The Hungry Engineer

Garlic and Sapphires

29 Apr 2009

Since my departure from engineering almost a year ago, I’ve thought through several alternate career paths. For a split second, I even considered the notion of being a professional food critic. The odds of this ever being a realistic career path for me are slim to none, particularly given that I’m too much a fan of food to enjoy writing about something I didn’t like. For a highly entertaining vicarious look into the life of a food critic, though, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl cannot be beaten.

Garlic and Sapphires chronicles Ms. Reichl’s experiences from the time she leaves her job at the LA Times through her various adventures as the food critic at the New York Times, and leads right up to the moment she gets the call for her current position as editor in chief at Gourmet magazine. To be the restaurant critic for the Times would effectively make Reichl the most powerful restaurant critic in the world. To say this was a lot to shoulder was an understatement, and she went into her interview intent on sabotaging the deal. Despite her best efforts, they offered her the job anyway, and after some convincing from her family, she accepted it.

The entire New York restaurant scene seemed to know her on sight, so she resorted to elaborate disguises to maintain anonymity and get an untainted restaurant experience. She found herself adapting to her disguises and changing her demeanor, the tone of her voice, and even the food she ordered, and she marveled at the differences in service each new persona garnered.

Her reviews, some of which are included in the book, are sumptuous and rich in their detailing. As she explained in her interviews before joining the paper, she wrote reviews not for the people who ate at fine dining establishments, but rather for the folks who wish they could eat there. She was also so bold as to review not just the most upscale, big-name restaurants on the docket, but also her favorite sushi joint or Korean restaurant. Despite fidgeting from the editorial staff and ill will from the restaurant critic whose position she had filled, she continued to do things her own way.

Eventually, the alternate roles she filled while in disguise and the sometimes tense politics of the Times offices took their toll, and she realized it was time to move on. There was no upward path at the paper that she was interesting in following, and being a professional critic had lost its interest for her. In her own words, she wanted to get out of the dining room and back into the kitchen.

Reichl’s writing in this memoir is every bit as lush and precise as the reviews she’s included in the book. You feel like you can see these characters she becomes, can adapt along with her as she alters her personality to fit her new role. The food, both good and bad, comes to life. She allows you to smell it, taste it, see it, and appreciate it. The cut-throat nature of the New York Times offices is laid bare in her dealings with editors, angry former critics, and even angry readers. With humor and wit, she opens the door into the world that she inhabited and invites you to hang out for a while. And while you’re hanging out, she even tries to feed you by including several illustrative recipes (Spaghetti Carbonara anyone?).

Garlic and Sapphires is a wonderfully written food memoir, highly informative and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. It’s smart and direct and soul-warming and bone-crushing all in the space of a single book, and Reichl presents both her high points and low with unabashed clarity. She was the most powerful restaurant critic in the world, and she came out the other side a wiser woman.

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