Special Report: Ruth Reichl in Focus

“I would love Julia Roberts. She’s asked to see the script when it’s done.”

Ruth Reichl, the pioneering editor in chief of Condé Nast’s gastronomic institution Gourmet and formerly the celebrated restaurant critic for The New York Times, is musing about who should play her in the movie adaptation of her scrumptiously engaging memoir, Garlic and Sapphires, which Fox and Avenue Pictures are developing and on which Reichl is an executive producer.

Much of the book, the third in her series of best-selling confessionals about food, career, family, travel and love, has Reichl devising various disguises—hats, wigs, gaudy jewelry—to keep from being recognized as she goes about her culinary adventures. (In Reichl’s days as a critic, restaurants were known to display her photo in their kitchens, with some offering employees generous rewards for spotting her in their milieu.) One of the book’s most entertaining episodes involves two starkly different visits Reichl made to New York’s sumptuous, legendary Le Cirque: one as the invented “Molly Hollis,” retired school teacher from Birmingham, Mich., relegated by the maitre d’ to the rear of the smoking section; the other as Ruth Reichl, influential newspaper critic, who scores the best seat in the house (ahead of the King of Spain, stuck waiting at the bar) and gets showered with flattery and amuse-bouche. It is a scene made for the big screen.

So lately, Reichl is busy swapping e-mails with writer Jeremy Leven, who penned 2004’s The Notebook and is now working on Garlic and Sapphires. That is, when she’s not cranking out the country’s oldest, most-esteemed food magazine or laboring over one the many side projects she and her colleagues at 4 Times Square have going—from the stacks of Gourmet-branded books, including the best-selling Gourmet Cookbook, to the PBS series Diary of a Foodie, as well as radio shows, podcasts, events, Gourmet.com and Epicurious.com, an encyclopedic assemblage of recipes from Gourmet and sister pub Bon Appétit.

Scriptwriter Leven “sends me notes asking, ‘What would [the character] do here?'” Reichl relates, smiling ear-to-ear, just like Julia Roberts would. “It’s been an incredibly fun process. It’s really exciting.”

These are, indeed, exciting times for the visionary, influential Reichl, who Adweek Magazines has selected as Editor of the Year in recognition of her award-winning transformation of the 66-year-old Gourmet, reliably serving up a fresh, informed take on the hot and ever-changing topic of food and inspiring rabid devotion among readers, advertisers and publishing peers.

Eight years since moving over to Gourmet from the Times, where her humorous, human and aggressively honest columns made her perhaps the country’s best-known and most respected food writer, Reichl continues to make the magazine a must-read for the serious gastronome. Whether exposing restaurants’ “local, seasonal” scam, ranking America’s top restaurants, divulging the best way to slice an onion or inviting important authors like Jane Smiley and Calvin Trillin to spin their personal, heartwarming tales of food and family, Gourmet lays out an extravagant feast of all things epicurean month after month. Like luxuriating in a rich parade of courses at a four-star restaurant, thumbing through the pages of Gourmet delivers one savory journalistic and visual treat after another. (Gourmet was also singled out by Adweek Magazines this year for Design. See story beginning on page SR8.)

“We’re constantly saying, ‘What’s going on in the world? What should we be covering? How do you keep it exciting?'” an energetic, charming Reichl says from her inviting, art-packed perch overlooking Times Square on a recent, hectic afternoon. “They’re very much living, breathing creatures, magazines. What was good last year isn’t going to be good next year.”

“I think that at first, Condé Nast thought they were just getting someone with star power when they hired Ruth—I’m not sure they realized what a good editor she is,” says Laurie Ochoa, editor in chief of LA Weekly, who worked with Reichl on the food section at The Los Angeles Times and, later, at Gourmet, where she was executive editor from 1999 to 2001.

Ochoa remembers Reichl’s first year at Gourmet as exceptionally challenging, being that the magazine was charged with the tricky task of luring a new generation of readers without alienating longtime devotees. One of the first decisions Reichl and her team made, Ochoa recalls, was to keep the magazine’s fanciful logo. “It wasn’t dated—it was a classic,” Ochoa says.

More radically, Reichl would institute cover lines (“A Week’s Worth of Wonderful Soups,” “Secrets of Sichuan Chefs”) and put people on the front of the formerly stark magazine, as well as inside its pages. “When they showed me the magazine, not only were there no people in the pictures, I didn’t feel like anybody was going to actually sit down at that table either,” Reichl remembers. “It’s not just about the food. You’re supposed to know who’s there, what’s happening at this dinner, what they’re talking about, their relationships.”

