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The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise

by Ruth Reichl

Pub Date: April 11th, 2005
ISBN: 1-59420-031-9
Publisher: Penguin Press

Tasty revelations of Gourmet magazine editor Reichl’s undercover antics as the former food critic at the New York Times.

Some readers might pause at the thought of a third volume of memoirs from a woman not even through her middle age, but for foodies with a penchant for the inside scoop, Reichl’s behind-the-scenes stories of the Gray Lady deliver the goods. Before working at the Times, Reichl was quite happy writing restaurant reviews at the Los Angeles Times; she was wooed and won in spite of her misgivings. Almost immediately, her photo was posted in restaurant kitchens across the city. In response, Reichl embarked on a cloak-and-dagger—or wig-and-pseudonym—campaign that she carried on through her tenure at the paper. Her first role was as the fictional Molly Hollis; to achieve the transformation, Reichl donned the wig, suit, padding and makeup she imagined for the character of a midwestern, middle-aged, former schoolteacher. She also dressed up as a flamboyant redhead, a nearly invisible elderly lady, and her own inimitable mother. Where Reichl went, controversy followed. As Molly Hollis, she had a dreadful experience at Le Cirque, prompting her to take away the restaurant’s fourth star. A casual Californian, she widened the paper’s scope to include as many truly fine restaurants as she could find, touting soba, bulgogi and sushi to readers more accustomed to reading about Continental cuisine. Here, some characters are disguised, while others, such as her predecessor Bryan Miller, whose campaign against her was revealed in the gossip column of the New York Post, are right out in the open. Reichl also discusses her disrupted family life. And then there’s the food: Reichl excels at making long-gone meals live vividly on the page.

Spicy and sweet by turns, with crackle and bite throughout.