When Gourmet magazine closed in 2009, then-editor Ruth Reichl was shocked by the news, right along with the fans who had read the magazine for generations. Knowledge at Wharton recently spoke with Reichl about her new book, My Kitchen Life: 136 Recipes That Changed My Life, which chronicles how cooking helped her to heal from the loss of the job she loved.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: In your 10 years at Gourmet, it was really a time when people were getting more and more interested in food and in being foodies. At the same time, publishing was in a horrible decline. What was it like to be there at that time and to go through both of those things simultaneously?
Ruth Reichl: When I got there, they basically said, “We really want you to change the magazine. But we want you to attract younger readers without losing the older readers.” Had I been more experienced about magazines, I would have realized what a ridiculously hard thing that is to do. They said, “You can do anything you want.” We had this mandate to change. I truly believe that Si Newhouse [owner of Conde Nast, the publisher of Gourmet] was one of the few people in publishing who trusts the audience. I mean, he really believed — I don’t know if he does anymore — that if you gave people a really high-quality product, they would pay for it.
What I saw in the first few years that I was there — it was a joy. They let me hire the best writers, hire the best people to work with, really think out of the box. It was incredible fun. In the first few years that I was there, Conde Nast went from a company that was losing money to one that was incredibly profitable. So it was like riding this wave. We won all these awards, and everything was great.
Then the recession hit. One of the things that really killed us is that Gourmet’s advertising model was to rely on luxury advertising, as opposed to many of our competitors, which relied on [ads for] packaged goods. Packaged goods do really well in a recession. Luxuries do not…. Our biggest advertising categories were travel, automotive, small appliances, beauty and jewelry. And we weren’t necessary to any of those people.
“I’d been working since I was 16, and I had always identified myself by my job. I was a cook. I was a writer. I was a restaurant critic. I was a magazine editor. Suddenly, I was a nothing.”
We got caught in this kind of perfect storm, and it was really hard. We went from, “You can do anything you want,” to “Now you have to think about how you cut costs.” One of the ways that both my publishers and I tried to think about how we would save the magazine was by expanding the brand. We did all kinds of publishing ventures. We did two huge Gourmet cookbooks. We did a whole series of smaller books. We did two TV shows. In the last year, I was doing this show called Adventures with Ruth, which was totally sponsored by American Airlines and was essentially an advertising deal. It was a way of bringing more money into the magazine.
For me personally, what was hard about that was the more I worked on all of these ancillary products, the less I had to do with the magazine. So all the things I liked best about my job I wasn’t doing anymore.
Knowledge at Wharton: When the end came, you were actually on a book tour for a Gourmet cookbook. You were promoting something that essentially no longer existed…. What did that do to your process of mourning for what you had lost?
Reichl: It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. They called me back from book tour and told us the magazine was over. For me, it came out of the blue. For the entire staff, it came out of the blue. Then they said, “Now you have to go back out and continue promoting the Gourmet cookbook,” which was very weird because it wasn’t my book. I wasn’t getting any money for it. It was like being in an endless revival meeting. Everywhere I went, all people really wanted to talk about was how much they loved the magazine. People would stand up, as if they were in church, with tears running down their faces, and start testifying about what the magazine meant for them, how they had cooked their daughter’s wedding out of it. Their grandmother had loved the magazine. It was very emotional. I did that for about six weeks….
Knowledge at Wharton: I’m sure the other thing you got asked a lot was, “What’s next for you?” How did that crystalize for you?…
Reichl: [Everybody] kept asking me, “Why did the magazine close?” People, especially the press, kept trying to drag information out of me. I didn’t know. I was just afraid I was going to say something I shouldn’t say, so it was a very tense time. I didn’t even really think that much about the fact that the magazine was over. I didn’t think about my own process. I wasn’t into the grieving so much as I was just [thinking], please don’t let me say the wrong thing. It was just a constant — being very vigilant and keeping a real rein on my tongue.
It was really a hard process because I wanted to say, “I hate them, I hate them, I hate them!”… Instead, I had to be grown up and say, “I really don’t know why. I wasn’t privy to that; it’s a privately-held company. Yes, it’s terrible.” I was managing everybody else’s grief. Then I came home, and my first day home, my husband was away on assignment, and my son was in college. I woke up alone, and it really hit me: “Oh my God. It’s over.” It was like a wave of pain and anguish just rolled over me. I really felt it for the first time.
“Don’t expect too much of yourself in the first few months. Allow yourself to just be for a little bit. In finding the reasons that you’re happy to be alive, you also find yourself again.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You didn’t set out saying, “I’m going to make this year into a cookbook.” When you decided that it was going to be a cookbook, and you looked at these recipes, and you looked at the notes you had made, did it put anything into new perspective? What did you think when you were looking back over this year with a little bit of hindsight?
