Ruth Reichl on Food, Writing and the Underrated Baked Potato

Ruth Reichl's new book

Last week, I was thrilled to chat with the legendary food writer, bestselling author, restaurant critic and former Gourmet magazine editor in chief Ruth Reichl. Her first cookbook in over 40 years — My Kitchen Year — just came out this week. Here, Ruth shares her go-to dinner, her secret talent and the best piece of career advice she’s ever gotten…

What ingredients do you always have on hand?
Butter, lemons, anchovies, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, a couple kinds of vinegar. Eggs! Oh, my God, I would never be without eggs. And milk.

Do you have a favorite go-to dinner?
It has three parts and takes 10 minutes to make. First, it’s a baked potato. I think we don’t pay enough attention to baked potatoes. They’re one of the great foods of the world — no work at all, comforting and delicious. Plus, lamb chops, which are the easiest thing in the world to make. People make a big deal out of it, but you just put them on the pan. Then Brussels sprouts, which I think are much maligned because people boil them. But if you julienne them, and sauté them with a little bit of onion in some olive oil, it keeps them very crisp. You throw in a little bit of flavor, a little miso or soy sauce, or a little maple syrup. It’s no energy, and it’s really satisfying.

If you could only eat one thing forever, what would it be?
Bread and butter. Really good bread and sweet, cultured butter.

Is there anything you struggle with in the kitchen? Or a dish you’ve never been able to master?
Oh, tons of things! I’m a home cook. I’ve never taken a cooking lesson. In our culture, we’ve made people think they should be chefs, but that’s crazy. I look at chefs who are chopping and go, oh, my knife skills are terrible. The classic dishes, I can’t do any of them. You shouldn’t be trying to do chef-level stuff if that’s not your bent. You should be aiming for something that is a pleasure for you to make and for your friends to eat.

Do you have a secret talent?
I wish I did! I guess it’s that I’ve never met a cat who didn’t like me.

You’re prolific on Twitter. (We especially love your poetic descriptions.) So I’m wondering, who do you love to follow?
There is somebody called New York Farmer, who I don’t actually know. As far as I can tell, she is from a many-generation dairy family in upstate New York and seems to work for a vet and is also a lawyer? She tweets all kinds of things – the cows in the field, a milk truck in the ice — and re-tweets interesting things about farmers all over the world. I like Gastropoda, Regina Schrambling, who is so wonderfully dyspeptic. I also enjoy My Last Bite – she keeps me up-to-date on what’s going on in the food world.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten?
Back when I was writing restaurant reviews in California, I was quite friendly with M.F.K. Fisher, and she became a kind of mentor. I was agonizing over every word that I wrote, trying to make things perfect, and she said to me, “You’re polishing every word. You’re taking too much time.” She told me to go work for a newspaper, where somebody would say, “I need a thousand words in an hour,” and you’d write them, and the next day somebody would wrap their fish in it. So I did that, and it was the best thing I ever did.

Your books are wonderfully honest and intimate. Are you ever afraid to write about such personal things?
Almost always. With my first book, the hardest thing was dealing with my late mother’s mental illness. She was bipolar. But I tried to dance around it, and tried to turn her into an Auntie Mame character. My editor read the first draft and said, “There’s a secret here. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something you’re not telling us.” It was the first time I’d ever struggled with the issue of, how much do you tell? I wound up being very frank about my mother, and I have never for one instant regretted it. I’ve gotten so much mail, especially from young people, telling me how helpful it is for them to know you can survive this. That lesson has stayed with me throughout all of my subsequent books — your truth can be useful to people.

Did you learn anything while writing your new book My Kitchen Year?
A couple things — what I’m trying to say in this book is that we do so much results-oriented cooking that we don’t always stop and pay attention to what a sensory pleasure it is to be in the kitchen. When I make pie dough, I cut it by hand. It might not be easier than putting it into a Cuisinart, but I love the tactile sense of it. I love peeling a peach. I love the color under there — it’s like a little secret, it’s just for you, right beneath the peel. If you bite into a peach, you’ll miss it. You’ll never see it unless you’re peeling a peach to make a pie. The smell of onions caramelizing in butter is the greatest scent on earth. The feeling of when you cut up apples — depending on whether it’s a soft apple or a crisp apple, the sound will be different.

