Ruth Reichl has spent most of her adult life — and all of her career — putting her experiences with food into words. As a former food guru for the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, the celebrated editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine until its confounding demise in 2009, and now editorial advisor for the Web’s Gilt Taste, Reichl’s writings have advised and tantalized international foodies for decades.
When Bravo offered her a judging stint on Season 3 of Top Chef Masters, Reichl signed on as a lark and enjoyed it so much that she’s back for the series’ fourth session now airing on Wednesdays. And thanks to her decades-long reign at the epicenter of food culture, she’s found plenty of familiar faces in the new crop of contestants.
“A lot of these chefs are people whose careers I know well,” Reichl tells Zap2it, “so for me, it’s an interesting group. And as the field narrows, it becomes more and more interesting, because you’re looking at competing philosophies. It turns into a really fascinating competition.” And, Reichl says, a delightfully civilized one.
“One thing that I think is quite different about this year from last year is that there is a level of camaraderie between these chefs which is extraordinary,” she explains. “What I love about chefs is their generosity — it’s hard to be a chef if you don’t have a generous soul — and you really get to see that.”
Asked if she’s stunned by the blunders that even experts make in the heat of battle, Reichl offers a reminder of what a chef’s job description truly entails. “People think of chefs as cooks — but most chefs don’t cook much,” she says. “Chefs are like CEOs; their job is to get the people in the kitchen to translate their vision. So it’s not that surprising, because a lot of these people haven’t spent a lot of time cooking for quite a while.”
Still Reichl would rather see the masters produce a flawed masterstroke than play it safe in pursuit of perfection.
“I am never one for playing it safe!” she says, laughing. “Not in writing. Not in life. Not in food. In ‘Top Chef Masters,’ the burden is to take that extra step and articulate a personal vision of food, because that is what a master chef does. They’ve had time to own their personal philosophy of food — and I want to see that on the plate!”
What are your three must-haves in your fridge or pantry?
“Really good butter, lemons and really good fish sauce.”
What did you have for dinner last night?
“I had a wonderful boiled lobster and a Caesar salad at Pearl Oyster Bar in New York. It’s one of my favorite restaurants.”
What is your next project?
“I’m finishing up the novel in the next few weeks, and then I’m moving on to a cookbook that comes off my Twitter feed.”
Where did you go on your last vacation?
“I went to Tuscany. My husband and I were invited to a friend’s retreat — he invited 28 of us, including Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, to come and talk about important things and hang out and eat really well and look at art. It was wonderful.”