The editor also infused a welcome sense of humor into the stodgy glossy, whose idea of a sexy cover used to be a forlorn box of chocolates. Before he became the subject of NBC reality series The Restaurant and a household name, Reichl slapped Rocco DiSpirito on one of her early covers, the slightly bemused-looking chef hoisting a giant fish over his shoulder. The cover of a special London issue had four chefs mimicking the iconic shot from The Beatles’ Abbey Road album.

“The magazine always had this history and heritage and incredible credibility,” says Giulio Capua, vp/publisher of Gourmet from 2002 until last month, when Condé Nast moved him to shelter title Architectural Digest and installed AD vp/publisher Amy Churgin at Gourmet. “But when Ruth took over, I think it was stale, it was tired and it wasn’t an innovator.”

Under Reichl, Gourmet is on a roll, snagging multiple journalism awards, including two National Magazine Awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors (for General Excellence in 2004 and for Photography the following year), as well as a dozen James Beard Awards. And Reichl’s standout editorial has helped bring business-side rewards. With the magazine business suffering a circ slump, Gourmet, which sells 988,000 total paid copies per month, is flying off newsstands, single-copy sales spiking 11 percent in the last six months of 2006 compared to the previous year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. (Overall sales, including subscriptions, which account for most of Gourmet’s reach, was flat.)

Likewise, in a soft advertising market, Gourmet continues to score business, its ad pages last year swelling by a healthy 7.3 percent to 1,352.3, reports Publishers Information Bureau. Gourmet boasts dozens of accounts exclusive to the epicurean category, including Cartier, Ralph Lauren Home and TIAA-CREF. Its fastest-growing categories last year were beauty, fashion and jewelry/watches. Travel, Gourmet’s largest category, was also up slightly.

Advertisers line up to praise Gourmet’s transformation under Reichl. “Ruth takes the magazine to faraway places and makes those experiences attainable in your own home,” says Jill Harnick, vp/marketing at TIAA-CREF, which underwrites Diary of a Foodie (produced by Boston’s WGBH-TV, which brought Julia Child into America’s homes). “Her vision allows the reader to feel, taste and experience exotic locales in her own appealing, approachable way. The magazine is delicious.”

Adds David Strome, vp/managing director of agency KSL Media, New York, whose clients include Gourmet advertiser Grey Goose vodka, “Ruth has made the magazine incredibly relevant to both the lifelong gourmand as well as a new breed of younger consumers who are beginning to appreciate this aspect of their lives.” Strome calls Reichl an “icon.”

Reichl may be going Hollywood, collecting industry accolades and amassing admirers along Madison Avenue, but her early days at Gourmet were anything but sweet. “We got hundreds and hundreds of letters in the first six months saying, ‘You have destroyed the finest magazine,'” the editor recalls. “I hand-wrote letters back to them . . . and said, ‘I hear you, but give us a chance. Change is difficult. Please read it for three more months, then write me back.'” Eventually, the hate mail stopped, and Reichl knew her formula was catching on.

Reichl “is very real. She has this amazing spirit and really trusts her gut, and therefore people trust her,” says Donna Warner, editor in chief of Hachette Filipacchi Media’s Metropolitan Home and a longtime friend and admirer of Reichl, who once contributed food pieces to the shelter title. “People relate to her because she has an honesty and a soulfulness not widely available in a commercial sense.”

Colman Andrews, a co-founder and former editor in chief of World Publications’ rival food magazine Saveur and now a contributor to Gourmet, calls his old friend and colleague Reichl “a very accessible person. You never have the feeling she’s lording it over you because she knows more than you do. She has a real presence that people respond to. She’s not threatening but commands respect, which is a neat trick.”

Andrews should know a thing or two about Reichl’s ability to draw people in. In her earlier memoir, Comfort Me With Apples, Reichl writes candidly of her romance with Andrews many years ago when they worked together in California, this during her marriage to her first husband. (Reichl is now married to TV news producer Michael Singer, with whom she has a teenage son.) For three decades, Reichl and Andrews’ personal and professional lives have been intertwined, with Reichl editing Andrews or Andrews editing Reichl at various points. (Andrews also is now married, with teenage children.) Even though the passion between them is presumed long dead and buried, it’s little surprise that after Reichl recruited Andrews to work for Gourmet last year, Condé Nasties were abuzz. As for being exposed in Reichl’s reminiscences, Andrews deadpans, “It was so long ago, I don’t remember any of it. I’m taking her word for it.” (For her part, Reichl has said, with a wave of the hand, “Privacy is overrated.”)

