Recipes and a Dash of Fiction Not Enough to Spice Up Memoir

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, by Ruth Reichl. The Penguin Press, 333 pages, $24.95.

In Ruth Reichl’s first memoir, Tender at the Bone (1998), about her peculiar childhood, food was love. In her second, Comfort Me with Apples (2001), which covered her coming-of-age as a writer and a woman, food was sex. In her latest, Garlic and Sapphires, food is work-specifically Ms. Reichl’s work as the restaurant critic of The New York Times from 1993 to 1999.

Though work may sound like the least thrilling of the three subjects, it’s when Ms. Reichl writes about restaurants and reviewing them that she’s at her sharpest. The 10 Times reviews reprinted here stand as fine examples of the genre, and not just for the schadenfreude of watching pricey Manhattan restaurants fail. Ms. Reichl’s review of Le Cirque, for example, which is really two reviews in one-one of the restaurant when she’s recognized and one when she’s not-crystallizes something that non-famous patrons have long sensed. Her paean to the soba noodle house Honmura An, shocking when it appeared in 1993 for giving three stars to an Asian restaurant, is a study in subtlety, just like the restaurant itself.

Everybody’s a critic, but Ms. Reichl is really good at it. Equally energetic and enjoyable are the back stories to the reviews, which add another dimension.

Yet a book consisting solely of restaurant reviews would be a bit thin, and there’s a sense here that Ms. Reichl was unsure about what else to add. She clouds the consommé by tossing in 17 recipes (not from restaurants, but for home-cooked food like roast chicken and scalloped potatoes). It’s a generous impulse (“This book is going to have recipes instead of pictures because I want you to be able to taste what I am talking about”), but many of the dishes are tangential to the narrative. The first one-for New York cheesecake-is never mentioned in the text at all.

The psychodrama of Ruth Reichl as a rebel among the stuffed shirts at The Times-in a trial-by-fire beginning, assistant managing editor Warren Hoge interviewed her from a hospital bed-simmers throughout but never boils over. After displaying a bare-all sensibility about her personal life in her two earlier memoirs, Ms. Reichl now appears reluctant to spill the beans about the goings-on at the Gray Lady. Most of the tidbits of catty gossip are unremarkable; few readers will be amazed to learn that food writer Amanda Hesser is “frighteningly ambitious.”

Observer columnist Bryan Miller, who preceded Ms. Reichl as restaurant critic at The Times, gets the worst of it, but he’s not exactly gutted. As revealed in letters leaked to the Post’s Page Six, Mr. Miller disapproved of Ms. Reichl’s work. But while in real life Ms. Reichl’s strategy of choosing not to react and hoping the feud would fade seems sound, on the page it plays out limply. The only tension is supplied by Ms. Reichl’s account of how every morning she bought a 50-cent doughnut from the coffee cart parked in front of The Times, but when Mr. Miller was around, she dumped the cheap treats without tasting them, worried that he’d out her as a lowbrow.

Instead of exploring the cause of her unhappiness in a job she claims never to have wanted, Ms. Reichl devotes a large number of pages-or maybe it just feels that way-to her son, Nicky. One of the highlights of Comfort Me with Apples was Ms. Reichl’s tender writing about her desire to have a baby and her despair when an infant offered for adoption was subsequently taken away. That chapter ends with Ms. Reichl pregnant. Nicky was 4 1¼2 years old when Ms. Reichl transferred to New York, and in the pages of his mother’s memoir, at least, he’s a sitcom-style cutie pie who refers to Benihana as “the chop-chop place” and constantly tells his mom how beautiful she is, no matter how she’s tricked out.

And tricked out she is-Ms. Reichl reveals here that she rarely visited restaurants as herself, but instead worked up elaborate costumes with wigs, makeup and clothing. To eat at the Four Seasons, she dressed as her own difficult mother, then found herself behaving like her mother as well. “[W]e all become actors, to some extent, when we go out to eat,” Ms. Reichl insists, but few of us go this far-nor is it clear that it’s wholly necessary. Most critics make reservations under different names and even take out pseudonymous credit cards, but in this telling, Ms. Reichl spends more time shopping for wigs than she does eating. The ease with which she claims to have fooled everybody-from her doorman to her husband to her officemates-both clearly delights her and rings false.

There’s a bit of a fake undertone throughout. By definition, a memoir is an attempt to impose a narrative on a more or less random series of events, but Ms. Reichl may have crossed the line. In the acknowledgments, where such an admission might be easily overlooked, Ms. Reichl ‘fesses up to having “taken many liberties that do not follow journalistic principles.” Stinky Myron Rosen, the Weekend editor with horrendous body odor? He doesn’t exist. Situations have been conflated, Ms. Reichl admits, dialogue recreated from memory, and exaggeration sprinkled liberally throughout.

This plants a kernel of doubt. The “blowsily attractive” waitress who sat next to Ms. Reichl on her flight to New York from Los Angeles and revealed that the newly hired critic’s photo already hung in every restaurant kitchen in town, then helped herself to Ms. Reichl’s airline meal, suddenly seems suspiciously convenient. On first reading, an episode in which Ms. Reichl, disguised as a sexy blonde, picks up a strange man, takes him to Lespinasse and allows him to “teach” her superciliously about fine food seemed an indication that the author was in need of therapy. In retrospect, it was probably just one of those conflated events.

As a restaurant critic, Ms. Reichl never hedged: She told it like it tasted. That’s why her reviews stand up so well over time. But in writing about her career at The Times, she’s too coy, and drains away some of the flavor, making what could have been a juicy memoir into a much tamer collection of columns, minimally embellished.

Natalie Danford is a restaurant and book critic who has written for The Washington Post, The Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications.