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'The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise'

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page BW02

GARLIC AND SAPPHIRES •

The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise

By Ruth Reichl. Penguin Press. 333 pp. $24.95

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In the fall of 1992 Ruth Reichl abandoned her perch as restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and flew east to assume the same position at the New York Times. She did so despite her first impressions of her new employer -- it was "a paper with a reputation as a snake pit, a place where you constantly had to watch your back," by contrast with the "cozy" Los Angeles paper. But it was, after all, the New York Times, and as her husband said -- perhaps because he wanted to leave L.A. and move to New York -- "that job would make you the most powerful restaurant critic in the world."

So Reichl, who was then in her mid-forties, went to New York and took over from Bryan Miller, who asked to be relieved of the job but apparently had no idea how much he would soon miss the critic's kingdom and power. Before long he was, as she was informed by a gossip columnist for the New York Post, "sending scathing letters about you to your bosses," claiming -- the words are his own -- that she had "destroyed the system that Craig [Claiborne], Mimi [Sheraton] and I upheld," that her reviews were "irrelevant and trite" and that "it gets worse every day."

Welcome to Noo Yawk, Ruthie, and welcome to the snake pit. As it happens she did make some friends at the paper, most notably and importantly Carol Shaw, the secretary at the Living section, and she had a six-year run in which she outperformed all her predecessors, writing tart, irreverent, evocative, knowledgeable and funny reviews that followed a rule too often forgotten or ignored by journalistic bigfeet: People approach these pieces not as dining-out guides -- many of the restaurants reviewed, after all, are far beyond the means of most readers, even in wealthy New York -- but for the pieces themselves, in which they hope to find an intelligent mind, a lively prose style, a distinctive point of view and, purely and simply, pleasurable entertainment.

Still, this was the New York Times, where the elbows can be sharper than anything manufactured by Gillette -- I know: right out of college I worked there for three years -- and where from time to time one was swung in her direction. She was there during the end of Max Frankel's executive editorship and the beginning of Joseph Lelyveld's, and she writes respectfully about both, but lower down the food chain things got meaner. A passage about one of the editors with whom she had to work (the name is fictitious, but apparently the man is not) is sufficiently delicious to demand quotation in full:

"The Weekend editor was a dumpy little man who wore his gray hair pulled into a ponytail, bit his fingers to the quick, and dressed in varying shades of brown. Myron Rosen, one of the dull, capable people who made the paper run, could be counted on to assign the right stories and make reporters meet their deadlines (or have a contingency plan when they did not). He was pleasant enough, in his own tedious fashion, but like many of the minor editors he secretly resented the critics and reporters in his charge. He took his revenge by cultivating a personal aroma so ferocious that everyone on the third floor routinely plotted alternate routes around his desk. Those forced to spend time in his proximity doused themselves with cologne, which only made his corner of the newsroom more pungent. My own strategy involved gulping entire cloves of garlic before every encounter."

This character enters the story because, like many others at the paper, he finagled a lunch with Reichl at an expensive restaurant, paid for by the Times. They went to Daniel -- to which she ultimately gave the rare and coveted four stars -- and she went as herself. Of course she did, you may say, but in fact much of Garlic and Sapphires is devoted to the many disguises she invented in hopes that she would not be recognized by restaurateurs who had posted her photograph in kitchens all over the city.

Her collaborator and coach in assuming these disguises was Claudia Banks, now retired but once "a famous acting coach," a friend of Reichl's late mother who immediately decided that "you will be one of those ladies who lunch," a "very proper person." They decided to call her Molly Hollis, a former high school English teacher from Michigan whose husband hit the jackpot in strip malls and who now came "to New York every few months to go to the theater and do some shopping." Claudia put her in a wig, dressed her to fit the part, enlisted a makeup artist to finish the job, and went off with her for lunch at Le Cirque.

People who follow these matters doubtless will remember the result: a review (reprinted in full herein, as are several others) in which she contrasted the dismissive treatment she got at Le Cirque as Molly and the regal treatment she got ("The King of Spain is waiting in the bar," the maitre d' oozed when she arrived, "but your table is ready") when she was recognized. The food on all her visits was wonderful and warranted four stars, but the treatment of Molly knocked Le Cirque down to three stars and out of the stratosphere.

It wasn't exactly a blow for the common man, but it did send a message to the New York restaurant crowd: Reichl wasn't just in the business of handing out dining advice to rich people. Some of that comes with the job and can't be avoided, and some of the best food in any city is to be found in places that have to be written about even though most of us can't afford them, but the Le Cirque review, which appeared early in Reichl's Times career, made it plain that she was going to expand the Times's reach and take a tone all her own. Yes, she did her duty at the Four Seasons and La Caravelle and Lespinasse and all the other haute places, but she also lambasted the Tavern on the Green and the Box Tree as traps for the innocent (for which read, mostly, tourists) with lousy service and indifferent food, or worse. She knew that the culinary landscape was changing and gave "Asian, Indian and Latino restaurants the respect that they deserved."

Molly yielded to Miriam ("We shall turn you into your mother," Claudia said, and the results were spooky), to Chloe, to Brenda, to Betty, to Emily. As Reichl assumed one disguise after another, she found herself taking on the character of each invented persona, sometimes with happy results, sometimes not. "Brenda was my best self, the person I've always wanted to be. She was generous and funny, optimistic and smart." But Emily, a bitter woman who "entertained herself by humiliating the less fortunate," was the "mean, petty person who was waiting inside me."

Which is to say that Reichl, who believes that "every restaurant is a theater," put on quite a show of her own, though few restaurateurs caught onto it. She also played parts in shows of sorts when she permitted charities to raise money by auctioning off dinners with her. One, at Lespinasse, was with a pretentious food and wine snob who proclaimed that "it would be criminal to assault the delicacy of [the chef's] flavors with the brashness of American wine." Another, at Windows on the World, was with a self-proclaimed "food warrior" -- "I have spent years studying gastronomy. And oenology; my cellar is excellent" -- with whom she found herself drawn into a competition to see who had visited the most famous French restaurants.

Her husband called her on it, and she knew he was right: "I had started my career at the Times by insisting that there was no right or wrong in matters of taste. Did I still believe that, or had I turned into a fatuous food snob, one of those people who thought my own opinion was the truth?" She knew that it was time to leave, that her friend Carol was right: "Remember that no matter how well you do the job, the power is not yours. It all, every scrap of it, belongs to this institution. You're just a byline. Take a good look. The minute you give up the job, you become a nobody."

She gave up the job anyway, or, more precisely, because she feared what the job was doing to her. Gourmet magazine came calling late in 1998, and she's been its editor ever since. But as a memento of her time at the Times she gives us this wonderful book, which is funny -- at times laugh-out-loud funny -- and smart and wise. Maybe a bit too much food talk, but that isn't what matters, which is Reichl, and she's a gas. •

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


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