Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl explains why watching the chefs interact while cooking was so fascinating to her.

on Aug 8, 20120


This challenge was so much fun that it made me wish we had more opportunities to watch the chefs at work. Most of the time we’re away from the action; we don’t find out what went on behind the scenes until the shows are aired. So being there --watching the chefs interacting in real time -- was fascinating for me. 

It was extraordinary to see the different ways the teams worked together. The contrast between the companionship of the Yellow Team (“I’m not really here,” says Patricia as she quietly steps in to help Takashi) and the rancor of the White Team (“Damn it Art, where’s my mandolin!” cries Chris), was really telling.  We get to see Takashi’s cool professionalism, Kerry’s flair for the dramatic, and Thierry’s unflappable good humor.  Watching them working that teppan made me long for more opportunities to watch the chefs at work.

For me this sense was especially strong because I was sitting on the far side of that teppan with Jonathan, Susan, and Mary Sue. We’ve all grown up together in this business. I first met Jonathan when we were both in our twenties; I was doing my first big story (about the opening of Michael’s in Santa Monica), where he was one of  the chefs. I spent a year there, on and off, a lot of it in the kitchen with Jonathan. I will never forget him teaching me to make beurre blanc; insisting that real chefs have asbestos finger tips, he made me stir the sauce with my bare fingers in a very hot pan. A couple of years later, when I was working on another L.A. story, Wolfgang Puck suggested I go down to a little restaurant on Melrose Avenue. “You aren’t going to believe these women,” he said. “Susan and Mary Sue have nothing but a hot plate in the alley, but they’re making incredible food.” I was so impressed with the little City Cafe that I stayed to interview the chefs. Susan and Mary Sue were pioneers, not just because they were women in a mostly male profession, but also because they were among the first chefs to take the foods of Asia, India, and South America as seriously as those of Europe. 

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Still Reichl would rather see the masters produce a flawed masterstroke than play it safe in pursuit of perfection. "I am never one for playing it safe!" she says, laughing. "Not in writing. Not in life. Not in food. In 'Top Chef Masters,' the burden is to take that extra step and articulate a personal vision of food, because that is what a master chef does. They've had time to own their personal philosophy of food -- and I want to see that on the plate!"