That’s beautiful.
Part of what I learned this year is that we tend to waste our lives waiting for big moments, and there is a lot of joy to be found in small moments. To me, that’s the secret of life. Don’t wait for pleasure to come and find you, go find it.

Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?
That’s like asking which of your children is your favorite! But, yes. One of the recipes is for a steak sandwich that’s really meaningful to me. I had to go on a book tour the day after Gourmet magazine closed; I had been the editor in chief for 10 years, and I was distraught. My husband was like, “You’re crazy! Don’t go!” But I went to the airport anyway and was wandering around in a daze, where I picked up a steak sandwich. I went to pay for it, and the cashier said, “This one is on me. I loved that magazine. ” This woman was a complete stranger and she just lifted me right up. Every time I see a steak sandwich, it’s a reminder of random acts of kindness and what they can do for you.

Ruth Reichl's Favorite Steak Sandwich

Recipe: Ruth’s Steak Sandwich
From My Kitchen Year

You’ll need:

1 pound skirt steak
4 crusty rolls
Vegetable oil

If you love steak sandwiches, you need to make friends with skirt steak. It’s a fantastically flavorful cut that doesn’t cost much. It does, however, demand a bit of coddling.

The skirt is a bundle of abdominal muscles that have worked very hard, lending them great flavor and a tendency to be tough. Long and thin (a friend calls it “steak by the yard”), skirt steak has many aliases. In Texas it’s called “beef for fajitas,” and in the Jewish restaurants of New York’s Lower East Side it goes by “Romanian tenderloin.” But in my house it’s sandwich steak because the skinny slices can stand up to salsa, chimichurri, pesto — or simply mustard and a bit of butter.

If you buy your meat from an artisanal butcher, ask for the “outside” skirt, which is fattier and juicier than the inside cut. (If you’re buying meat from industrially raised animals, this is a pointless exercise; the Japanese import 90 percent of American outside skirt steak.)

Rub the meat all over with salt — 3/4 of a teaspoon per pound of meat — and let it sit in this dry brine for 4 or 5 hours before cooking. This will draw out the liquid and concentrate the flavor. Just before cooking, blot the meat very well with paper towels to remove all the surface moisture, and brush it with a bit of vegetable oil. (I prefer a neutral oil like grapeseed, but it’s your call.)

Skirt steaks prefer high heat (cooked low and slow, the meat turns chewy), so get a grill or grill pan very hot. The steak will cook quickly; 2 minutes a side should give you beautifully rare meat.

Rest the steak for 10 minutes. Now comes the most important part: the slicing. If you cut with the grain, each slice will be a single tough muscle. If you cut against the grain, into very thin slices, you’ll end up with tender meat. (This means that when you’re cutting you want the grain to run up and down in vertical stripes, not horizontal ones.)

Now, cut a crusty roll in half, butter one side, spread mustard on the other, and heap it with steak slices. You can add any condiments you like, but this meat is so tasty it really deserves the spotlight to itself.

Thank you so much, Ruth! It was both a pleasure and an honor speaking with you.

P.S. Ruth’s funny memoir and 15 more inspiring books.

(Recipe reprinted from My Kitchen Year, with permission of Penguin Random House LLC. Steak sandwich photo by Mikkel Vang.)

  1. Susan R. says...

    Ohhh, love her! this was wonderful! I’ve read all her books. So inspiring.

  2. I love the simplicity of her ideas and the philosophy on eating and cooking. A much needed voice of reason in today’s faddie food world.

    I have not read all her books yet but it is on my to do list. Am going to grab this book and go through the recipes.

  3. Yvonne Cannon says...

    I’m halfway through My Kitchen Year. It’s a joyous experience: simple recipes, the process, beautiful photos. I’m 83 and still cooking. I read cookbooks. Yours takes the cake! So many thanks.

  4. Ruth Reichl is a legend and her new book seems to be a huge hit already. I love how she never went on and attend fancy schools, her down to earth attitude makes her even more likeable.

  5. Rebekka says...

    Thank you so much for this!! I Love Ruth’s books, her honesty and taste for the simple things.

  6. God, I love her – love that she’s not pretentious or intimidating, just honest and relatable. Her passion for food and life is infectious. And her first novel, Delicious, was exactly that :)

    Thank you for sharing this!

  7. Thanks for sharing this amazing interview! Now I have to go out and buy Ruth Reichl cookbook.

  8. annie g says...

