Ruth Reichel started her career as a restaurant critic in the 1970s. She went on to revolutionize restaurant criticism in the 1990s while at The New York Times. She wrote reviews as stories, went to restaurants in disguise, and outraged her predecessor by raving about places that didn’t fit the French fine dining mold. Soliel Ho is one of the country’s newest big-deal restaurant critics, taking over the job earlier this year at San Francisco Chronicle. She’s also a former cook, and also revolutionizing restaurant criticism in her own way. We wanted to get these two together, to hear them talk to each other about their challenges, and what the role of the restaurant critic even is.
Soleil Ho: I guess I’ll start with this question: what did you feel you needed to change when you started writing reviews?
Ruth Reichl: This is such a different time. I came into restaurant criticism at a time when there were a handful of us who cared about food – I mean, almost nobody. And what I wanted to do was seduce people into going to restaurants and to eating good food. I wanted them to think about restaurants in new ways. I had absolutely no interest in evaluating restaurants or saying that this dish had too much salt, and that one needed to be closer to a Caesar salad. What I wanted to do was make Americans care about food, and to be as excited about restaurants as I was, and to think about the people who were in the restaurants – both the people who were in the kitchen and the people who were waiting on them, but also the people who were sitting around them.
Today, the relationship between restaurant critics and restaurants themselves is kind of adversarial; it wasn’t then. To me, we the people who were cooking the food and the people who were writing about it were all on the same team. And as time went on, I started seeing my role changing a little bit in that I honestly believe that cities get the restaurants they demand. I started in the mid-1970s, and by the mid-1980s I was starting to think that it was really important that people be more demanding of restaurants, that the food in the city would be better if people didn’t settle for mediocrity.
What did you think you wanted to change?
SH: I was stepping into the job, into the shoes of someone who had been in the position for 30-plus years, right? Michael Bauer was San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic. He started before I was born, which was so humbling to me.
RR: It’s kind of amazing.
SH: Right? I was barely a twinkle in my mother’s eye when he started at the Chronicle. So, there was that that I was inheriting, that legacy and everything that he had built through his career in San Francisco and the Bay Area. I got a lot of suggestions coming in from people – chef, readers, other writers – of what I should do, of how I should turn the boat, essentially. And the things that I wanted to change, or imbue the position with, was a similar sense of demand as what you’re articulating. Because I care a lot about diversity and diversifying the pool of people who get to make a living making food.
I think everyone from any group wants to make a living and be comfortable and have a life, and for a lot of people like immigrants, for a lot of working class entrepreneurs making food – be it the tamale ladies that you see at the bar at midnight or someone who’s aiming for a Michelin star – they want that same opportunity. And part of them receiving that is coverage from people like us. Investors see that; they read that coverage and think, “Okay, maybe this person is a safe investment. Maybe they’re a good one.” And if you only write about a certain aesthetic or a certain type of person who makes food, then that’s what the restaurant scene is going to become. At least that was my hypothesis going in, just from observing food media over the course of my life, which is, again, much shorter than Michael Bauer’s career in my job. But that’s what I wanted to focus on and think about – really intentional coverage.
RR: It’s so interesting to me, though, because you’re seeing your audience as much more than the readers of the newspaper, which is very different than how I ever thought of it. I mean, you’re stepping into this role at a time when restaurants have become part of popular culture, and you’re understanding your impact in a way that just never crossed my mind. It’s so interesting to me, because you’re absolutely right. It’s emblematic of what a different place restaurants have in the culture today – that you as a critic have a much bigger responsibility than people of my generation had.
SH: Actually, I want to talk about that a bit because I find that really intimidating also, and I wanted to know what you would have to say about this. Because you’re right that there is more responsibility, and I’m starting to have these moments where I lose sight of what it’s like to be a person.
SH: Does that make sense?
RR: It does make. Because it’s a heavy responsibility. When you look at it with the notion of what your role in society is; it’s very different than just being someone who is trying to get more readers for the newspaper. One of the things that really interests me about your generation of critic is that you’re writing not just to readers but to all of society, and you’re also understanding your responsibility as – I hate this term, but it’s a real one – a thought leader.
SH: Oh, no. [both laugh]
RR: It’s a terrible term, especially now that people are monetizing being thought leaders.
SH: The influencers!
