It’s been a long time since I started reading a book that I just could not put down.
If you love food and love restaurants, you will really enjoy Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. From glimpses of her start in the Berkeley food scene of the 1970s to leaving The New York Times to move to her position as Gourmet magazine’s Editor in Chief, Reichl spins a tale of great food, great friendships, and great fun.
I was hooked on page one as Reichl tells about meeting a waitress on an airplane bound for New York in the summer of 1993. She had just accepted the position as the restaurant critic for the New York Times and was making a scouting trip to look for schools for her son. The waitress sitting next to her told her that every major kitchen in NYC already had her photo pinned to the wall so that staff members would recognize her when she came into their restaurant. That was when she realized that she would need to develop disguises to go incognito when scoping out restaurants for potential reviews.
The book tells tales of visits to very famous restaurants that were on bullets lists for foodies and tourists during the 1990s — Tavern on the Green, Windows on the World, Daniel. She also tells of visiting not-so-famous restaurants in hopes of exposing the Times readers to great food and broadening their palate. She would visit a restaurant in disguise multiple times and with different groups of people, checking on service as well as food quality. Then she would go back for a final visit as “herself” to see if Ruth Reichl, the NYT restaurant critic, got bigger raspberries, a better table, more attentive service, and better cuts of meat than did her alter egos.
I loved the insider’s look at places I’ve dreamed of, read about, and in several cases, never got to see, such as Windows on the World, which perished along with America’s innocence and the World Trade Center in 2001. Ruth Reichl wrote about the restaurant, in this article from 2011.
There’s talk of a movie being made of the book, which I think could have some promise, but apparently they are having a hard time getting it made. Too bad — I’d watch the movie of this book if the movie is actually true to the book.
I encourage you to try some of the recipes that appear in the book — she was a working mother who cooked dinner for her family when she wasn’t going out to dinner at some fabulous restaurant — and she started her career in California as a chef. She has a number of recipes linked up on her website, as well. I’m going to try the mussels, myself. I’ve never made it at home and Ruth’s recipe makes me think I can be successful.
I’ll let you know.