Food lovers are in for a treat this Thursday night at Merkin Hall. Famed food writer, former NY Times Restaurant Critic and former editor of Gourmet magazine Ruth Reichl will host In Your Face New York. Reichl will sit with Danny Meyer, CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group and the man who catapulted Shake Shack into the burger stratosphere. The two will be joined by violinist Kelly Hall-Tomkins, Tony nominee Karen Akers, author Anand Giridharadas (Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World) and others.
Martin Sage, who was once a television writer, co-created the In Your Face program by gathering disparate groups of people into an exciting evening of arts, politics, culture, and entertainment.
Recently, Manhattan Digest spoke on the phone (separately) with Reichl and Sage to discuss the upcoming event.
MD: How did you come to know about the event and be invited to moderate?
RR: Martin, the co-founder, is a friend of a friend. I went to one of his shows and thought it would be fun. That was way off in the distance. Now that it’s coming closer…wheeeeeeew!
MD: Right, but you’ll be speaking with Danny Meyer. I’m sure you’ve had a longstanding relationship with him?
RR: Oh I’ve known Danny forever! Last year when he won the Julia Child Award, I was the one who presented it to him at the Smithsonian. We have a long relationship.
MD: Do you have questions prepared for him or will it be more spontaneous.
RR: I think it’ll be really how the night unfolds. I will probably share the story of my first time at Union Square Cafe which is very funny. I grew up 6 blocks from the original restaurant, so it’ll be a very New York Centric thing. We might talk about what NY was like when that restaurant opened. It will be an easy conversation. What I don’t want to talk about is #metoo and hospitality. I want to keep it more foodie related. I just want to focus on the wonders of New York City. I love New York food and feel so grateful that I grew up there in a time when it was still a great ethnic food mecca.
MD: Do you think that the food scene has become more accessible or exclusive?
RR: I would say it’s different. The people who drive the food scene are very different from when I was reviewing restaurants in the seventies. In those days, the people who went to restaurants were rich, old white people. Now, food has become an important part of popular culture. When I moved back to NYC after college, I was living on the lower east side. We had no money and it did not occur to us to go out to eat. Now, my son has little money but he still goes because it’s something that you do. It’s kind of like fashion. Back then, food trends came from the top down. Now, they come from the street up. That changes restaurants completely and what people want from restaurants now is different now than it was then. When I was growing up in New York in the fifties, it had serious ethnic neighborhoods. When I’d go to Little Italy, I’d go to Di Palo’s and these older, Italian ladies would start giving me recipes. I’d collect recipes in Chinatown. People were fascinated that this white girl wanted to know about Chinese recipes. They’d tell me how to use ingredients. The Lower East Side was still filled with Jewish bakers and butchers. It was a great city for cooks. The food scene really got gentrified for cooks in a way that is both good and bad. I really miss going into those old shops.
MD: Let’s talk about the relationship you have with chefs. Was it a little precarious since you were friendly with them but then would review their restaurants?
RR: When I came back to New York after a twenty-year absence and became the NY Times Food Critic, I didn’t know any chefs. I didn’t get to know many until after I left the paper. It’s very hard to review friends. In California, it was different. I started reviewing in Berkley. There was a handful of us who cared about food in those days. There wasn’t that divide between chefs and reviewers. We were just a group of people who got together, hoping that Americans would like food. It wasn’t adversarial. When I went to the LA Times, I was both a restaurant critic and the food editor. In New York, it was different. I thought, “I can’t know any of these people.” It was hard being separated. I missed that community and one of the reasons I was happy to go to Gourmet because I was back in the community of chefs. I wasn’t the enemy anymore. If you’re a food critic, you can’t be friends with the chefs.
MD: I heard Pete Wells, the current Restaurant critic for the Times on a podcast. He said that being a critic can be a lonely existence because none of his friends will invite him into their homes for dinner. Is that the case with you? Are you critical every time you eat?
RR: I’m so happy if someone invites me to their home! I love food and I love good food, but to me, dinner is about who is around the table rather than what’s on the table. Good food just lubricates the conversation, but if I have a choice between a great meal with bad conversation or a mediocre meal with great conversation, I’ll take the great conversation any day. Restaurants are different, but at someone’s house, it doesn’t matter. Another thing is that everyone cooks a bad meal sometimes and so what!
MD: I was at the farmer’s market and saw chayote. I didn’t know what it was and looked it up to learn that it was a Latin American squash. You have been writing long before Google was invented, so how did you cultivate this comprehensive knowledge of food?
