Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl
Length: 334 pages
This is Ruth Reichl’s memoir of the time she spent as the restaurant critic for The New York Times, from 1993 to 1999. It begins with her flying to the city after accepting the job and being recognized on the plane. These reviews could make or break a restaurant, and many chefs around the city made sure their staff knew who she was. If they could recognize her when she arrived at the restaurant, they could try to spoil her and help their review.
Because of this, she began dressing in disguise when visiting restaurants. She couldn’t very well give fair reviews if the staff were giving her special treatment, so she would don a wig, buy some clothing from a thrift store, and reinvent herself – a sort of foodie spy trying to integrate with the enemy.
In her first review for the paper, she wanted to split the article into two distinct reviews. The difference in experience between how she was treated out of disguise on her first visit and how she was treated as an unknown, less stylish woman was so dramatic that she felt they warranted separate pieces with different star ratings. In the end, she was forced to combine the reviews and average the star rating, but I loved that she was so adamant to expose this disparity. As she says in the book, for many people the occasional visit to an upscale restaurant is as much about the theatre of it all as it is about the food, and to be ignored in favour of more obviously affluent people isn’t right.
At one point she wrote a one star review for a popular restaurant, one that had previously garnered four stars, and the next day she checked her voicemail to find it full of angry responses from readers. That felt like something you don’t see much these days – voice feedback. Could you imagine checking your voicemail in the morning to find the equivalent of a string of angry YouTube comments? I picture every angry social media comment as coming from an unsupervised preteen with developmental issues, and I don’t know if I could cope with being forced to admit that actual adults are behind those opinions. It’s just too real.
She didn’t just wear a disguise, she assumed the personality traits that came along with each costume as well. How much her outer appearance affected her personality was really interesting. It allowed her to explore sides of herself that she would normally ignore, although the way she seemed to, almost against her will, take on complete personalities the instant a new wig hit her skull, as if being possessed, was a bit far-fetched. It felt like an excuse to be rude and manipulative at times, particularly near the end of her run, but I was impressed with how willing Reichl was to show a less pleasant sides of herself in this.
Her descriptions of the food were, obviously, a pleasure to read, as you’d expect from a renown restaurant critic. I do wish there was a little more focus on the food than the disguises, but I suppose it did give the book a lot more depth, more so than I anticipated going in. She also included a number of recipes throughout the book – chocolate cake, asparagus risotto, spaghetti carbonara, that sort of thing. There’s a recipe for Gougères (cheesy puffs essentially) that I’m really interesting in trying.
While the disguise routine started to get a bit old for me halfway through the book, her writing kept me going. I really enjoyed it. I see she released a memoir before this, so I will have to track that down.