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Lunch with a Luminary

July 3, 2009

The best perk of my old job was that I got to have lunch with Ruth Reichl.

At the time she had recently left the New York Times and just taken over Gourmet magazine.  Her first book, Tender at the Bone, had been published, but she was in San Francisco on a road show with the magazine to meet with advertisers.

Granted, it was a luncheon with about 30 people at a restaurant named Azie that at the time was a hot new place.  However, given my well-known love for food, I was seated directly across from Miss Reichl, and I spoke with her extensively over lunch.

It seemed everyone at our table had read her book except me.  Which I think was a good thing.  Instead of having an assumed familiarity with her life story, we simply had a conversation about her connection to the Bay Area.  And among other things, she spoke freely of her years in Berkeley and her history with Alice Waters.

Ruth seems to be one of those people who was in the right place at the right time, and was there when the battle cry of California cuisine—Local! Seasonal! Organic!—was forged.

Which isn’t to say she did not have her favorite barbecue joints in Oakland.  She did, and I was very impressed that she knew all of these delicious dives where nothing is local, seasonal or organic.

All the same, I remember a few months after our luncheon reading her review in Gourmet of the top 10 restaurants in the Bay Area.  And I was pissed.  It was very clear to me that several of her picks had nothing to do with the best food (and they weren’t about atmosphere or service either).  They were biased in favor of restaurants that shared her ideology for local and organic ingredients.

Now I don’t know what has changed.  Maybe it is because I have left California where I took the notion of California cuisine for granted.  Perhaps it is because I am older, and care more about the effects of factory farming on our food supply.  It could have something to do with how few restaurants in Albany seem to care about where food comes from and how it’s raised.

But for the first time I appreciate the importance of a critic being rooted in a belief structure, rather than the subjective nature of taste.

One new restaurant in Albany, New World Bistro Bar, subscribes to an ideology similar to the one that Ruth Reichl and Alice Waters have promoted through the years.  The restaurant’s menus carry the following blurb:

“We are committed to serving our take on Global Neighborhood fare that utilizes regional, seasonal, sustainable and artisan ingredients. Help us support the little guys in all of their endeavors. We buy local meats from Northeast Family Farm Cooperative and Niman Ranch. Our Chicken is Freebird Our seafood is sustainable as recommended by the EcoFish and Monterey Bay Sea Watch. Our seasonal produce is a local as possible.”

Just this week, Ruth Fantasia, executive features editor for the Times Union, reviewed New World Bistro Bar.  And it was a positive review.  But this central point of difference, this ideology that the restaurant carries and promotes front and center, was conspicuously absent from the review.

Again, I find myself at odds with a restaurant critic.  And it is still about ideology.  But this time it is about the apparent lack of one.

If you happen to talk to Ruth Reichl, please pass along this story and let her know that it took a long time, but she finally won me over.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jennifer permalink
    August 12, 2009 1:40 pm

    Here’s some love, you shameless comment slut:

    I love Ruth Reichl.

    Have every one of her books. Including her memoir of her mother which is hardly about food at all.

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