RR: Well, when I found a food I liked, I tried to visit that country. The first time I had Thai food in LA, my head exploded. I thought, “Where has this stuff been all my life?” I had no money, but I went to every magazine and told them that I wanted to write about Thai food. I couldn’t get many people interested, but I tried Japan and thought that I’d get enough articles there to pay for the trip and then I’d go to Thailand. So I wrote 2 articles in Thailand and 10 in Japan. I went to Asia for a few weeks to see what the food was really like. I was lucky enough to be sent by magazines. I also went to French Boarding school as and spent a lot of my childhood in Europe. In the seventies, one could still go to France on two dollars a day. So, I stayed in hostels, eating and learning about all of this delicious food. When I became a critic, I would call an Embassy or Consulate and ask if someone would come with me. They were always happy to send someone. I just knew I didn’t want to do stupid writing about ethnic food. I’ve never thought that European food is the be all and end all. I thought that other cuisines deserve just as much respect. It was really fun to learn about it.
MD: Do you think that all of the cooking shows and competitions and things like the Food Network have heightened people’s awareness or have they dumbed it down?
RR: Oh! They’ve changed everything. The Food Network got started in 1993 and surprisingly, it was started by a man who had no interest in food. But he saw that there was something there. People weren’t cooking as much, but kids really liked to see cooking, so a whole generation grew up watching it. They were interested in it in a way that no previous generation had been before.
MD: I’m similar to you in the sense that– growing up on a meat and potatoes diet—I had no idea what these ethnic foods were until I moved to New York.But now, even in the suburbs, the food landscape has changed.
RR: Sure. And in the most surprising places. Who would think that Minneapolis has a huge Mung population or that Indiana would be filled with Vietnamese food? Raleigh-Durham is a bastion of Mexican food.
MD: Are there any foods on your “do not/will not” eat list?
RR: Only one. I cannot stand honey. I have a visceral reaction to it. I’m not big on sweet things. My palate tends towards acids like lemon and vinegar, but there is a taste in honey I just do not like. It’s one of things I bonded with M.F.K. Fisher over when I interviewed her.
Later, we spoke with Martin Sage.
MD: You seem to have such an eclectic mix of people lined up . How do you cull all of that into one night?
MS: The idea is to keep it as eclectic as possible because it’s what NY is all about. What we try to do is to let the host’s sensibility guide the show. If it’s more of an intellectual or cerebral theme, we’ll get someone from that world. If it’s more entertainment based, we’ll find someone from that area. It’s all about trying to find the right mix.
MD: What was the inspiration for you to start this series?
MS: My wife and I were television writers and when we came back, I had done a show at Symphony Space. It was a political cabaret that I performed with Isaiah Sheffer. He passed away, but I wanted to do something different. I realized that there was no show that captured the sensibility of New York in a sort of feast. All of a sudden, the phrase “in your face NY” just came to be. So, hopefully people will get a high dose taste of NY in one evening.
MD: Is there anyone you’re really eager to acquire for the program?
MS: Almost everybody I’ve asked has agreed to do it. I’d love to have John Leguizamo,but we’ve been delighted to have some great personalities. It’s exposing us to things we have in our peripheral vision, but people get to see them up close on stage.
MD: Is there anyone that you’d love to get more than anyone else?
MS: Michael Bloomberg
MD: Will the evening be more social or political and do you want to keep this a bi-partisan discussion?
MS: There is no such thing as bipartisan in NY. There is essentially one sensibility. While it’s not a political revue, we can never keep politics out of it for very long. You can only go a few minutes without someone singing or saying something that captures that sensibility. But this will definitely be food-focused. It plays such a part in NY. We have such a wealth of opportunity to experience food in New York life and it’s like the fiber of the city.
MD: Did you enjoy living on the West Coast or do you prefer New York?
MS: My wife and I liked working in Hollywood but it never felt like home. We always kept a New York residency. It’s hard to want to live in Los Angeles. People come to New York to experience the city. Nobody goes to Los Angeles to do that.
MD: On your website, it says, “the truth about New Yorkers is they never really want to leave town and if they do, it’s with the full knowledge they’ll be coming back.” As someone who moved to the West Coast for a year, I can relate!
MS: There was a quote from John Updike in the last show that they projected on the screen. It said, “ The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense,kidding.” As New York-centric as that is, it really is true–not just for the people who live here, but for everyone who thinks or dreams about New York.
MD: Are you already planning your next show?
MS: We are. We’ll have Ari Melber from MSNBC on March 13th.
In Your Face New York. Thursday, December 6th @ 7:30 PM at Merkin Hall. 129 West 67th Street NYC. For tickets, click here.