Ruth Reichl’s book, Garlic and Sapphires: the secret life of a critic in disguise, follows a culinary itinerary that few people have the means or time ever to attempt.
Reichl leaves behind a cushier editing job and the sunny California lifestyle to take on the demanding role of New York Times food critic. As she soon finds out, the transition is not an easy one; acting as the food authority in a city prized for its restaurants makes her a marked woman.
Before beginning the book, I always thought of a food critic’s job as pretty appealing. Duties include dining at fancy restaurants, ordering more than just the cheapest entrée on the menu, and then giving or denying the place your stamp of approval. Not bad, right? Reichl quickly dispels that dreamy vision. For starters, she is the new critic in town – a West Coast import whose standards and tastes differ from those of her jaded predecessor. And she is a critic in New York, the country’s most competitive market.
Whenever Reichl eats out, she must do so in disguise, so as not to receive uncharacteristically better service. And for every stunning meal that she awards three or four stars, she also encounters plenty of high profile restaurants that are, for lack of a better word, duds. Finally, the clincher – her job hurts her family life. Much to her husband and son’s disappointment, she misses evening meals at home – that important daily ritual of family togetherness.
It is as if every restaurant in town has Reichl’s mug shot taped beneath the hostess stand, waiting to alert the staff should she show up for a meal. A review from Reichl can make or break a career. Reichl is the female incarnation of fugitive Richard Kimble, constantly readjusting her appearance to elude restaurant personnel.
With her friends’ help, Reichl pieces together thrift shop finds with a bit of character acting to assume her disguises. Initially, this process is enjoyable – in a devious sort of way. But as the story progresses, Reichl’s personas become an eerie extension of her core, to the point that she’s not sure where the character begins and where her own self ends. At a pivotal moment in the book, Reichl’s old friend, joining her for dinner, is so aghast at the character that Reichl has become that she hands her a psychic card and urges her to consider a career change.
The personal challenges add depth to the story, but it is Reichl’s writing that leaves the lasting impression. Reichl has a gift for crafting mesmerizing pictures with her words. Her writing is so lush and visual that including bright photographs or illustrations alongside her words would be a letdown.
She notes every flavor sensation, every interaction with a brusque hostess or hurried waiter; she makes you feel as if you are sitting next to her – and you wish that you were. She reveals the New York restaurant scene’s unpleasantries – how appearance can determine one’s seat, service quality, and menu choices. Reichl did not merely slap together a “best of” collection of reviews; we get to see her process and how it profoundly affects her personal relationships.