Reichl: I was six or seven months out before it even occurred to me, “Oh, maybe I should write a cookbook.” What I went to were my tweets. Because I hadn’t kept a diary. I had kept notes in the kitchen when I made something I liked. I wrote the recipe down, so I could replicate it. But going back to the tweets, I realized how bleak my life [had been]. I don’t think I had ever allowed myself to really internalize it. I had sent out one miserable tweet every day. But other than that, you put one foot in front of the other, and you march on. People would say, “How are you?” And I would reply, “Oh, I’m fine. I’m fine.”
Meanwhile, I realized that I’d been having these dreams about being homeless in the street. I mean, I really did think that…. I thought, “I’m never gonna get another job. I’m 62 years old. Who’s gonna hire me?” On top of that was this layer of really feeling like a failure. I was given this fantastic opportunity to make the best epicurean magazine ever, and what did I do? I got my entire staff fired. I quickly went into this place of real self-loathing. Looking back at the tweets was like opening a vein. I realized what a bad place I had been in, which I hadn’t realized at the time.
Knowledge at Wharton: If we really love our jobs, so much of our identity is rolled up into them. For you, your job was food. It was cooking. Once you weren’t doing food and cooking as a job, what did you learn when you went back and just did it to do it?…
Reichl: Cooking is my passion. But yours might be golf or opera, or gardening. Going to your passion is a way to get through this…. I’d been working since I was 16, and I had always identified myself by my job. I was a cook. I was a writer. I was a restaurant critic. I was a magazine editor. Suddenly, I was a nothing. To work myself out of feeling like my job defined me, and that if I didn’t have a job, it didn’t mean I was nothing, was the most important thing.
It’s really pernicious to think that you are your job…. Although I had been in food all my life, I had not been cooking for a very long time. I’d been too busy to do serious cooking. By really throwing myself into the cooking and paying attention to how much pleasure it gave me, I rediscovered that … the secret to life is learning to take joy in everyday things and to really pay attention in the kitchen.
“The idea that you need to do everything perfectly is daunting. It keeps you from doing things. The secret to life is learning.”
But a bigger thing than that was that by going back into the kitchen and centering myself again, I realized that I wasn’t my job. That I was me. I re-found the person who was kind of always in there. The thing about my job in particular: those Conde Nast editor jobs are princess jobs. You live a very big life. You have drivers, and you meet famous people, and you travel first class, and everybody is bowing down to you all the time.
To go from that to being an ordinary person who is traveling on the subway and lining up with all the peons to get on the economy seat 32C on an airplane and realize that that just doesn’t matter. All that other stuff is just gloss. Who you are is more important than thinking that because you’re hobnobbing with famous people, you’re really somebody. You’re not.
Knowledge at Wharton: In one of your interviews you spoke about how we just spend so much time in our lives kind of looking for the wonderful, and we forget to find the joy in the simple. That was what you found in the kitchen. For people who have been through this or who are going through a career transition, how do you think they can use that to figure out what’s next?
Reichl: The first thing is we do waste our time waiting for the wonderful. There are always, in life, a lot of reasons to despair. There are wars. There are people being enslaved. There are women being raped. There are terrible things going on all over the world. You need to remind yourself why you’re glad to be alive.
For me, I found that in the kitchen. It was really the sound of water boiling, the aroma of onions caramelizing in butter and the feel of a knife cutting through an onion. Those are all things that give me pleasure. The first thing you need to do is, whatever it is that gives you pleasure, give yourself permission to just do those things for a while. Don’t expect too much of yourself in the first few months. Allow yourself to just be for a little bit. In finding the reasons that you’re happy to be alive, you also find yourself again. You really need to do that. You need to center yourself and appreciate yourself. And appreciate your life.
There’s a moment in the book that is an important moment for me where I was offered a job by a famously hard-driving editor who runs a very unhappy shop. But it was the first job I’d been offered. It was very tempting to take it. We needed the money. I said, “Let me think about it.” Then I went out and bought a chicken and decided I was going to make the simplest sake-steamed chicken, which requires a certain amount of vigilance, because there’s one moment where it’s perfect and you have to pay attention to that.
I appreciated the pearly beauty of the flesh of that chicken. I washed it very slowly and carefully. Then I put it in the steamer, and I put sake around it. I sat down and I was breathing in that aroma. It was sort of like being in a spa, you know? It was very quiet and meditative. By the time that chicken came out, I knew I wasn’t gonna take the job.
I knew that I couldn’t make a conscious decision, but that if I just allowed myself to be in the kitchen and appreciate this job, I would find the answer. The answer was, of course not. I didn’t want to go in and be miserable. In that moment, I trusted that a job would come … and that I should not take something I knew I would hate.
