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Brilliant Disguise 

Former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl recounts her many identities and many approaches to writing about food in her new book, Garlic and Sapphires.

Molly, a newly rich Midwesterner wearing an out-of-date Armani outfit, received a chilly reception at New York City's luxurious Le Cirque restaurant. Her table was at the back of the dining room and a waiter grabbed the wine list from her hands when a more important customer needed to buy a bottle. Chloe, a divorcee with champagne blond hair and bright red nails, captured the attention of everyone from the doorman to the maitre d' when she walked into Lespinasse. Brenda, a fun-loving redhead in funky vintage clothes, immediately made friends with people waiting in the bar at Daniel Boulud's namesake restaurant. Well-heeled strangers felt compelled to interrupt her meal and offer recommendations from the menu.

Nobody at these restaurants realized, though, that all these women were actually the same person -- New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl. In her new memoir, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise (Penguin), Reichl recounts the elaborate measures she undertook to make sure that her experience dining at New York's most expensive restaurants was no different than that of an average reader. She would order credit cards under assumed names. She donned wigs. When she wanted to be completely anonymous, Reichl spent hours selecting a costume, applying theatrical makeup, inventing a history for an imagined character and working with an acting coach to perfect the illusion.

"If all you care about is the food, then anonymity doesn't matter," Reichl says in a recent phone interview. "There is no way a chef with no talent is suddenly going to be talented when a reviewer walks into the room. If you believe that restaurants are theater, and I do, then the experience can be dramatically changed (without that anonymity)."

When the critic is recognized, the chef sends out extra portions. A single, dedicated waiter caters exclusively to the reviewer's needs. Owners fill the seats around the reviewer with their friends, who make ecstatic noises about the food.

When she assumed these new identities, Reichl also discovered aspects of her own personality that she had never noticed before. As the sexy Chloe, Reichl learned for the first time at the age of 45 that she knew "how to take advantage of a man." Brenda, the vivacious redhead, revealed Reichl's "best self," and even her husband and son wondered if she could wear that costume more often. Reichl even became her late mother Miriam and treated her to an elaborate meal at the Four Seasons.

As the critic for The New York Times from 1993 to 1999, Reichl brought an unexpected voice and perspective to the sometimes-staid paper. Instead of limiting her reviews to fine-dining restaurants run by chefs with classical French training, Reichl gave glowing notices to noodle shops and sushi restaurants.

She fought against the paper's tradition of awarding stars to restaurants, which she believed insulted the readers by assuming that they couldn't discern the critic's opinion by reading the review. "People said I played fast and loose with the star system, and it was absolutely true," Reichl said.

Most importantly, Reichl found a way to turn the often-repetitive genre of restaurant criticism into an art. "There are so many things that you can do with a restaurant review," Reichl says. "You can set the scene. You can really focus on the food and the food description. You can instruct people about the cuisine of a certain nation or area." In an audacious double review of Le Cirque, she showed how the unassuming and anonymous Molly was made to wait for the worst table in the house while the owner treated Reichl like a visiting dignitary. Upon recognizing Reichl one evening, the owner told her, "The King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready."

In Garlic and Sapphires, Reichl takes the reader through the process of creating her reviews. We watch her visit the restaurants and observe the encounters that will transform a description of food into an astute sociological study. We hear the writer worry about the reactions of her readers and her editors. And, finally, she reprints the actual reviews and we read the culmination of her work. After years as a food critic, Reichl no longer needs to be anonymous when she enters a restaurant. She abandoned reviewing partially so that she could spend more nights cooking for her family. Reichl, when not cooking at home, prefers to eat at a few restaurants where she is a regular and the staff doesn't make a fuss. When she does eat at fashionable New York restaurants, she's learned to enjoy the special treatment rather than shun it. "I have to say, they roll out the red carpet everywhere," Reichl said. "It's very fun and it's very extreme. After 25 years skulking around as a restaurant critic, I sort of feel like I've earned it."

click to enlarge "If you believe that restaurants are theater, and I do, then the experience can be dramatically changed," former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl says of why she tried on so many different identities in her work. - BRIGITTE LACOMBE
  • Brigitte Lacombe
  • "If you believe that restaurants are theater, and I do, then the experience can be dramatically changed," former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl says of why she tried on so many different identities in her work.
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