But back to business: It is not only Reichl’s omniscience about food and her uncanny knack for appearing on the scene just as culinary trends take hold—be it California cuisine in the ’70s or the coming of age of New York restaurants in the ’90s (the editor has been called the Zelig of the food world)—but the accessibility Andrews speaks of that is perhaps the key ingredient in Reichl’s decades-long, intimate connection with her public. Long before everywoman Rachael Ray blabbed her way into America’s heart, the famously egalitarian Reichl set out to take the mystery and fear out of the art of cooking, endearing her to those who loved food but were terrified of experimenting, learning and, above all, enjoying the process of creating yummy meals.

“There are a few things that are our mission [at Gourmet]—the first being that cooking is not difficult. It is a completely natural activity,” Reichl insists. “What is wrong is this emphasis on perfection. Everybody’s going to cook a bad meal sometimes. Big deal. You’ll cook another one tomorrow. The notion that, somehow, the media have led people to believe that ordinary people should cook like chefs is ridiculous.”

Make no mistake: Reichl may be known for stripping food and dining of their pretensions, but Gourmet, being an upscale-lifestyle magazine chock-full of luxury advertisers the likes of Rolex, Chanel and Mercedes-Benz, can still be all about fancy, complicated and exotic cuisine. It is called Gourmet, and recent recipes include an ambitious vegetable-stuffed loin of veal with sweetbreads (prep and cooking time: 19 hours). One of the magazine’s signature franchises, its Restaurant Issue, ranks the country’s top 50 restaurants, a list that is dominated by purveyors of the some of the priciest grub in New York (Per Se, Le Bernardin, Babbo). That said, simple, homey pleasures like angel hair pasta with fresh tomato sauce and blueberry-lime ice pops are just as comfortable in Gourmet’s pages, and are, in fact, the norm. The monthly “Ten-Minute Mains” offers simple but delectable supper ideas like mussels with saffron cream and beef and avocado fajitas. Another feature, the back-of-the-book “The Last Touch”—which Reichl killed early on, only to bring it back after readers protested—presents recipes for unaffected favorites like chocolate brownies and the French staple croques-monsieur.

Alice Waters of Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse, one of the mothers of California cuisine who has known Reichl since she was a West Coast food writer and, earlier, a fellow chef and restaurateur, singles out the editor’s integrity. “She’s speaking from a very honest place. That’s very compelling in this world where everybody’s trying to sell you something, and something that’s not good for you,” Waters says. “She understands that food is about nourishment and it’s precious; she feels a great responsibility to educate people with the right kind of information.”

Like many others, Waters is impressed that Reichl has attracted an extraordinary array of A-list contributors to Gourmet, many of them not known for writing about food. Last August, Gourmet produced its first-ever Literary Supplement, sponsored by Philips Electronics, featuring writers and visual artists as diverse as Maira Kalman, Pat Conroy and Junot Diaz. Reichl maintains that food is “the universal medium, and everybody has great food stories.”

Calvin Trillin, author of the current New York Times best- seller About Alice, says he had pretty much stopped writing about food until his longtime friend and sometime lunching companion Reichl lured him back a few years ago. “In the old days, I assumed that Gourmet was not the sort of magazine that would have somebody like me writing for it,” says Trillin. “In general, [epicurean magazines] for a long time specialized in what I like to call the inspector-general school of food writing: Someone who considers himself a great expert goes into a place and tells you the background and brings his knowledge, sort of like a lecture. But Ruth is quite open to stories that, essentially, are about the place, or sharing experiences, not just a minute analysis of the spices that might have been in the souffle.”

It is that deeper appreciation of food and everyone’s connection to it that puts Reichl in a class of her own and keeps Gourmet on the front burner. “I got to Gourmet at a point where America was starting to say, ‘Oh, food,'” Reichl recollects. “Food came into the culture and it became not something that just a few foodies cared about, and not just something that people who were cooks cared about, but something that is really on the national agenda. People are understanding that food is a prism for everything.” Tony Case is a contributing writer to Mediaweek.