Knowledge at Wharton: The way the recipes are set up, it’s not quite what you would see in every cookbook, in that there’s a lot of room in there to improvise and figure it out. I thought that was really interesting. You had said in a couple of interviews that part of the book is to help people realize that it’s OK to make mistakes. To kind of find your way, as opposed to following step by step.
Reichl: We have come to think of cooking as a performative act, as a test. It’s all about what you end up with.
Knowledge at Wharton: Right. If it doesn’t look like the picture, then you did it wrong.
Reichl: Then you did it wrong, and you should throw it out and go out to eat. To me, the cooking itself is the point of doing it. Cooking is an adventure. You learn something. I learn something every time I cook. I’m not a professional chef. Every time I’m in the kitchen, I learn something new. I think that that’s true of all of life. We spend too much time thinking about the result and not enough time in thinking about how we get there and enjoying the journey of getting there.
“Magazines look exactly the same as they looked six, seven, eight years ago. They all could have been published when Gourmet [was being published]. Why isn’t anybody thinking about how much this environment has changed?”
That’s true of just about everything that we do. The idea that you need to do everything perfectly is daunting. It keeps you from doing things. The secret to life is learning, and to keep learning. If you’re learning, it means you don’t know how to do it perfectly. Cooking is such a great example of that. If you come up with something that’s not so great, there’s another meal in a few hours. You know, it’s truly not tragic.
Knowledge at Wharton: There’s a pizza guy.
Reichl: Yes. But I really wanted these recipes to be your recipes, not my recipes. I wanted every recipe to be a story. The whole book has a narrative arc, but I wanted each recipe to have a narrative arc, too. I wanted it to feel as if we’re in the kitchen together, cooking. I’m pointing out, “Oh, OK. If you’ve made this crostata and it kind of starts falling apart, just patch it together. It’ll be fine. If it’s a really hot day, it’s gonna be hard to work with.”
I’m trying to make you feel as if you can just do whatever you want with these recipes. I think too many recipes are like lectures. I wanted it to be a conversation.
Knowledge at Wharton: You’ve mentioned that there is a narrative arc to the book. I thought it was really interesting the way that Twitter frames the narrative of the book. As you said, there is a tweet right before each recipe. Twitter kind of became your test kitchen as you were doing this book.
Reichl: I didn’t understand the real beauty of Twitter for me until the magazine closed. The day that it closed, I got this outpouring of support from the Twitter community. I suddenly realized, “Oh, there’s a community of cooks out there who are my friends, even if I don’t know them.” That first winter, when we were living in an isolated house in rural New York … it was just endless snow. We would get snowed in, and the electricity would go out. I had my Twitter community. Even though there were days — days and days — when we couldn’t get out, I still felt like I had people I could talk to, all over the world.
There was a day when I had some bananas. I said, “Does anybody have any suggestions for what to do with these bananas?” I got recipes for banana bread from all over the world. It was kind of fantastic.
Knowledge at Wharton: That’s kind of amazing how many different recipes there are for that.
Reichl: Well, as I say in the book, it’s kind of the kitchen sink of recipes….
Knowledge at Wharton: I was talking with my boss today, and he was saying he was a Gourmet subscriber for a long time. He was saying there was really nothing like Gourmet. He didn’t always make every recipe from it, but he always read it from cover to cover because it didn’t look like anything else. It didn’t feel like anything else. Do you think it would be possible to launch something like Gourmet in today’s publishing environment? If so, how would it look different?
Reichl: Well, those are two big questions…. I’m stunned that nobody has done a Gourmet-like publication…. There are wonderful publications out there, but they’re all divided for very small niches. The mass publications have gotten lower and lower common denominator. They’re really done by focus group, with very little imagination. They don’t try and stretch any boundaries. I truly believe that you make a great magazine not by asking people what they want but by giving them what they didn’t know that they wanted.
In today’s very food-obsessed world, there’s definitely a place for a magazine like Gourmet that does give you politics and sociology and travel and food. That really takes a big bite of the world, and looks at the world food-first but takes a very broad view.
I’m kind of stunned by the way the current mass food publications look. In the years since Gourmet has closed, the way that all of us look at food has changed dramatically. Everybody is now a food photographer. Everybody is walking around taking pictures of their food….
That should be reflected in magazines. Yet, magazines look exactly the same as they looked six, seven, eight years ago. They all could have been published when Gourmet [was being published]. Why isn’t anybody thinking about how much this environment has changed? I think there are so many interesting possibilities to do online, if somebody would just use their imagination. This group of us from Gourmet occasionally gets together and thinks about doing a Kickstarter to do one great food magazine…. But it would be very different now because it’s a moving target. Magazines have to change with the times. What you can do now would be fantastic. It would be fun to do. But we’re all too busy. We get together, we get very enthusiastic. We say we’re gonna do it. And then we all go back to —
Knowledge at Wharton: The next thing. Whatever came next.
Reichl: Yes, right.