Ruth Reichl was living happily in California with her husband and young son, working as food critic for the LA Times, when she was offered the job of food critic for the New York Times. She didn't exactly jump at the chance, even though her husband was very keen for her to take the job. Her lifestyle and working conditions in LA were very laid-back, comfortable in fact, and she knew that a position at the NY Times would be anything but.
She takes the job however, but, on one of her scouting trips, discovers on the plane over that her face has been on posters that have been hung in every commercial kitchen in the city. For a food critic it's important to be anonymous and Ruth realises that now she never will be and that this is going to cause a major problem.
Her solution to this is unusual. She calls a make-up artist friend of her late mother and together they create various disguises for Ruth to adopt as she goes about her work in the restaurants.
First up is Molly Hollis, a rather frumpy woman of a certain age:
I bought a dowdy Armani suit that was three sizes too large; Claudia insisted that I wear a padded bra and two thick skirts beneath it to give me more girth. I found a proper little purse and Mom's old diamond ring. Bit by bit the clothing came together. It took almost two months before Claudia pronounced the costume complete.
I raised my head and opened my eyes. Looking into the mirror, I found a woman I did not recognize staring straight at me.
"Meet Molly," said Claudia. I could not speak. I found myself moving my lips to see if hers would move too. They did. I wiggled my nose; Molly's nose wiggled. I raised my fingers; she raised hers. I waved. She waved back. Claudia tapped my arm and said gently, "I believe it's showtime."
What happens as a result of this transformation is that Ruth is treated like anyone else in the restaurant they go to. Well, not quite. She doesn't look like their normal clientele; she's not wealthy or beautifully dressed - she clearly doesn't really belong and they treat her accordingly. The two ladies are given a small table at the back of the dining room, amongst the smokers, when she has specifically asked for non-smoking. They were subsequently ignored and condescended to by the staff; the evening was not enjoyable or a success in any way, shape, or form.
Subsequent disguises include 'Brenda' the earth mother, 'Chloe' the seductress, and 'Miriam', a startlingly realistic caricature of her own mother. What Ruth discovers is that these disguises not only transform her outward appearance, they transform her inwardly as well. She finds herself talking, reacting and even eating as they would.
Ruth now has the ammunition to write the kind of food column unknown up to now on the NY Times, one where the rating is based on what really happens, not on how the esteemed critic is fawned over from the moment she arrives at a restaurant until she leaves.
I found this pretty much unputdownable. I think the writing style accounts for this; it's very, very readable and the author injects almost a sense of suspense as you wonder how she's going to be treated in the various posh restaurants she frequents. She always gave the place three or four visits so it was fascinating to compare the different treatments meted out.
It was also interesting to read about the other places she liked to eat with her family or friends. The smaller, less well known, ethnic places or the family restaurants where children were welcome and they didn't care who you were. I found myself wanting to go to the Korean or Chinese places, the food sounded amazing.
Dynamics with colleagues at the NY Times building were also quite fascinating. How she was treated by various old-style and then new editors, the reactions of the former critic to her columns (he wrote vicious letters to the editor saying she should be sacked), and her friendship with Carol, one of the secretaries.
Also included in the book are some of Ruth's favourite recipes - New York cheesecake, hash browns, roast leg of lamb, last minute chocolate cake and so on. A nice addtion to the book I thought.
In short, this is a very good read for anyone even vaguely interested in food writing or eating out. Even if you're not particularly I think this would be of interest as just a jolly good, well written, interesting book. Plus, I always enjoy any book set in New York as the atmosphere, even though I've never - sadly - been there, seems unique. I'll also, almost certainly, be seeking out other foodie books by Ruth Reichl.