angle caught the attention of the LA Times when she was a food writer for small periodicals in Berkeley, CA. At the time she was living on a commune. She started her full time food career at the LA Times and then moved on to the New York Times to replace Bryan Miller. It was years later that SI Newhouse, of Condé Nast, asked her to be editor of Gourmet Magazine.

After repeatedly turning him down, Newhouse chased her with a big raise from the $84,000 she was making at the Times. He also gave her a car and driver, several club memberships, and a complete new wardrobe. The first task the Condé Nast PR department had on Reichl’s first day, was to get her a new hairdo and makeup. She remembers bumping into Anna Wintour in the elevator. Wintour looked at her with disdain. Reichl never got the hang of being a fashionista.

Reichl’s new Book is a memoir of how she transformed Gourmet from a stuffy relic of the old guard into a publication that embraced a new culinary era. It was also a time when “woman were taking on new challenges, pushing boundaries, and hanging onto the sense of wonder.”

Reichl wanted to be treated like an average customer. She disguised herself when visiting restaurants. She claims most restaurants had her photo posted in the kitchen with the words “WANTED” across the top. Anyone who spotted her, and then warned the restaurant management, got a $2,000 reward. Everyone wanted to be on their best behavior when Reichl was around.

These days Reichl lives with her husband in the Berkshires. She writes books and constantly cooks. A member of the Books & Books audience asked her what she thinks of people critiquing restaurants on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter? She claims she “loves it. You have to know how to decipher what people write. “If you can filter the comments, you will find some very unique comments that are very honest and important.”

Reichl has always enjoyed change. She predicts that more social media folks will focus on the experience of dining when they post, rather than the food itself. “It will be like theater. How did they feel about the adventure? Did it bring people together? Did they learn something new?”

Food shopping, food preparation and food dining over the years will be going through major transformations. The best is yet to come.

4 thoughts on “The Hippie From Berkeley

  1. I loved your last sentence—but what could be better than Gourmet magazine? I went through a period in my life when I ‘devoured’ that mag, and tried out as many of the recipes as I could afford. And I won’t mention the failures, of which there were many LOL!

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