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Ruth Reichl Wants To Fix The Food Landscape

Documenting the breakdown from farms to restaurants, but looking ahead to a post-pandemic revival.

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Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 20/21, a collection of interviews with leading voices in hospitality, food, media, tech, politics, design, and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2020, or what’s likely to happen in 2021, in the world of restaurants and hospitality. See all stories here.

Ruth Reichl was the editor of Gourmet magazine until its dissolution in 2009. Prior to that, she was a restaurant critic for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. From 1974 to 1977, she co-owned The Swallow in Berkeley, paving the way for modern farm-to-table California cuisine. She has also authored eight cookbooks and food memoirs, most recently Save Me the Plums, a memoir of her time at Gourmet.

It’s dire. Things do not look good, and the longer the government goes without giving any relief to anyone, the worst the situation becomes. And I think we’re looking at a lot more closures.

This pandemic is raging. It’s getting worse all the time. I don’t see anything good happening in the immediate future. Even if they pass the RESTAURANTS Act, for many people it will be too late. They have asked restaurants to open, to close, to open, to close, and it’s like an elastic band that has just been stretched too often. I think we’re looking at really bad times, certainly in the first half of 2021.

But down the road, we’re looking at some very exciting things happening for restaurants–real opportunity for people. We may be a year out for that. It’s really hard to know what’s going to happen with this pandemic, and how quickly the vaccine will be available, and how quickly people will be ready to go back to restaurants. Once that happens, we’re looking at what I would call even a renaissance of restaurants—real opportunities for young chefs and innovative people to really do some exciting things.

Because there will be so much available space. One of the big problems for restaurants in the past 10 years has been the insane rents that people have had to pay. Now, that won’t happen. When we finally come out of this, people will be crazy to go to restaurants and get back to a kind of life that we can barely remember at this point. At the end of this really horrible period, there will be a wonderful period, but we have a lot of pain before we get there.

I’m working on a documentary about how this pandemic is altering the food landscape. I’m working with Laura Gabbert, who did City of Gold about Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold. Starting in March, I decided that somebody should be documenting the changes. We don’t know at this point exactly what the food landscape is going to look like on the other side, but we know that it will never be the same—not just for restaurants, but also for farmers and suppliers.

There are a number of restaurateurs who I speak to on a really regular basis. Dan Barber, who I spoke with last night. Reem Assil, who I spoke with yesterday. Minh Phan in LA. Danny Meyer, Grant Achatz, and Nick Kokonas. Alice Waters. Nancy Silverton. What’s exciting is that the people who have stayed open have done really remarkable things.

Take Dan Barber for instance. He’s done all of these interesting initiatives at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. He’s about to turn his kitchen over to a series of indigenous chefs to change the focus of the restaurant. Or Nancy Silverton, who got COVID and never stopped, except for going into quarantine for two weeks. She did not stop for a minute. “We’ll do takeout. We’ll feed first responders.” When they could open, it was turning their parking lot into a patio.

In Chicago, Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz turned on a dime and changed their business model. Nick, who founded Tock, immediately started expanding to all of these other businesses and reached out to farmers and said, “Let’s put your products on Tock.” I’m stunned by the resilience of these people. Reem Assil is using this moment to try and figure out how to turn her restaurant into an employee-owned entity. I am amazed by the ingenuity of Brandon Jew in San Francisco. All these people have figured out ways to keep their employees employed.

For most, it would have been easier just to shut down. They’re not making any money. Most of them aren’t paying themselves a salary. They’re working really hard, and they’re doing it because, you know, in Dan’s case, he said, “I’ve got all these farmers who I insist only farm for me, and I can’t abandon them at this point.” Almost everybody else is really thinking about what is going to happen to their employees if they can’t work.

Reem Assil and Minh Phan both had endless meetings with their employees. “Do you want us to stay open? Is this important to you?” I am really amazed at the way the restaurant industry has come together. And the Independent Restaurant Coalition—to form this huge coalition overnight to prove to the world that his is the most collaborative industry. All these people came together to help each other. It’s been remarkable.

What is being made very clear is how terribly broken our food system is. We have privileged efficiency over resilience since the end of World War II. It has created terrible problems. The truth is, you can think of COVID as a food pandemic. Americans eat food that basically doesn’t have much nutrition in it anymore. One of the things that’s going to come out of this pandemic is a real sense of how do we get nutrition back into our food? How do we start growing vegetables that actually give us something? How do we do better than the industrialized food that we’re now eating?

One of the other things I’m learning in this is how important farmers are, and how badly we treat them. We ask farmers to live with more stress than any other segment of this population. It is crazy. Farmers carry more debt and make less money. They’re the poorest millionaires on the planet. One of the ranchers I’m following said to me, “I borrow $8 million every year. I take home $50,000.” That’s crazy. It’s crazy.

Every farmer in America goes to a bank at the beginning of every year to beg for an operating loan. Then they worry that they’re not going to be able to pay it back. These are essential workers. There’s a reason why the average age of American farmers is 64. People don’t want their kids to go into the business. And systemic racism in farming is crazy. The way the loans have been given—Black farmers have been terribly abused by the system.

