Chef-editor-writer Rulth Reichl is one of the world’s ultimate foodies, with the chops (so to speak) to prove it. Such as her six James Beard Awards and four food-related memoirs (“Tender at the Bone,” “Comfort Me With Apples,” “Garlic and Sapphires,” “For You Mom, Finally”).
Her well-reviewed debut novel “Delicious!” went on sale Tuesday (Random House, $27, 400 pages). It will be followed by a recently completed cookbook, a second novel (in progress) and a memoir about her 10 years as editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine.
Reichl’s bio is a gourmand’s tour through the culinary world, a journey that progressed not by design but by serendipity. “It was luck and timing,” she said by phone from New York. “I was five minutes ahead of the curve for having a passion for food and cooking it, but it never occurred to me I could build a life around it.”
Included in her résumé are ultimate-power positions as restaurant critic and food editor for the Los Angeles Times, and restaurant critic for The New York Times (where she famously wore elaborate disguises to keep from being recognized). Reichl galvanized Gourmet from 1999 until 2009, when media titan Conde Nast abruptly shut it down in favor of its more stylized sister food magazine, Bon Appetit. Ironically, a month before the sudden bad news, the massive “Gourmet Today” cookbook was published, stuffed with 1,000 recipes from the magazine’s database. Reichl was its editor.
In “Delicious!” the drab but gifted Wilhelmina “Billie” Breslin, 21, flees Santa Barbara for Manhattan and lands a dream job at the nation’s top food magazine, Delicious!, whose offices occupy a 19th-century mansion. Breslin has a near-perfect palate and a background in baking, but carries an emotional burden from a recent trauma.
She’s just getting comfortable at Delicious! when its parent company abruptly closes the magazine and fires everyone. Billie is retained to staff the reader hotline. Bored, she explores the magazine’s frozen-in-time library and discovers a secret room where she finds a cache of letters written to legendary chef James Beard during World War II. They’re from the “plucky” 12-year-old Lulu Swan of Akron, Ohio, and will lead Billie on a treasure hunt that will change her life.
Reichl, 66, lives with her husband and their son in New York City. Visit her at ww.ruthreichl.com.
You’ve added “novelist” to your lifestyle recipe.
I grew up with the sense that writing fiction is the highest calling and always wanted to try it, but was always really scared. After Gourmet closed, I (resolved) to do it. Reading fiction has been so important to me my whole life that I wanted to give other people the pleasure I’ve gotten from it.
In your novel, Delicious! magazine is a lot like Gourmet.
In many respects it is, but my characters are completely invented. Some of them started out based on people at Gourmet, but then they became themselves.
What about the owner of Fontanari’s cheese and salumi shop, where Billie works weekends?
The character of (deli owner) Sal Fontanari is modeled on the two brothers who own Di Palo’s deli in Little Italy, and on (Sacramento grocer) Darrell Corti, who knows more about food and wine than anybody in America.
How do you know Darrell Corti?
He was incredibly generous to me when I was starting out (in Berkeley) and always knew the answer to anything I asked him. When (food and wine writer) Colman Andrews’ memoir “My Usual Table” came out in March, he and I did a talk in front of an audience. He told the story about taking me to dinner at Darrell’s home in the 1970s.
(One dish) Darrell served was asparagus with an incredible sauce that was dark and sweet and thick and acidic. We both looked at him and said, “What is this?” Darrell looked at us and said in his very Darrell way, “Have you never had balsamic vinegar?” As Colman told the audience, “You can pretty much bet if Ruth and I hadn’t had balsamic vinegar at that point, nobody else in America had tasted it either.” Darrell brought it to America.
Is there anything of you in your main character, Billie?
No, she is is nothing like me. She’s modeled on the 20-something women I worked with for two years at Gilt Taste (an online marketplace for artisanal foods) after Gourmet. They were passionate and open to new experiences, and I wanted to find out what it felt like to be in their generation, which is so different from mine. If I’m like anybody in the book, it’s Lulu.
Lulu’s letters to James Beard give a clear picture of the domestic food scene during World War II.
I researched it and found pamphlets from the Department of Agriculture on how to grow a Victory Garden, and ads for the Women’s Land Army. It was your patriotic duty to eat sparingly, forage for what you could, and raise your own vegetables and chickens. It was a time when everyone in America – regardless of class or race or anything else – sat down at the same table and ate together, which is unimaginable today.
You write about your dining experiences on your website, but do you miss reviewing restaurants in a formal way?
No, I don’t miss it. Writing this novel was very much like wearing disguises (as she did as restaurant critic for The New York Times). In a real way, disguises were my preparation for how to write fiction. I turned myself into other people (as a reviewer) and that’s what you do when you write fiction.
In an interview in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, you touched on the issue of noise in restaurants. Coincidentally, that was the subject of our cover story in this section last Sunday.
Most people hate the noise, including me, but (for restaurateurs) it turns the tables faster. At a certain point, you lose your voice and your hearing, but people put up with it. The recourse is to stop going to those restaurants.
What are your go-to restaurants?
Chez Panisse (in Berkeley) and I grew up together, and I adore the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. In New York, I love Il Buco Alimentary, a fantastic Roman place, and the Pearl Oyster Bar, which does a great lobster roll and a perfect Caesar salad.
What’s for dinner tonight?
Tonight is the James Beard Awards (ceremony and banquet), so I will be eating food (made by) 100 people. I did have a weird breakfast this morning, though. It’s still cold here, so I made congee (rice porridge) with chicken stock, ginger, scallions, shredded chicken and soy sauce. It was very comforting.
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.