Talking the plight of farmers, kitchen disasters and living in a commune with the iconic gastronomic multi-hyphenate. What a tasty treat indeed.

By Jane Larkworthy

Photography by Shannon Greer

Fan-girling Ruth Reichl is tricky. With a career that’s bursting at the seams with remarkable accomplishments—from celebrated restaurant critic for The New York Times to serving as the last editor in chief for food bible Gourmet and even judging on Top Chef Masters for years—spotting her at the local grocery store incites an instant case of the jitters. But she’s just so normal, her approachability will swat away your proverbial autograph book, leaving you thinking, “I bet she would come to dinner if invited.” We talk about the writing process (or lack thereof), her beauty routine (or lack thereof) and why Natalie Portman could never play her in the inevitable award-winning biopic. We curl up in conversation from the author’s breezy, hilltop home in Austerlitz, NY.

Let’s get the important stuff out of the way: What’s the classic Ruth Reichl uniform? 

Well, for years I wore Shanghai Tang. Those pieces are great to travel with and so easy to layer, but you can’t
buy them anymore. It’s tragic. I try and find used ones on eBay because mine are all shredded. I’m wearing them in rags.

But whose sweater are you currently wearing? [black, funnel neck, long-ish and fanning out slightly].

It’s EILEEN FISHER, and I’d give anything to have another one, but they don’t make them anymore and I’ve never been able to find a used one anywhere. Feel it. It’s silk and cashmere. It’s like wearing a hug. This thing’s pathetic, it’s four years old and I’ve worn it every day. But it’s my favorite thing.

Four years old isn’t that old. Well, I guess it is when you wear it every day. Speaking of every day, what’s your beauty routine?

Funny you ask that. I was at SEVEN salon spa in Stockbridge the other day, and one of the owners, Mark Johnson and I were watching a customer buying hair products. He said to me, “I can’t imagine what you spend on hair products.” And I said, “Nothing. I don’t use a single thing. Soap and water. That’s it.”

You don’t use…

…any cream of any kind. No. Well, sure, if I go to a power lunch, and they give me a gift bag with some cream from blah blah blah, I’ll use it ’til it’s gone and then I stop. 

OK then, humor me. I’ll presume the water is tap, but what brand of soap?

Pretty much whatever I take from hotels. In the shower I use Dr. Bronner’s (my husband Michael likes it). Shampoo: Bumble and bumble. Conditioner: Macadamia. And I’ve had two manicures. One was the night before my wedding; and then about 15 years ago, for my birthday, Nancy Silverton, who gets her nails done every two weeks because she does stuff with her hands, treated a group of us to a group manicure. The memory about that day was this attractive young woman was there with a friend who was kind of dowdy. A friend of mine who writes celebrity profiles said, “That’s Dyan Cannon and her daughter.” And Dyan, who was in her 70s looked like she was in her 20s. I mean, she looked fine, but it was just scary that anyone could look like they’re in their 20s when they’re five decades older. I mean, when you look at that incredible [Sports Illustrated] picture of Martha Stewart in her swimsuit at 81, she looks like someone who’s taken very good care of herself and worked hard to look like that.

Do you think your lack of a beauty routine is because of your mother’s influence?

Probably. My mother didn’t wear makeup except occasionally she’d do something wild when she was going out, like green eyeshadow with a little sparkle. But she didn’t get made up and she didn’t go to spas.

Neither did mine. My mother had one perfume and that was it. 

But you’re interested in beauty.

Right? Yes, the reluctant beauty editor… I fell into the job as a temp, filing press releases and tidying up Glamour’s beauty closet. I surreptitiously slipped a shampoo into my purse and continued to do that for the next 30 years. But it was never my passion. Food, on the other hand… Does what we have up here adequately satisfy your needs, interests, hunger?

As a cook? Absolutely. As a restaurant goer? Increasingly.

What’s your latest love?

The Aviary in Kinderhook. It’s great. It’s really quirky. She’s an Indonesian chef [Hannah Wong] and a serious one, and the food is wonderful, but it makes no concessions: “This is what we like, and this is what we’re cooking.” And people are still coming in the door at 9pm. It’s owned by an artist and it’s a great looking space. And I like Feast and Floret in Hudson. And I’m excited about Hilltown Hot Pies’ opening.

Let’s talk about your documentary Food and Country. What was that like?

Oh. My. God. It’s a total passion project. 

Was this your idea that you spoke to your team about? 

I don’t have a team!

I totally think you have a team. 

