Dining in Disguise – or why Ruth Reichl is my new favourite food writer.


It isn’t often that I find a book that makes me want to read it twice in three months, but I should have known from the review that I’d want to immediately re-read Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl:

“GARLIC AND SAPPHIRES is Ruth Reichl’s delicious and mischievous account of her time spent as an undercover restaurant critic. Reichl knows that to be a good critic you have to be anonymous. When she lands the much coveted job of the NEW YORK TIMES restaurant critic, she resorts to disguise in order to avoid the inevitable red carpet treatment.”

Have  you ever heard of anything so unusual? A restaurant critic dining in disguise, then writing about her experiences as various alter egos? I love reading about food; that’s a given. But what makes this book really special is how Reichl’s disguises take her on an unexpected journey to discover aspects of herself that she hadn’t been aware of previously. We’re not talking big hat and dark glasses here; Reichl (pronounced ‘Rye-shul’)develops astoundingly three-dimensional characters, adjusting hair, make-up, style and personality to suit each. In the course of the book we meet a frumpy old lady, a come-hither siren, an elegant hippy whom everyone adores and the invisible woman. A huge amount of effort goes into pulling off each of these new personae, but it works, and Reichl successfully avoids being spotted as she gets around the Manhattan dining scene. Sometimes, in the course of her research, Reichl visits a single restaurant multiple times, as both herself and as one of her other selves (not at the same time!), allowing insightful comparisons between how she is treated depending on which of her personalities dines there. Needless to say, the resulting reviews were the subject of some controversy, especially when revered establishments lost a New York Times star or two because they treated the alter ego badly. This is a veritable rollick through gastronomic Manhattan – so much fun!

As a result of so thoroughly enjoying Garlic and Sapphires, I’ve now placed Reichl’s other culinary memoirs, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples on my New Year’s reading list. These follow Reichl’s evolution from a New York childhood, through college at Berkeley and on to her career as a food critic. I’m also having fun devouring the odd copy of the magazine food-fest that Reichl edits, Gourmet, which is always crammed with fantastic recipes and inspiration. Check out Reichl’s pumpkin fondue recipe for some truly warming kitchen inspiration. (This said as it approaches 3pm in London, with the light fast disappearing and a particularly chilly office because the boilers failed – again – this morning.)

2 Comments Add yours

  1. razzbuffnik says:

    I just hate the whole celebrity chef thing. I’m so over some restaurants and their staff thinking they’re little tin gods with their odious VIP lists.

    I’m glad to hear that there’s someone out there that’s really reviewing restaurants for a living rather than just writing about the junket and all the fawning they receive, that they’ve landed as a job.


  2. epicurienne says:

    I know what you mean, Razz. Too much “I’m going to say it’s great because everyone’s expecting me to” and not enough “could do better” grades for the Big Chefs. Did you know that Reichl caused more controversy because she gave stars to unknown sushi bars and otherwise invisible eateries because she decided they were worth it? That’s my kinda critic.


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