Picking up a napkin to protect her white Shanghai Tang blouse, Ruth Reichl took one look at the menu at St John in London’s Smithfield and smiled. ‘Wow,’ she exclaimed, ‘this is certainly not the kind of food you would find anywhere in the US.’
Reichl should know. She has been restaurant critic for the LA and the New York Times, before taking over two years ago as editor of Gourmet magazine, as well as writing some particularly eloquent gastronomic memoirs in the form of her two best selling books, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples.
During that period she was also the restaurant reviewers’ most admired restaurant reviewer. Within an elegant figure is a prodigious appetite, as I remembered from eating with her at Wild Blue on top of the Windows on the World and March in New York. This, she modestly claims, has been the only prerequisite for her career. Reichl agrees wholeheartedly with A J Leibling that all it takes to be a restaurant critic is a good appetite.
But Reichl’s unique contribution has been to set restaurants in a much broader social context. Unashamedly left wing, with a great sense of justice and equality for all, she once wrote an article entitled ‘Why I disapprove of What I do’, an attempt at justifying whether it is indecent or not to glamourise expensive meals. It was so moving that it has remained in the top drawer of my desk for the past eight years.
Before the arrival of our first courses – English asparagus with melted butter, jellied tripe with chicory, deep fried sand eels and four hunks of roast bone marrow – I wanted to know how difficult it had been to call it a day as the world’s most influential restaurant writer.
‘I never had the slightest intention of doing so,’ she exclaimed with the first of many smiles that were to puncture our meal. ‘James Truman, Gourmet’s Editorial Director, called me in for an interview and although I told him that I did not want the job I found that I was almost talking myself into it. He persisted and eventually I yielded,’ she added as her smile grew even bigger.
‘Subconsciously, there were two important factors, I suppose. Firstly, and most personally, to be offered such a new challenge at 50 was very, very exciting. And professionally, whilst restaurant reviews were still challenging, I was becoming increasingly concerned about just how Americans were using restaurants, spending so much of their private lives in public places.’
At this tantalising juncture she paused, silenced by the flavour and texture of the asparagus and the unctuosness of the jellied tripe. She had eaten tripe earlier that week, prepared very differently by chef Mario Batali of Babbo fame. ‘That had been braised and then deep fried in a sweet batter, the way they fry clams in New England. Just as delicious,’ she purred.
‘I had come to the conclusion that many Americans saw restaurants as a safety net, that they wanted to meet there because they were too afraid to invite even their closest friends back to their apartment in case not everything was perfect. I realised that Gourmet could be the vehicle to inspire more confidence, to demolish the Martha Stewart image of fabulous floral arrangements and impeccably polished silver. And, of course, the meal does not have to be perfect either. It’s only a meal after all and if you make a few mistakes on the way, it will always be better the next time.’
‘That’s why we introduced Gourmet Everyday, as much for ourselves as for our readers, it transpired. We are all working longer hours and the choice when we get back home had come down to an indifferent Chinese takeaway or an insipid pizza. We were on the point of forgetting that we could quite easily cook something quick, easy and delicious as an alternative. The drive now is to make people’s lives more possible.
‘And the consequences of 11 September seem to have confirmed this decision. Whilst restaurants are still busy it is now obvious that many Americans are becoming more reluctant to hire a babysitter, say goodnight to their children and leave them for the rest of the evening.’
This hiatus, however temporary, in the 20-year-old American love affair with restaurants comes at a point, Reichl believes, when two other issues, that of service and just who is in control, the restaurant or the guest, have to be resolved.
‘America is a middle-class country. Only a few of us grew up with servants and the vast majority are simply not comfortable with the concept of service. As a result we don’t know what we want, whether it’s the arrogant French stereotype who looks down their nose at you or someone who comes over to your table, says Hello, I am Michael and I am your waiter for tonight, someone you know will never leave you alone all evening. We find it hard to have a relationship with someone paid to bring food to the table. It’s itchy.’
With immaculate timing our waiter swept in with the main courses, a dish of lentils, broad beans and goats curd and a six-inch organic pork chop with black cabbage. The fact that the chop had been so elegantly trimmed impressed Reichl. ‘American chefs only bother with lamb or beef but this looks great,’ she said before tucking in. Eventually she continued.
‘But the real structural issue in American restaurants is about how long you have to wait for your table and whether your table is good enough or you are confined to restaurant Siberia near the restrooms. Although I have to say as a critic I was always thrilled to get the tables nobody wants.
But there is a major misunderstanding on both sides. The customers don’t appreciate the economics, the cost of the real estate. This is a point which Alain Ducasse appreciated when he opened in the Essex House. Here the table is yours for the night, no turns, but the prices reflect that. As does the style of service. I have been in both kitchens at Ducasse and Daniel and whilst the Ducasse kitchen is like a slow languid ballet, Daniel’s is fast and furious.
And what restaurateurs fail to understand is that if they keep customers waiting 40 minutes during which time they show other diners to their tables then even if they serve them manna from heaven it would not taste any good. It has degenerated from pleasure to humiliation. If they bank on turning tables three times each night they have to understand that some people eat more slowly than others.’
Reichl’s understanding of this daily power struggle came from her years as a waitress. ‘I don’t think you need to be a good cook to judge food accurately, just a practised eater. But it is incredibly useful to know how a restaurant operates, to appreciate why delays occur whether through a lack of organisation, over booking or because the customer does not make themselves clear. I still remember the furious arguments I had when, as a waitress, I was made to pay for the two tables that had walked out because they had waited too long when I knew that it was because the kitchen was inefficient.’
The arrival of our desserts, gooseberry fool and strawberries with Jersey cream, brought further reminiscences. ‘Our family escaped from Germany in the 1930s and as a teenager I used to come and stay with my English cousins near Hyde Park. They used to fill the fridge with soft fruits and clotted cream just for me.’
As to the future, Reichl hopes that, despite a fragile economy, American restaurants will prosper and the food revolution progress: more organic produce via farmers’ markets; more artisanal cheese and breads and that the determination to be iconoclastic, a characteristic of so many exciting American chefs, will continue.
And, that most importantly, her worst fears will not be realised. ‘The biggest danger is that America will develop into a two-tier eating society, that those who are well off and educated will go on eating properly whilst the diet of those less well off, trapped in poverty, will never improve. And that their children will never know what proper food looks like let alone tastes like or how it should be served. A lot of American children have never seen a napkin and believe a chicken comes shrink-wrapped via a supermarket. They need to be educated. And I think all of us have to realise that meat is not a prerequisite of every meal. This is a legacy of our heritage that has to change for a sustainable society in the twenty-first century.’
In her metamorphosis from waitress to editor-in-chief over 20 years, Reichl has lost none of her bite.