. . . March 1995
Reichl of the Times (cont'd.)
But then restaurant reviewers always invite controversy, and none more so than the chief critic of the New York Times. When rumors surfaced of Reichl's departure from one Times (Los Angeles) for another, industry watchers forecast the fall of French cuisine and the rise of Italian in New York. They also predicted that ethnic places would fare well. And after 16 months of reviews, they have yet to eat their words.
Reichl (pronounced RY-shel) has taken a star away from the most fashionable French restaurant, Le Cirque, and elevated a lowly Japanese noodle shop, Honmura An, to three-star status. She gave prominent reviews to a Korean and a Malaysian restaurant, while leaving some more established chefs and owners piqued by her piquant remarks.
The Le Cirque review gained her instant notoriety just months into the job. Privileged circles decried the injustice while the proletarians applauded. Reichl complained that Le Cirque's sevice and food depended largely on the status of the person receiving it. As an unknown, she waited 45 minutes for an empty table, then had the wine list peremptorily snatched by the waitstaff for the benefit of another party. The food was so-so. But on a later occasion, when making the reservation in her own name and arriving half an hour early, she was seated immediately. According to Reichl, the owner "oozed over and says, 'The King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready.'" She thought, "Thank you; God, what a great line." Turned out it wasn't a line but the truth.
While Reichl predominantly lunches and dines at upscale restaurants, she nevertheless champions the everyman by assailing high prices, inferior service and pretentious food. Furthermore, she writes to entertain readers rather than guide them. "A lot of this kind of writing is about fantasy," she says, reasoning that a majority of the paper's readers will never eat at the restaurants she describes.
Reichl employs literary effects that are highly descriptive of food, ambiance mid patrons alike. She refers to leaves of mint that look "forlorn" or "a halo of crisp French fries that looks like Lady Liberty's crown"; of one restaurant's view she tells how the "light-festooned skyline wraps ships in an aura of romance"; and describes women diners at one upper East Side restaurant as "Martha Stewart clones." She's just as likely to quote a waiter's gaffe or reveal snippets of a neighboring conversation as obsess about a pasta Primavera.
Restaurants are social institutions, and Reichl explores them as such. They reflect a nation's economy and politics. In her reviews, there's more to consider than just the food. That's not to say she doesn't tell her readers what's good or bad to eat. She readily explains why a dish has succeeded or failed, and her reviews are peppered with incisive observations and logical explications.
In a recent piece she explained that fine Parisian restaurants are much more expensive than their New York counterparts by asking, "[T]hink what dining in New York would cost if restaurants book each table just once in an evening" and noting that French prices "always include both the 18.6 percent tax and a 15 percent service charge."
Tall, thin, affable, Reichl doesn't much look or sound like one of the country's powerful food critics. There's no edge to her voice, no girth to her figure. But her hair is big and frizzy-at least today at the Four Seasons, anyway. Like fellow U-M alumna Gael Greene, Reichl travels incognito. Maintaining anonymity means wigs of three shades, colored contacts and credit cards in six different names. On her last visit to the Four Seasons, more than a year ago, she had a completely different disguise. Confident of lunching undetected, she laps up the food and atmosphere with equal dollops of aplomb and enchantment. One would never suspect that her pen has a slicer-dicer attachment. "I can't find anything to complain about" she confesses, not even the $161 bill, which includes no alcohol.
Clearly Reichl has an enviable assignment by any standard, although she never sought it. "I was probably the only person in America who didn't want this job, which is exactly why they wanted me." In fact, she refused it at first. She was happily editing the largest newspaper food section in the country in Los Angeles, when the Times came a-courtin'. "I loved my job in LA. And I thought this [New York] is an eating job, not a writing job. You spend all your time in restaurants. Do I want to do that?" On second thought, she did.
As for a career in food writing, Reichl could hardly have imagined one while pursuing a degree in sociology at Michigan, followed by an MA in art history. Granted, she had a sophisticated palate from eating in New York restaurants and traveling through Europe with her parents, but she was interested in the contemporary arts, not the culinary. She did, however, receive a first-class education in fine dining in Ann Arbor. She waited on tables at La Seine, a short-lived French restaurant with a chef from the Four Seasons.
After Ann Arbor, she returned to her native New York to work for her father, Ernst Reichl, a famous book designer (the "U" in Joyce's first edition of Ulysses is his). Toiling away in her father's cramped office--she had no aptitude for book designing--she plotted a cookbook. After giving an installment to an editor-friend at Holt, she soon found herself with a $5,000 advance, and free to leave her father's shop to write Mmmm: a Feastiary. She was 22 at the time.
Next, it was off to Berkeley. There, she worked as an art director at Glass Art magazine before turning restaurateur. She was in a collective that owned The Swallow Restaurant in the U-C Berkeley art museum. "We were a group of overeducated people who loved to cook," Reichl recalls. "We all pretty much got to do what we were good at." Reichl baked 15 pies a day. Her other specialty: improvising on recipes when the kitchen ran out of ingredients. "I'm not afraid of food," she says.
Sometimes I'm amazed that I've spent so much of my life thinking about food," confides Reichl, who has been a restaurant critic for 20 years. "My parents were horrified by it." She says they were intellectuals and wondered when she would get "serious" about her life. But Reichl doesn't think of her work as trivial. "It's one place where people have control over quality every day of their life. You can say, yes, I'm going to eat as well as I can. It's about self-respect. You can probably trace a lot of things that are wrong with the world to the fact that people don't pay enough attention to this aspect of their lives.
Reichl prefers not to write a review of a new restaurant rather than to blast it. "No one wants be accused of infanticide," she says. "[Besides], do I really want to spend my time telling people where not to go?"
Bad restaurants will die on their own, although sometimes she can't resist hammering a nail in the coffin. Take her review of the late Shin's restaurant, for example. She leads with, "Any sane person would have given up after the asparagus-raisin sorbet." Of an orange filled with a hot mixture of crabmeat, herring roe, spicy mayonnaise and green olives, she writes, "It is one of the least-appealing dishes I have ever struggled to eat."
She then describes the Keystone Cop service in riotous detail from a waitress who quit somewhere between the order and the kitchen (she couldn't speak English) to a busboy who douses her with ice water then knocks over a bottle of sake, followed by the waiter who drops the table crumbs into her purse. "I don't think I closed them," she says. "I probably hastened their demise."
Lunch concludes after two-and-a-half-hours. The food was superior, the service flawless. Outside it's a sunny, unseasonably warm January day. Reichl leisurely walks the four cross-town and downtown blocks to the Times Building. There, a couple of hours of phone and mail correspondence await. Then it's a short commute to her Upper West Side home, rest and off to another restaurant for dinner. The routine sounds effortless, and in many ways it is. "I've been a serious eater for a long time," she says. "It's almost second nature to me now."
Steve Rosoff '87 MA, an Ann Arbor freelancer, frequently writes about food and wine, and recently spent a week in La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy.
Online update: In 1999 Reichl moved to Gourmet magazine, where she became editor-in-chief.
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