Ruth Reichl still reigns as queen of America's culinary scene
Ruth Reichl has lived and cooked on both coasts, written for two of the top newspapers in the country and coproduced a popular public-TV show celebrating the art of cooking. She also presided as editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine for the past 10 years. Recently, she's traveled across America to suss out the best of regional cuisines. All of it has arguably made her the nation's most influential food person.
NOBODY KNOWS more about what Americans are cooking and eating than Ruth Reichl. As a food writer and restaurant critic for both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times as well as the author of several best-selling memoirs, she's established herself as a keen observer of the American culinary revolution.
She served as editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine from 1999 until its demise this fall and picked up a James Beard Award for coproducing the PBS series "Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie." With all of it, Reichl has helped foster an American food culture that celebrates seasonal, regional and artisanal cuisine like never before. It would not be an overstatement to describe her as the most influential food person in America today.
"I don't wear the mantle lightly," she recently confided over lunch at Seattle's Tamarind Tree restaurant. "I mean, I feel so lucky. I can't believe I get to be me." At the same time, she is fully aware that her position didn't just happen. "I've probably done everything in the food industry you can do except go to culinary school."
The Pacific Northwest, she added, is one of the places that helped forge her sense of a food culture.
Born in 1948 in New York City, Reichl attended the University of Michigan, where she met her first husband, the artist Doug Hollis. In 1970, when she graduated with a master's degree in art history, she and Hollis came to Washington to work with sculptor Buster Simpson at what would become Pilchuck Glass School.
At Pilchuck, "we cooked communal meals. We would get this amazing salmon from the Lummi Indian tribe and cook it over an alder fire. I would gather berries and apples for pie, and we would have these feasts! It's no wonder that a potlatch culture developed here. It's one of the only places in the world where nature just gives you everything you need."
For years, after she moved to Berkeley, Calif., Reichl and Hollis would come up to visit Simpson, who moved to Belltown in 1972. "He built this crazy oven from the insides of a commercial washing machine, and we would come every Thanksgiving and roast a turkey in his Belltown loft."
In California, Reichl had joined the Swallow restaurant as a chef and co-owner. "I was really lucky in that I had the opportunity to do what I did when I did it, because I got to learn everything on the job. Now, you would have to have all sorts of training."
These days, she says, "I want to use my position to influence this emerging food culture." At Gourmet, she'd found an audience that needed to be converted. "Ten years ago, when I took the helm of the magazine, they would never have run stories about farmers and about social-justice issues."
Eating, she contends, "is an ethical act, and every choice we make in the kitchen impacts the world." She hopes that the new "Gourmet Today" cookbook — larded with little essays on topics ranging from heirloom vegetables to sustainable seafood — will encourage people to make better choices in the kitchen, but the first step is "just to get people cooking" again.
Even after she learned that Gourmet was folding, Reichl continued the cookbook tour, "tweeting" to report on what she was eating on the road and how people were responding to the book. In an e-mail sent a week after the magazine shut down, she wrote, "Gourmet was a magazine that meant so much to so many people, and they reacted as if a trusted family member had died." But that apparently has not slowed her down.
A new PBS series, "Adventures with Ruth" premiered in October; it chronicles Reichl's visits to cooking schools all over the world. (One episode was taped in Seattle with yours truly as the cooking instructor.) Now, she's planning a fifth book in her series of memoirs based on the years she spent at Condé Nast. One way or another, she says, she'll continue to spread the word about the importance of cooking and eating consciously.
"When people tell me they don't have time to cook, I tell them no, no, no; what you're telling me is that you don't have time to shop. If you took 30 minutes on the weekend to plan what you were going to cook all week, you could make sure you had everything on hand. If you knew what you were going to cook, you could cook dinner every night in less than 30 minutes."
Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at email@example.com. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
'Gourmet Today' Spiced Chicken
4 chicken breast halves or 4 whole chicken legs with thighs
2 teaspoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1/2 cup water
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Rinse and pat dry the chicken.
2. Stir together the chili powder, cumin, coriander, pepper, cinnamon and salt with 1 tablespoon of the oil and rub the mixture all over the chicken pieces.
3. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a 12-inch, ovenproof heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Arrange the chicken in a single layer in the pan and cook turning once, until the pieces are uniformly brown, 6 to 8 minutes.
4. Turn the chicken skin-side-up and transfer the skillet to the oven. Roast until chicken is cooked through, 16 to 18 minutes for breasts, about 25 minutes for legs and thighs. Transfer the chicken to a platter or individual serving plates.
5. Add water to the hot pan and deglaze by boiling over high heat, scraping up brown bits, for 1 minute. Transfer sauce to a bowl and skim off the fat. Serve the chicken with the sauce on the side.
— Adapted from "Gourmet Today," 2009, Condé Nast Publications
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.