Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Restaurant Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl

After a period working in kitchens in California and then being the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, Ms Reichl is feeling a bit jaded. The thought of New York to become the New York Times' food critic initially strikes her as preposterous, but after a considerable period of humming and hawing, she takes up the challenge. Her husband must have known her better than she knew herself: as soon as the invitation to talk had been made, he made arrangements to move his own employment to the East Coast.

Such is the prominence of the food critic of the Times that all the "name" restaurants in New York are aware of her well before she shows up and are on the look out for her. As she tells us a couple of times, once a restaurant knows she is in the house, they might not be able to do much about the cooking, but the most succulent ingredients can be used, the most attentive service can be deployed and stooges can be established in neighbouring tables to demonstrate their extreme enjoyment of the dining experience.

And so she goes underground, using a variety of disguises to conceal her identity. These disguises form a vital part of the book: by donning different disguises, she learns an enormous amount about herself and the power that appearance has to dictate one's place in the world. As redheaded Brenda in a fabulous sounding antique Chinese silk coat and funky accessories, she meets the doorman to her apartment building, a fellow who must have seen her pretty much every day for years:
I waited for his great, friendly laugh.

It didn't come. he just stood staring, open-mouthed, looking at me so frankly that I tugged at my wig, thinking I must look ridiculous. Then I saw that his expression was goofy, unlike any I had ever seen him wear. He was acting as if I were a gift, a surprise package that had been unexpectedly delivered to his door.
Wearing this outfit, her entire persona changed, into a much more approachable, generous person. As Miriam, wearing her mother's clothes, she finds the likeness too uncanny to be comfortable. As Betty, inspired by a woman she saw on a bus so tired and ragged as to be invisible, people (a taxi driver, the restaurant people, one of her dining companions who has been left in the dark as to her identity, even her doorman) are just rude to her: she simply does not matter. Then, as Emily, she herself is horrible. This was the beginning of the end for her: she did not like what she was finding when she wore these disguises and she could only do her job by wearing disguises.

Although billed as a memoir, the book is also a homage: to her family; to the New York of her childhood; to a workmate and friend who died of cancer towards the end of her stint as critic; and, above all, to food. Two meals in particular stood out for me: one was to a sushi bar, very purist in tone (the waitress warns Reichl when she enters "Only sushi. No tempura. No noodles. Only sushi."), where every step of the meal is given in loving detail. The other was to a now closed restaurant called Union Pacific, where even someone like Reichl, with all the restaurants she must have visited, found the food so good and surprising that it left her unable to speak.

But I think my favourite scene in the book was in a restaurant she hated: the place had the reputation of being the most romantic restaurant in New York, the Box Tree. She is there as the horrible Emily (inspired by the receptionist she had encountered there). After her friend has pointed out just how horrible she is, there is a truly heartwarming scene: they have noticed a young couple, evidently there for a very special occasion and yet they're being given shabby treatment and worse food. Reichl and her friend intervene:
"You don't look like you're enjoying it."
"We are!" said the young woman. "We're enjoying it very much. Aren't we, Richie?" Her eyes entreated her date to support her position.
But he gave her an apologetic shrug and truned to Marion. "No," he admitted, "we are not enjoying this."
They pick up the couple's tab (only made possible when Reichl reveals her identity) and suggest somewhere they might enjoy themselves, a good restaurant. That was something that happened back in the late 1990's: let's hope the place has changed in the meantime.



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