We need to start paying attention to the people who raise our food—the farmers, the fishermen, the ranchers, the dairy people. We need to understand how important they are. It’s really a matter of national security. Every time that I think of what happens to farmers, I get absolutely enraged.

I think the reckoning in food media is also changing everything, and I think it’s about time. The voices who have written about American food have been overwhelmingly middle-class and white. We’re finally getting a new group of really smart people writing about food who have a different point of view. It’s shameful that it’s taken this long for that to happen, but it is happening, and it will have a profound effect on how we think about food in this country. It’s happening in the media, and it’s certainly happening in restaurants.

One of the other things that’s going to come out of this pandemic is that we’re all realizing that tipping is terrible. It basically dates back to slavery. I think this is the first time that you’re seeing both the front and the back of the house, management and workers, all looking at this and saying, “We need to change this model.”

Dan Barber noticed that when the pandemic started and they got a much leaner staff, the hierarchy of the kitchen changed, and everybody started doing everything. People were cleaning up after themselves. For the first time, in his many, many years in the kitchen, he has not heard a raised voice since March. Just getting rid of that hierarchical model changes things profoundly in the kitchen, which is fascinating.

I think that that model is going to be completely reexamined when restaurants reopen. Grant Achatz said to me a couple of days ago, “At the end of this, people think we’re just going to turn on the switch and reopen our restaurants. That’s not what’s going to happen. When we reopen, it will be like opening a new restaurant.” We are going to be very surprised by what restaurants look like, even old favorites.

I’ll miss so many restaurants that have closed. In New York—Sambar, La Caridad, Gem Spa. New York without Gem Spa is sort of unimaginable. Hop Sing in Chinatown. A lot of restaurants in Chinatown, like 88 Lan Zhou, the noodle place. I spend a lot of time in LA. I was just horrified when I heard that Beverly Soon Tofu was closing–it’s one of my favorite places. I’ve been going there since the 80s. Aburiya Raku, Broken Spanish, Trois Mec, Dialogue. In New York, Eleven Madison Park. There are going to be a lot more.

I think you would be surprised at how big the hunger for a real restaurant experience is. I know everybody’s predicting the demise of fine dining. I don’t see that at all, after people have been locked up for almost a year. People are going to want to go out and have a restaurant experience. One of the other dirty secrets of this pandemic is that rich people made a lot of money. There will be plenty of people who have the money to go out and spend in restaurants, and they will want to do it.

Will there be opportunities for lots of little cooking-from-your-house kinds of places? Absolutely. Will takeout look different? I think absolutely. In New York, people are doing these boxes where you become your own sous chef at home. They send you boxes with eight pieces of raw fish and six sauces and a soup that you assemble. The quality of the takeout food that you’re getting is really good. It’s not something that’s just warmed up.

Somebody has invested very heavily in a new kind of takeout—big trucks where they get the order and they cook it on the truck as they bring it to you. I’m probably not supposed to be talking about this, but there are a number of chefs on both coasts who have signed on to do this. Somebody put a lot of money into it, and it’s not happening yet, but it’s ramping up.

There’s been so much takeout during this time, and chefs have really been innovative. Those expectations have gotten more advanced now, because chefs have really stepped up. I’m thinking of Minh Phan, who did a pop-up with Niki Nakayama. In Chicago, Grant Achatz sends these meals out with little videos of how to put them together and how to even plate them.

My experience of how cooking and food work is that beginner options like Blue Apron are the way you get your feet into it. Then suddenly you want more. I’m thinking about wine. In my generation, everybody started with Blue Nun. Then you thought, well, I wonder what better wine tastes like? I think that’s how food trends happen—people’s tastes gradually get elevated.

Compared to Blue Apron, for people who care about miles traveled, carbon footprint, something that comes from inside your community and didn’t have to come halfway across the country—a restaurant meal is preferable. You’re keeping money in your community, and you’re supporting local workers. Those things become important in this pandemic where suddenly the people you’re supporting are your neighbors. And you’d rather support them than some anonymous company in some other part of the country.

I don’t think people really understand what a catastrophe it is when restaurants close their doors—how much money restaurants keep within the community, and how long that supply chain is. It’s not just the fishermen and the ranchers and the cheese—it’s the florists, the winemakers, and the laundries that wash the tablecloths. The failure of restaurants has a profound impact on every local economy and on the tax base of every local economy.

And I think people don’t quite understand how important it is to bail out restaurants. It’s the second-biggest industry in the United States. It’s an entry point for so many people. If they will just give restaurants some relief, people will keep their jobs. Restaurants will not fold. If restaurants don’t get relief, what we’re looking at is restaurants closing, jobs being lost, people not being able to pay their rent, landlords not being able to pay their mortgages. Ultimately the government will step in to save the banks like they did last time. Wouldn’t it make more sense to save the restaurants now, rather than save the banks down the road?