Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, by Ruth Reichl

I read this book on a flight between Cleveland and Minneapolis, where I frequently travel on business. I had finished my previous book while waiting to board and opened this one while waiting to taxi – since the first scene takes place on an airplane, it seemed a good omen.

Ruth Reichl spent 6 years as the restaurant critic for the New York Times, one of the most powerful positions in the industry. Awarding a star (or taking one away) can have a huge impact on a restaurant and she took her work very seriously. She had some obstacles to overcome – New York and the Times had a very different atmosphere than the more laid-back LA restaurant scene. She was unprepared for some of the changes her tenure would bring; she had a much greater interest in Asian food, for example, than her predescessor, and many people were very resistant to the change in focus. She was determined to be true to her own taste even when it was unpopular.

I am a huge fan of gourmet cooking and fine dining and I love reading about restaurants – even the places I wouldn’t be able to afford even if I could get a reservation. Reichl has a marvelous attitude about dining, something that came through in many of her stories. She enjoyed the attention and pampering she received when she was recognized, but she worried about the thousands of anonymous diners who might pass through one of these landmark restaurants and walk away unsatisfied.

Her stories about the restaurants were terrific. Her costumes and the characters she inhabited seem like real people, and they were obviously very real to Reichl. She has not only a gourmet palate and an understanding of what makes a restaurant truly “four star”, but she has a more common appreciation of what makes for a great restaurant experience. It’s not just fancy ingredients and cutting edge techniques, it’s being able to put something flavorful on the plate in an atmosphere that encourages people to enjoy their food. Her writing is also fabulously entertaining (the gent in the seat next to me on the plane finally asked what I was reading that had me laughing so much). I’m definitely going to be looking for more of her books.

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