RR: Influencers, yes. But you do have a bully platform, and I think it is important, especially in this moment when we are finally understanding that one of the things that restaurants do that is truly important, is they’re an entry point for so many businesspeople in this country. It’s where you can get a foothold and has been pretty much throughout American history. But as that ramps up, it really does become the critic’s responsibility to go out and find people who investors should be investing in, not just eaters but the people who can empower them.
SH: It’s heavy, right? Because that’s people’s lives.
RR: It is heavy, but it’s also wonderful. It makes what you do much more valuable. As my mother kept saying to me, “You’re just telling rich people where to go eat.” And that’s so not what you’re doing today.
SH: Yeah. It almost feels like we’re less embracing that and more just accepting our reality. As millennials, so many of us are living paycheck to paycheck, and I think this is symptomatic of the wealth gap that’s been widening since - or at least I’ve noticed it widening since - I graduated from college, and realized that I was dumpster diving when I started food writing, you know? Having that background and understanding that has been really helpful for me.
RR: I came at it from the same place; I had no money when I started. But I didn’t see my responsibility in the same way that you do, and I don’t think it was. I think restaurants were very different at that moment.
SH: I have to say it’s quite easy to be lulled into a sense of normalcy when you go to the places that have three Michelin starts and they treat you like royalty. And it’s almost like flying first class, which I’ve only done maybe two times in my life, and I’m just like, Oh yeah, this is good, this is the way it should be. But it’s not. It’s so easy when you’re so comfortable. And this is me, though, being a – I was gonna say a bad word – but like being someone who likes to kick up a fuss, right? Since I’ve become the restaurant critic I’ve been thinking about that idea, of places where you just pay and you get in, and how accessible that might be to people. For me, what’s been interesting is noticing the nuances of the wrinkles in that narrative.
For example, there are three-Michelin star restaurants – or even just fine dining places – where, yes, you can pay the price of admission, but if, for example, you’re in a wheelchair you don’t get to go into the same entrance as everyone else. You can’t get that kind of accommodation. There are no menus in Braille, or there are no gender-neutral restrooms, that sort of thing. That’s the exciting part as a critic, really taking a look at all this stuff, pulling it apart and examining it, ripping out the guts.
RR: See, that’s so interesting to me because I thought about those things, but not in the sense of menus should be in Braille or about a wheelchair entrance; I was thinking about how women, single women, got treated terribly in restaurants. Or old ladies, who are always treated badly in restaurants. So, I did all the disguises thing to see how badly I would be treated, and it was terrible. But I wasn’t thinking of it in as broad a sense as you are. It’s wonderful that the world has expanded that much, that we are thinking of inclusion in a much broader sense than my generation ever thought about it.
SH: It’s a great thing, and I am more than willing to take up that mantle. But, like I said earlier, it is hard to maintain a sense of self as a critic, especially now. I appreciate how you really laud this generation that I’m a part of, but it’s also intimidating to be part of this legacy, to have all this expectation on me and my peers. I get compared to you all the time.
RR: You do?
SH: And that is the most terrifying thing in the world.
RR: I’m so honored. [both laugh] Doing new stuff is hard, but it’s the only thing worth doing. One of the things that makes me sad about what’s happening with newspaper food sections and reviews is that I’ve always thought that food is such a great way to cover a local community, to introduce a community to the best of itself. Now people all over the country are reading you, so you’re not thinking of yourself as exclusively Bay Area. And I think we’re losing something in newspaper coverage as we have a few big papers, and now they’re trying to write for the entire country, which is a very different thing. The New York Times is not writing for New York anymore; they think of themselves as a national paper. I think you lose something when your focus broadens like that.
SH: That’s a really good point. My editors always ask about local hooks and things like that, but I do think that the themes that I try to bring into reviews are really universal. I wrote a review of a Burmese restaurant and I got feedback from people who don’t live in the Bay Area, who were inspired to go to local Burmese spots where they live in D.C. or Arlington. And I thought that was really cool. There’s that side, too, where people still relate, and they feel maybe a little bit of FOMO, like if you’re missing out over not living in the proximity, but they still have an impact in our local communities. And so, I don't know, that’s a weird deconstructed way of thinking about it.
RR: You know what? You’re making me think I’m wrong. Maybe it’s a great thing. Soleil, it has been great to talk to you.
SH: Likewise. I’m just so happy to be doing this.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.