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Ruth Reichl on Restaurant Audiences’ Changing Needs and Other Food Issues

Her thoughts on fine dining and brisket.

Ruth Reichl at the Paramount Theatre
Ruth Reichl at the Paramount Theatre
Mandy Earnshaw/Birdsong Imaging
Nadia Chaudhury is the editor of Eater Austin covering food and pop culture, as well as a photographer, writer, and frequent panel moderator and podcast guest.

Ruth Reichl has a long food history: Gourmet editor in chief, Los Angeles Times and New York Times critic, author of many cookbooks, memoirs, and novels on the subject. As part of her tour behind her latest cookbook, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, she spoke at Austin’s Paramount Theatre last week. She went through her past lives as the famous disguised reviewer, the folding of Gourmet, and her time spent in the kitchen.

After Reichl mentioned she didn’t have any food outings planned, someone in the audience suggested Veracruz All Natural. Instead, she ended up with duck rillettes from Texas farm Belle Vie picked up from the farmers market stand set up in the lobby of the theater. She also enjoyed Apis’ egg and smoked fish toast during the pre-show event.

Next up for the writer is a memoir about her time at Gourmet, and another novel. Read on for Reichl’s thoughts on the changing food and restaurant industry, audiences, and brisket.

You’ve seen so many changes in the food and restaurant world since you started. What has that been like?
Ruth Reichl: I’m lucky enough to be where it was happening when it was happening, in Berkeley in the ’70s. I think it’s very hard for people to understand how hard it was to get great food in the United States until the 70s."

What do you mean by that?
Reichl: You think about American cheese, and there are literally hundreds and hundreds of great cheeses being made in the United States. Almost all of us have the opportunity to go to farmer’s markets. It didn’t exist in the early ’70s—there were no such things as farmers markets. Nobody was thinking about sustainability. It’s such an enormous, enormous change.

The other huge change is the audience for restaurants. When I was [my son’s] age [27], I was dirt poor, and I didn’t go to restaurants. Today, if you’re a young person, you put restaurants on your budget, like you do with art, books and, movies. Young people are probably the most important patrons, the ones who are really driving the change. Restaurants have gotten so much more interesting, and so much less stuffy.

What we eat has a huge impact on the entire nation, what we feed our children is important. We’re starting to understand that. It’s much bigger than going out and having a good meal. We’re all starting to understand the government tax policy, which has a huge impact on how we eat, and we have to pay attention to it.

In Austin recently, we had several fine dining establishments close down (LaV, Congress). What is the current state of fine dining in the country?
Reichl: Fine dining is being challenged everywhere, partly because the audience has changed so much. There aren’t too many people who want to go out and spend a lot of money on restaurants. How many people are willing to for the price of one dinner in a really fancy restaurant, when you can eat ten meals that are very satisfying in a lesser place? I think people have shorter attention spans—a three hour meal is a long time for people to sit still.

What do you think about the food media landscape today?
Reichl: In 2006, i gave a speech to the newspaper editorial writers convention begging them to please pay attention to food. Ten years later, you couldn't give that speech anymore. Today, you've got people paying attention to [food issues] in the mainstream media. You have The New Yorker doing a food issue, Ted Genoways is doing fantastic stuff at Atlantic Monthly, you’ve got organizations like Civil Eats, FERN [Food and Environment Reporting Network], and a lot of people putting energy into serious food issues.

What could be done to keep it in the right direction?
Reichl: I wish that mainstream food publications would cover politics and culture and sociology. I wish they would look at what’s going on in Silicon Valley, and there’s a lot of cover.

Where have you dined in Austin?
Reichl: [During SXSW for her son’s film,] we were mostly cooking at home. The one place I went was to Franklin Barbecue. He does amazing work and that was just so much fun. He’s just so soulful.

Are there any Texas dishes you’d want to make?
Reichl: Someday, I’m going to take Aaron Franklin’s book and learn how to smoke meat. Smoked Texas brisket is one of my favorite foods on Earth. It’s really hard to get it really right, but when you get it right, it’s magical. When you get it at that point where it just melts and the collagen has just given it up, you just can’t believe it.

What do you hope people take away from your book?
Reichl: We’ve made [cooking] into a performative act. For me, it’s more about the journey than it is about the results. If you end up with something that’s not so great, big deal. Just stop being afraid, get in there, and enjoy it. Use your hands, eyes, and nose, just get in the kitchen and really enjoy it.

Paramount Theatre

713 Congress Avenue, , TX 78701