Ruth Reichl is in her green-tiled kitchen on the Upper West Side, stirring pungent fish sauce into a wok of sizzling pork. Perhaps you remember her as a highly influential restaurant critic for the LA Times and the New York Times (15 years), or from her best-selling books about food (three, including her memoir Tender At The Bone) or that she ran Gourmet magazine for 10 years.
Barefoot and warm, beneath a tumble of dark hair and dimples, Reichl has been a vital architect of today's contemporary food culture. But by her own account, she went into a tailspin when Conde Nast closed Gourmet in 2009.
"I was almost 62 years old," she says. "I just thought, one: I should have been able to save it, and two: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Will I ever get another job?"
Reichl turned back to cooking. Her new book is titled My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life. That last part seems a bit dramatic given that Reichl's still a top-tier person in the food world. She's had a PBS show, appears on the Food Network and has edited a dozen books about food. What did she have to be worried about?
"I've never felt like the leading anything of anything in the world," Reichl says. "I'm just a person with a family and I go to work every day and suddenly ... I'm not going to work every day... and I really did think, 'Who's going to hire me?'"
Gourmet magazine was a really big deal. It was the world's most prestigious epicurean magazine. Reichl says it had eight test kitchens and 12 full-time cooks.
"It was a remarkable place," she says. "We had people who were Chinese cooks and French cooks and Mexican cooks, and a couple of people who'd been at the magazine for more than 30 years, and who had seen every cook come though, and could do really remarkable things, like glove-boning a chicken."
When all that was gone, Reichl retreated to a house in upstate New York, let out her Manhattan apartment and turned to Twitter.
"There was a community of cooks out there to talk to," she says. "Here I am in a lonely little hilltop and I kind of found a voice in Twitter I didn't know I had."
Reichl found herself embracing the minimalism of the form. With only 140 characters, Twitter became incantatory, formal — like haiku. Or, as Reichl called them, "word pictures."
Blackbirds swooping onto orange trees. Beautiful ballet of the air. Ashmead kernels whisper from their skins. Apple crisps.
If you think that's ripe for parody, well, it was. Some people made fun. But Reichl did not care. She says Twitter helped her hone her language and find solutions to cooking dilemmas. She focused on her cookbook, which includes plenty of easy and quick recipes like the caramelized Vietnamese pork, and beautiful-but intentionally imperfect pictures of the results, like her homemade apricot pie.
She says she never considered returning to her old job as restaurant critic. She'd rather feed people herself, she says — to use her kitchen and her home to be daring, experimental and deeply attuned to the world in the company of family and friends.
Recipe: Easy Caramelized Vietnamese Pork
2 Armenian cucumbers
¾ pound pork tenderloin
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
Vegetable or peanut oil
1 small onion (sliced thin)
1 clove garlic (smashed)
4 teaspoons sugar
Pour the rice vinegar into a small bowl and add a pinch of salt and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Slice the Armenian cucumbers into thin rounds, along with a small knob of ginger. Put them into the vinegar and allow the flavors to mingle while you make the pork.
Slice the pork tenderloin very thin. (This is easiest if you put the meat in the freezer for half an hour to get it very cold before slicing.) It can be difficult to find small tenderloins; when I end up with more meat than I need, I chop the remainder and save it for another dish.
Get a wok so hot that a drop of water dances on the surface and then disappears. Add a couple of tablespoons of peanut or neutral oil and immediately toss in the onion and the smashed garlic. As soon as it's fragrant, add the pork and 1 tablespoon of sugar and stir-fry, tossing every few minutes, for 10 to 15 minutes, until the pork has crisped into delicious little bits.
Take the wok off the heat and stir in the fish sauce; it should become completely absorbed. Grind in a lot of black pepper.
Remove the ginger from the cucumbers and mix the cucumbers into the pork. (Whether you want to add the marinade is up to you; I like the taste of vinegar, but you might prefer your meat completely dry.)
Serve with rice. Put fresh mint and basil on the table, along with crushed peanuts, lime wedges, and Sriracha, and allow each diner to make a mixture that appeals to them.
This will feed two people very generously. Unless you have a very large wok and a ferocious source of heat, the recipe does not double well; you want the pork to get really crisp.
Excerpted from My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life by Ruth Reichl Copyright © 2015 by Ruth Reichl. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And now let's meet a woman who believes cooking is about so much more than food. It's Ruth Reichl. She's a best-selling author who spent years as a restaurant critic for The New York Times and LA Times. She was also the last editor of Gourmet magazine, which closed five years ago. And her new cookbook is partly about how she dealt with that loss. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Ruth Reichl coped by cooking. Right now she's in her apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, stirring pungent fish sauce into a wok of sizzling pork.