    This, I love. Brilliant advice and full of sense. The humble baked potato…the joy of eggs…bread and butter. I second all of them.

  9. Harper says...

    Amazing interview! Can I just say that y’all are doing a bang-up job with content lately. I am long time reader and love me some Cup of Jo. I was nervous with the design change that things might feel less intimate, but it truly feels like you and the team are taking things to the next level while still keeping everything so relatable and real. I’m more in love than I thought I could be with this site. It is my first visit everyday, so thank you thank you THANK YOU for your great work!

  10. This is one of the most incredible interviews ever (besides the Nancy Meyers’ one, of course!) I read ‘Delicious’ this summer and ‘Garlic and Sapphires’ claimed a spot on my fall reading list. I can’t wait to get started.
    Great job, Caroline! Keep the thoughtful posts coming.?

  11. I love how matter of fact she is! Cool interview, thanks for sharing. Want to read the book now!!

  12. Lisa says...

    This is the best. I loved her books and find her life journey so inspirational! I make spaghetti carbonara for my young family often in her honor;)

  13. I love these profiles! “Your truth can be useful to people” love that!

  14. Cynthia says...

    I have read all of Ruth Reichl’s books. My favorite book is her first, Tender at the Bone. It is a true gift that I have given to many friends.

  15. Pang says...

    You know how you read something and you can’t help but drink everything in?! Reading this post was like that. I love the way she writes, speaks, thinks about life…

  16. “You’re polishing every word. You’re taking too much time.” She told me to go work for a newspaper, where somebody would say, “I need a thousand words in an hour,” and you’d write them, and the next day somebody would wrap their fish in it. So I did that, and it was the best thing I ever did.

    The plight, fate and fear of every writer!

    Analog House

  17. bisbee says...

    Fantastic! Love her – and your blog is just wonderful when you publish this type of interview! I’m going back to see if there are any of her books that I’ve missed…and I’m going to buy the newest one too!

  18. Great interview! I love her advice about finding joy in small moments. That’s something I need to remember!

  19. Karen T. says...

    This! This was full of such amazing information and tidbits of life lessons! Finding joy in the small moments…I loved this so much and it’s why this blog is my absolute favorite. Off to buy skirt steak!

  20. “Your truth can be useful to people” just hit me like a ton of bricks. Very well said. Love this interview!

  21. Emma says...

    I absolutely adore her and her books. I just put a hold on My Kitchen Year yesterday. Thanks, Cup of Jo team – Nancy Meyers & Ruth Reichl in one week!! You are killing it.

  22. Great interview! Love hearing about powerful & successful women.

  23. Alison says...

    I love this! I’m literally just reading Garlic and Sapphires at the moment and LOVING IT. Thank you thank you – Rush you are a gem.

  24. Oh my goodness, yes the smell of caramelizing onions.. It’s one of the best smells ever in this life. This was a total reminder that you really shld enjoy the process of preparing and cooking food. It’s not the destination, but the journey that is where the lessons are learned and the memories are created. This was a such a lovely post!

  25. Shannon says...

    This is wonderful. I love your blog Joanna. That’s all.

  26. Ashley says...

    Love articles like this one!!!

  27. Angela says...

    A food writer and critic who names bread and butter as their forever food is one you can trust.

  28. Denise says...

    I love her! Her memoirs are wonderful. Thank you for this.

  29. Meg S. says...

    What a sad day it was when I found out that Gourmet would disappear. I love Ruth’s writing and this was a beautiful interview. It practically had me in tears as well, as another person commented :)

  30. Jenny says...

    Thanks for clarifying what it means to cut against the grain! I love this interview and Ruth.

  31. I love all of Ruth Reichl’s books, so I was thrilled when I saw you interviewed her. My favorite is Comfort Me with Apples. When she wrote about her divorce with Doug I sobbed in the middle of the street. (I was listening on my phone, on a walk with my daughter.) As an author myself, I find her honesty so beautiful and daring. I’m also careful to never read one of her books on an empty stomach. Thank you so much for the interview Jo and Ruth!

  32. Yes, baked potato. Anything can go on top. Definitely my go-to meal.

  33. I am such a huge, huge, fan of Ruth Reichl!! Thank you for this. I was also pleased to learn that her answer to “If you could only eat one thing forever, what would it be?” is the same as mine! :)

  34. Lauren says...

    Love brussels sprouts as well! Also love how all the comments are visible at once in your articles, now :)

  35. julie says...

