Friday, February 27, 2009

An Evening With A Real Gourmet

One of the perks of living in NYC is being able to attend excellent (and free) food related events given by wonderful professional foodies (chefs, writers, stylists, restauranteurs, etc...). Last night I was able to attend a lecture at Columbia's School of Journalism given by Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. For anyone not familiar with her background, she's not just an editor but also a best-selling author (Garlic and Sapphires, Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples), former chef, and legendary restaurant critic. She first became widely known as the controversial New York Times restaurant critic that gave SoHo noodle shops three stars and downgraded the ratings of stodgy old establishments that coasted on their former popularity and classic, but overwhelmingly stale, French cuisine. Always demanding quality regardless of the type of food she was reviewing, Reichl turned the restaurant scene upside down into the varied and international spectrum we see today.

The lecture began with Reichl recounting what a typical day looks like for her, which included everything from Twittering because her boss told her to, testing recipes, and sadly, laying off a beloved employee (memories, like the corners of my mind...). After talk of the magazine business and a short description of how she got to her magazine, conversation quickly turned to food and trends. The audience was a mix of journalism students (the panel was hosted by the master's program) and serious food lovers bearing copies of all her books. We were all free to ask questions and as I listened to her speak, I was instantly reminded of why I've always loved her. As both a foodie and a magazine professional, she's the woman I've always wanted to work for. Magazine work has became a bit of a celebrity job in its own right, with reality shows, forced web tie-ins and TV appearances (not to mention movies like The Devil Wears Prada making us seem significantly more interesting, not to mention taller and better looking). But Reichl has managed to stay incredibly grounded, humble and passionate about what she does. 

"Saving money in the kitchen makes you a more conscientious cook"

I remember my days at Condé Nast (publisher of Gourmet, Vogue, and the setting that inspired The Devil Wears Prada), when the editor at my magazine couldn't be bothered to join me at important meetings finalizing the editorial and ad content. When I asked if other editors were as uninterested, they said yes, except for Ruth Reichl. She came to every meeting, defended every adjacency and story in her magazine, and fought to remove ads for products or personalities she couldn't endorse. I longed to meet a person who cared that much about her magazine, it's content and what it said about her beliefs. The lecture brought me back to that time, and how despite all of the changes in the magazine world since I left Condé Nast (like the creation of websites!), her main priority is still making her magazine a vehicle for home cooking and education. It's no wonder that every amazing job she's had she got by turning each one down and saying, "No thanks, but here's what the new person should do...," followed by compelling arguments in defense of global cuisine, agriculture, food politics and seasonal food. How could anyone resist giving a person that passionate any job?

So just to be clear, this isn't a Ruth Reichl lovefest, but a small explanation of why it's worth it for me to share some of her wisdom with you. Although there was much talk of the recession, and it's affect on food and restaurants, the best thing to come out of it is something I've said all along. When asked what implications she thought this recession would have on the food world, she responded that the position of "restaurant as king" was receding. There's a new wave of people that are more about cooking good food at home than about going to the coolest restaurant. My favorite part of the night came when she said that what she makes at home are modest meals like roast chicken, pasta and risotto, and that if anything, only good can from the recession because, "saving money in the kitchen makes you a more conscientious cook." I couldn't agree more, and boy have I been on soapboxes (and blogs!) for years trying to say just that. Reichl also expressed her happiness that the rise of the "celebrity chef" is dying down and that the purveyors of truly wonderful ingredients will be their successors. "The next wave of food heroes are the artisans: the cheesemaker, the baker, the butcher," she told a student, "These are the people that should be recognized more, and I think they will."

And so, despite an aching in my heart for what I hope will be my speedy return to magazines (I'm currently freelancing in another publishing industry), I left the lecture feeling invigorated about the future of food. Although I have been a casualty of the economic crisis myself, I know that it can safely be said that this recession will do wonders for the current and future home cook. It's more important now than ever that we use our food wisely, and encourage creativity in our kitchens. Stay tuned for the next Recession Special, coming very soon, and some great recipes next week for using up those winter veggies! And in the mean time, please check out Reichl has been fighting for years to get the magazine it's own website, separate from Epicurious and Bon Appétit. The new site has great original content, excellent videos, how-tos, contests, cookbook reviews, and of course, everything you love from the magazine. It's a true labor of love to bring you even more wonderful food content, and I couldn't be happier to have another outstanding and trustworthy resource to look to when coming up with recipes and techniques. 


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