RUTH REICHL: God, that smells great.
This isn't one of those fancy stainless steel kitchens with Viking stoves and double-decker ovens. Her stove's white, not high-end, in a little kitchen overlooking a wall of other people's windows.
REICHL: Yes, isn't it lovely, our view? It's so attractive.
ULABY: Ruth Reichl is in her element. Barefoot beneath a tumble of dark hair, black eyes, black eyebrows and dimples, Reichl's naturally warm. But she bristles if you wonder, why make caramelized Vietnamese pork if you could just have it delivered?
REICHL: Oh, I mean, that just makes me crazy.
ULABY: Reichl is such a food person she cannot understand why anyone would balk at taking 20 minutes to cook a lovely dish at home.
REICHL: Slow down for a minute. Enjoy - when you have a wok that's really hot and you put a flick of water in to see if it's hot enough and it makes this little tiny ball that rolls around, it's fun. Why would you deny yourself that?
ULABY: One of many little kitchen moments that for Reichl add up to something symphonic.
REICHL: You've got your wok. And then you throw in a little bit of oil. And then, very quickly, before that oil gets too hot, you throw in the garlic and the ginger. And the sound and the aroma explodes out of the pan.
ULABY: This recipe, with pork, lime, sugar, mint and basil, is in Ruth Reichl's new cookbook and memoir. It's called "My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life." It's about what happened when Conde Nast closed down Gourmet, the world's most prestigious epicurean magazine, 10 years after Reichl took over as editor in chief.
REICHL: I was almost 62 years old. And I really went into a tailspin. I mean, I just thought, one, I should have been able to save it. Two, what am I going to do with the rest of my life? Will I ever get another job?
ULABY: But wait. What do you have to be worried about? You're still a top-tier person in the food world. You've had a PBS show. You're on the Food Network. You've edited a dozen books about food. You're famous.
REICHL: I have certainly never felt that. I have never felt like the leading anything of anything in the world. I'm just a person with a family. And I go to work every day. And suddenly, I'm not going to work every day. And I really did think, you know, I mean, who's going to hire me?
ULABY: And let's just be clear about what Ruth Reichl lost. Gourmet magazine was a really big deal.
REICHL: We had eight test kitchens.
ULABY: Eight test kitchens and how many full-time cooks?
REICHL: Twelve cooks. It was a remarkable place. So, you know, we had people who were Chinese cooks and French cooks and Mexican cooks and a couple people who had been at the magazine for more than 30 years and who had seen every cook come through and could do really arcane things, like glove boning a chicken.
ULABY: When all that was gone, Reichl retreated to a house in upstate New York, lent out her Manhattan apartment and turned, of all things, to Twitter.
REICHL: You know, there was a community of cooks out there to talk to. I mean, you know, here I am, like, a lonely little hilltop in upstate New York. And I kind of found a voice in Twitter that I didn't know I had.
ULABY: The writer and editor found herself embracing the minimalism of the form.
REICHL: The goal was how do you use those 140 characters to create a word picture?
ULABY: Twitter became incantatory, formal, like haiku.
REICHL: Blackbirds swooping onto orange trees, beautiful ballet of the air. Ashmead's Kernels whisper from their skins, apple crisp.
ULABY: If you think that's ripe for parody, well, it was. Some people made fun. But Reichl did not care.
REICHL: I love Twitter. (Slicing onions) Good sound, huh?
Reichl realized when she ran Gourmet, she had actually drifted away from the most elemental thing that brought her there, the simple act of cooking. She was so busy, she rarely cooked at home. After she lost her job, she rediscovered the pleasure of slicing onions.
REICHL: I could probably make it thinner. But I would be slicing forever.
ULABY: Imperfection is cool with Reichl. That's clear in her new cookbook. She did not hire professionals to glamorize the pictures of dishes, like her homemade apricot pie.
REICHL: One strip of pastry is really thick, and one's really thin 'cause I'm not a stylist.
ULABY: In between her jobs, did she ever think about going back to her old gig as a restaurant critic, a job lots of people would kill for? I asked, does she miss it?
REICHL: Not at all, not at all. I would so much rather feed people myself.
ULABY: And invite her friends into her home to share the pleasures of experimentation.
REICHL: There is so much that's exciting that's around us all the time. And for me, it's in the kitchen. There's danger. There's surprise. There's excitement.
ULABY: Reichl sets out the charred Vietnamese pork and some plates.
REICHL: Do you want hot sauce?
ULABY: You know with Ruth Reichl, the answer should be yes. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.