    Great interview! She is such an amazing lady and I still miss Gourmet magazine. I clipped some of my best recipes out of it!

  36. TC says...

    I hosted a book event for her once and thought she was the most lovely, genuine person, especially compared to all the other authors I’ve worked with. I still miss Gourmet.

  37. Agreed, brussels sprouts are totally maligned and it’s just not fair.
    Here’s to keeping people better informed about their many redeeming qualites….brussels sprouts deserve love too ;)

  38. artemisia says...

    You got to interview Ruth Reichl! I never rave like a brainless fangirl, but omg omg omg.

  39. Maggie says...

    This woman was my editor when I worked (albeit on the marketing/sales side) for the San Francisco office of Gourmet. I LOVED her monthly conference calls where she “introduced” each issue to the staff, going over in giddy detail the stories and ideas covered. Also, the photographs in her issues were resplendent. And whenever there was a bi-fold of two pictures without text or ads she called it “her gift to the reader”. A brilliant and esoteric woman. How I miss her leadership.

  40. Lauren E. says...

    That paragraph about the onions, and the peach skin, and the crisp apples… had me in tears. Either I’m hormonal or she’s just that good.

    • Stephanie R. says...

      I was just going to post the same exact thing, Lauren!

      I know exactly what she is talking about with peeling peaches for a pie – it’s such a simple delight!

  41. Anne says...

    I am OBSESSED with Ruth Reichl and LOVE when you do these little interviews, like the one you did with Nancy Meyers recently. Keep it up – I absolutely love your blog!

    PS I think Caroline adds a really great voice to this blog. She has a quirkiness and a genuine quality that really comes across and I think she’s an awesome part of Cup of Jo. :)

  42. Mary says...

    Love her and her truth. Always have, always will.

  43. Laura says...

    Great interview Caroline! Ruth Reichl is one of my all time favorites. I have read and adored all of her books and cookbooks.
    When I got married a couple of years ago, it was a deal breaker when I moved in with my husband, and he asked me to “clean out” my old Gourmet magazines. I basically told him that was grounds for divorce. The magazines are now residing in pretty boxes in the apartment, and have the respect they deserve. Maybe I will get the new cookbook for Christmas!

  44. Adriana says...

    This was a really beautiful interview. Thank you for sharing!

  45. Kerry says...

    Loved this. She is one of my favorite writers and I love her whole persona. “Garlic and Sapphires” was just fantastic.

  46. Some profound truths in this beautiful interview you have shared with us. We wait for big moments, when really, there is so much to be found in the small ones. I agree, that is one of the secrets of life. And yes, eggs in the fridge – always! :-) Thank you for sharing this – very uplifting.

  47. Camille says...

    Wow, this was such a comforting and inspiring interview. Thank you!

  48. Amanda says...

    Thanks for the great interview. I’m still sad about Gourmet magazine. No other cooking magazine comes close to it.

  49. I love this. The process of cooking is such a beautiful thing, and the smell of onions cooking in butter is hands down one of my favorite scents in the world. I’m currently suffering from morning sickness and can’t wait ’til it passes and I can enjoy my time in the kitchen sans nausea. Maybe her cookbook will help me along.
    This steak sandwich reminds me of the ones we had in Portugal this summer, though those included a fair amount of garlic as well. SO GOOD.

  50. Rebecca says...

    Oh wow, I love Ruth Reichl – her memoirs are funny and vulnerable at the same time. (I especially loved Garlic and Sapphires.) I totally agree with the scent of caramelizing onions – no matter what I am making, if a pan of onions is on the stove, I always get a compliment on how delicious dinner smells. :) Thanks, Caroline & Ruth!

  51. How perfect! I’m reading Tender at the Bone right now (and loving it), wonderful interview!

  52. Baked potatoes, and potatoes in general, definitely do not get the credit they deserve. Bread and potatoes also happen to be my favorite foods (shoutout to you carbs) so this book could be right up me alley.


  53. katie says...

    Whoa! I was literally thinking about Ruth this morning and some advice she gave on twitter about how to keep a knife forever (NO dishwasher, sharpen often). Great timing. How lucky that you got to interview her :)