I have no team. My husband Michael and I were in LA for a couple months. It was March of 2020, and we looked at each other and realized that if we didn’t go home, we might get stuck there. I mean, they were going to close the airports. So, we packed everything up in our Airbnb and came back. I decided to do one huge shopping trip—Big Y, Price Shopper, Guido’s—to pick up massive amounts of food and then we’d go into quarantine and not leave the house. And the shelves were empty. They were really empty. And I’ll never forget a woman standing in Big Y, saying, “Goddamn New Yorkers come here and clean us out.”

I came home and said to Michael, “This may be the moment I’ve been dreaming of my whole life, where Americans wake up and start paying attention to food, stop taking it for granted. No American has ever seen an empty shelf in the supermarket. This could be the big wake-up call. And I have no idea where it’s going to end up. Maybe all the farms will go out of business, and it’ll be the triumph of industrial food. But I thought everything was going to change and I wanted to keep a record of it. So, I just started calling people.

The first were the people at Chef’s Garden in Ohio, who I’ve known for years. They’re an extraordinary farm that raises specialty products for restaurants. Their business was one hundred percent restaurants. I called the people at Chefs’ Warehouse and said, “What’s happening with your clients?” And then I started calling chefs. Dan Barber said to me, “You know, fishermen are really in trouble because most people don’t cook fish at home. I talked to some production companies in LA, and they said this would be a very interesting show and suggested I write up a proposal. While I was working on that, Laurie Ochoa, who’s the widow of [The Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold] told me that Laura Gabbert, who directed the documentary about Jonathan, City Of Gold, is working on a similar project about how COVID is going to affect restaurants in LA. I called Laura and said, “I don’t think it’s just restaurants. I think it’s everything. I think it’s a much bigger story. And she said, “You’re right. I’m not thinking big enough. Would you want to do this together?”

Of course, we thought it would last a few months. And of course, it went on and on and on. And every time we’d get ready to go shoot somewhere, everything would close again. So, Laura got local crews to shoot on location. And we did it via Zoom, to my horror. But something extraordinary was happening in these Zooms. I became intimate friends with these people I’d never met. But when you’re checking in with people every two weeks for two years, and we’re all locked up, so many people said to me, “You’re like my shrink.” I was this outsider who came in, and people cry on camera. That would never have happened if we had a camera there.

I talked to 178 people—chefs, policy makers, farmers. It’s really about the plight of the farmers. Their stories are so compelling, and nobody seems to tell these stories. They all go to the bank every year, borrow operating capital and pray that they’ll make enough money to pay it back so they can do it again the next year. And they do it because they love the work, they love the lifestyle, they want to pass it on to their kids. But it gets harder every year. And if we don’t change that, nobody will be raising food in this country. The thing I don’t understand is that we should have learned from COVID that this is truly a national security issue. 

Do you think the system around here is kind of going in the right direction?

Yes and no. I mean, it’s very nice to support the local farmers market and all that, but it also makes us very complacent. You go down the road to Albany or you go the other direction to Poughkeepsie and you’re looking at places where some kids go to bed hungry every night. And they’re getting little to no nutrition. It’s incumbent upon us to make sure that this isn’t a rich person’s movement. The great thing about food is, we can change it. We vote with our dollars. If you want to make a change, vote. 

Do you grow anything?

I grow herbs. 

Which leads me to a very important question: Why on earth won’t my basil grow?

I grow basil.

My other herbs thrive. My basil laughs at me and then dies.

Oh no. I have basil every year. And my best basil comes from those little pots at Big Y.

Is everyone as afraid of having you to dinner as I am? I think you’d have a lovely time if you and Michael came over, but I’m not sure I could handle the pressure.

But I feel the same way because every time anybody comes to dinner, I’m worried I’m going to disappoint them because they’re just going to get ordinary food. I’m not a chef.

That’s making me feel a little better. Do people also say things like, “How did you like the cake? What could I have done better with it?” Are people always asking you to critique them? 

No. I don’t think anybody’s ever asked me to do that because I think they know that I probably would, and they’d rather I didn’t! But you should know that I’m doing that to myself too. Every time I bake a pie, I’m like, “Oh God, it leaked…”

Does any meal come to mind that was a big flop?

We had John Markus over. He knows everyone and he’s also a barbecue pitmaster. And he has that television show of the same name. I’d planned a very simple dinner—baked potatoes, local asparagus and a fruit cobbler. They have these aged steaks at Guido’s that I wanted to try for the first time. And I totally overcooked the steak. It was inedible. And here I’ve got this great meat guy over and I’ve completely screwed up the meat. I said, “Guys I’m so sorry, but enjoy your nice baked potato!” [Laughs] I made a delicious salad, and we had a great night. It happens. It’s just a meal.

