In October 2009, Ruth Reichl received the unfortunate news that her employer Conde Nast was shutting down Gourmet magazine. The esteemed foodie had been atop the masthead for the past 10 years.
Losing the fabulously creative (and pretty cushy) job that she absolutely adored was a sucker punch to the gut.
“I really was in kind of a despair,” admitted the 67-year-old, who was at The Cafe at Books & Books at the Arsht Center Wednesday to discuss her private journal meets cookbook, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life (Random, $35). “I had been living a very big life, and I had to go back and be an ordinary person riding the subway again. I had lost my sense of self. I had always been ‘Ruth Reichl, comma, somebody.’ Now I was ‘Ruth Reichl, comma, nobody.’”
Well, not exactly nobody. The former restaurant critic for The New York Times — with several successful memoirs under her belt — did what came naturally: she sat down to write.
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“My notion of what this was going to be was a tiny, little, black and white book with no photos or drawings. Just something to take to bed and read like a diary,” Reichl explained of the initial process. “My editor called and said, ‘The good news is that we fell in love with the manuscript. The bad news is it has to have photographs.’”
Reichl was stunned and a little miffed.
“I said, ‘No way! That ship has sailed. I would have been shooting it all along. Do you want me to go back and remake everything?’”
Yep. That’s exactly what they wanted.
But thanks to a former Gourmet coworker, food photographer Mikkel Vang, Version 2.0 began to evolve in a lovely, organic way.
“He told me, ‘The rules are that it’s just you and me. I’m not bringing lights or assistants or props or stylists. I’ll come to your house a few days each season, and you’ll cook. You’ll find a plate in your cupboard. We’ll eat it. The book is very honest so nothing should be too perfect,’” Reichl recounted, adding, “Since I didn’t design it, yes, I can say it’s absolutely stunning.”
Vang ended up shooting not just food porn (take a look at the grilled cheese oozing with onions), but ethereal, almost magical scenes captured inside and outside the Spencertown, New York, home she shares with her husband, former TV producer Michael Singer.
Needless to say, tending to her own stove and not dining in some fancy restaurant was just what Reichl needed.
“I really love cooking; it’s like meditation,” said the native New Yorker, dressed in signature all black. “But I also want to help get people back into the kitchen again. I started writing about food when nobody cared about food, now it’s a tremendous part of pop culture. I think people ended up getting intimidated and feel that if they can’t cook at a high level then they should just order out.
“But it’s easy if you’re not terrified the meal is going to be awful. It’s just a meal. Once you see it that way, and relax, it becomes a completely different thing. And for me cooking helped me rediscover who I was.”