Last week in Paris, as I slathered mounds of housemade pâté de campagne on thick slices of bread at L’Ami Jean, I heard a familiar sound—the voices of Americans. There was a big table of women seated in the window laughing over bottles of red; by the bar, a couple on a long-weekend getaway canoodled. And then there was the New York-based catering chef ordering everything on the menu with his wife. The low-ceilinged, off-the-beaten-path restaurant had become a must on every foodie adventure in Paris for one reason—Ruth Reichl had anointed it so in Gourmet’s “Paris on a Budget” issue in September 2008.
Such was the power of Reichl and her team of editors for 10 glorious years, from 1999–2009, at the glossy food bible. It was the golden age of magazine publishing, especially at Condé Nast—when creativity reigned and budgets were unknown. In her memoir of that decade, entitled Save Me the Plums, which is out this April from Random House, she brings readers to the heart of that incredible time—capturing the people, events, and places in much the same way she’s done in her other best-selling books. But I didn’t need a copy for backstage access. I had already had the great privilege of living it—as the special projects editor at Gourmet.
When you tell people you worked at Gourmet, they light up. They have a million questions about what it was like, but most of all they want to know about Ruth. It’s hard not to sound like a blathering idiot answering. “She was amazing, inspiring. She was a great boss. She changed the way I think about food. She changed the way I think, period.” But it’s all incredibly true. I wish I could explain the magic of what it felt like to have her lean across her massive desk with her wide-open eyes, chin on her hand, genuinely wanting to hear your idea.
I often tell the story of when I had dinner with her for the first time. I had made a promise to myself not to make any comments about the food for fear I’d mess up. About three courses in at Del Posto, she noticed me chugging my water and not paying enough attention to my Barolo, and I inadvertently blurted out, “The food’s just so salty.” And she agreed. Huge sigh of relief, and I decided it was best to tell her what I really thought from then on.
The book is packed with so many incredible memories, and you can tell she relishes in the retelling of them. What I didn’t expect was that this book about the past spoke so much to my present. As the newly minted editor-in-chief of Galerie magazine, I related to Ruth in an entirely new way. She was becoming a mentor to me all over again. What’s it like to make the decisions in a field so based on personal opinion? How do you lead a team of quirky, creative individuals? And then, how do you balance your time between actually editing the magazine and all the other party-hosting and brand-promoting duties of the role? The book was hitting on all the topics I’d been grappling with—all told through anecdotes about these incredible people with whom I once worked side-by-side. A group of people that reflected one of Ruth’s firmest beliefs, which she recently told me again: “The best thing you can do as a boss is to hire people who are smarter than you in their fields.”
When I reached the final chapter of the book, my eyes welled with tears. She magnificently captured the sadness and confusion of those last few days. I remembered how I said goodbye to her in the elevator at Condé Nast’s then-headquarters in Times Square, while awkwardly holding her final gifts to me—a pair of unworn Christian Louboutin ballet flats and a small, perfume- sample-sized vile of the world’s most expensive balsamic vinegar. I had never felt so empty. Now, I couldn’t imagine what she must have felt like writing this, so I called her. “It made me miss the whole experience so much,” she said in her warm voice. “It was so much fun. Writing it was remembering how lucky I was.”
As soon as I finished the last page of the book, I longed for the people inside. I missed all the real characters Ruth had so beautifully captured. I texted some, called others. And then did what instantly brought me back to those famed Gourmet test kitchens. I pulled out the January 2009 issue (yes, I saved every one I worked on) and made a grocery list for the best spaghetti and meatballs recipe I’ve ever tasted. I carefully followed every step of the three-hour process from the actual pages—not my iPhone or a tablet. Soon, the aroma of sautéeing onions filled my apartment and my baking sheets were filled with 70 perfectly rounded beauties. Then, I started dancing around the kitchen as I stirred them into the pot, just the way that would make Ruth ever so proud.
Visit Books & Books at Bal Harbour Shops on Tuesday, April 23, at 1 pm, when Ruth Reichl reads from her memoir, Save Me the Plums.