What are you most excited about?

We were traveling a lot, so I’m just so happy to be here [at home]. I love summer here so much. And I love being home in my little studio. I’m also doing a podcast now with Nancy Silverton and Laurie Ochoa. It’s called Three Ingredients. It’s literally just us talking. I was going to do this other very complicated podcast, but my son said, “What people really want from a podcast is to feel like a fly on the wall. Just record what you talk about.” We don’t come to it with any agenda, we just turn on the microphones and start talking.

Can you explain the process of your writing? 

I don’t have a clue.

I had a feeling you were going to say that. 

People have asked me to teach writing, but how can you teach writing when you don’t know what you do? After Gourmet closed, I’d always said, “If I didn’t have a day job, I would write a novel.” So, I tried to write a novel and I did, and it was the hardest fucking thing. See that huge pile of papers over there? That’s the eight gazillion versions of [her first novel] Delicious.  But after I turned it in, my editor, the late Susan Kamil, said, “You’re really a novelist. I want you to write two more. There’s a chapter in Save Me The Plums about being transformed by this black dress I’d bought. Susan said, “Take that premise and write a novel based on that.” And I’ve never had more fun. 

So, what was the difference this time if the first one was such an epic struggle?

I have no idea. I said to my agent, “This has got to be a piece of shit because I don’t like writing novels and I loved this.” Every day was a treat to spend time with these characters. And when I finished, I was kind of depressed. My agent said, “You’re never allowed to write anything you don’t have fun with again.” 

And was your approach to writing it like your memoir style?

Have you ever seen my first cookbook, Mmmmmmm: A Feastiary?


I only bring it up because when I was on tour for My Kitchen Year, Nancy Leson, who’s a Seattle writer, had a copy of Mmmmmmm: A Feastiary. She had me read some passages from it, and then she read passages from Save Me The Plums. Now, there’s 50 years between these two books, but my voice was exactly the same. And it was shocking to me. 

That doesn’t shock me whatsoever. You’ve always been a writer who doesn’t fill with fodder. So why would that change in any way now? And if it did change, wouldn’t you be kind of bummed about it?

I guess, but just to see that 50 years later… my voice… I’m still kind of the same on the page now. 

Do you ever experience writer’s block?

Not that I know of. I mean, there’s just times when I don’t particularly want to write.

Are you extremely disciplined about it?

No. I’m not disciplined about anything. I’m kind of a deadline writer.

Pressure is a magical thing.

I’m doing this new Substack newsletter [La Briffe] and it’s kind of great because on Wednesday it suddenly hits me, “Oh my God, I’ve got to get this thing out on Friday.” But I really like doing it. I like having that one thing that I know I must do every week. 

Do you also enjoy the immediacy of it?

I do. And I love of the community of these people who comment every week. I feel like I’m really sort of out there touching people. It’s fun.

In the inevitable Ruth Reichl biopic, who would play you? 

I’d really like Emmy Rossum to play me. I think she’s great.

She doesn’t get her due enough, either.

I don’t think so at all. And, sure, I’d love Natalie Portman [who had been in talks with Reichl about a former project], and I really liked her when we met. I thought she was wonderful and no nonsense and smart. But it’s hard to imagine a vegan playing me.

Ha! Good point. And what would the setting be? What part of your life? 

My Berkeley years. I lived in a commune for ten years and it was just wonderful, that kind of freedom that we had. My first husband and I lived on $3,000 a year. We never went to restaurants, we never bought clothes, but we lived a really nice life, and we owned our own time completely. I was writing, he was making art, we had 15 people for dinner every night. Ten of us lived in a ramshackle old house that we bought for $29,000 and the door was never locked. It was a mess, but it was wonderful. And it was also the beginning of the food movement. I was working in a collective restaurant and [the godmother of California cuisine] Alice Waters was just starting her restaurant [Chez Panisse]. It was a wonderful time. 

I’d watch that biopic. It sounds like the Laurel Canyon era but with chefs instead of musicians. 

Yeah, exactly. It was that. And we were all learning about food, and the wine movement was just starting in California. I got to go to China and Thailand in the early ’80s and these places were like no other—the whole world hadn’t yet become homogenized. It wasn’t the happiest time of my life, certainly, but I think there’s a lot of value in that life. Not everybody got to live through something like that. None of us had kids then but what a great way to bring them up, where there are a lot more people around than just the nuclear family. There were a lot of lessons in that, the idea that we all chose, and we all understood. I mean, we were deliberately poor. We won our time rather than stuff.

Comments are closed.