Ruth Reichl touched down in San Francisco yesterday and cabbed it right to RN74. She and some of her Gilt Taste cronies were meeting up for an informal wine tasting at the bar with A16 wine director Shelley Lindgren, Kimpton Hotels' Emily Wines, Michael Mina Group's Raj Parr and Gilt consulting wine director Jeffrey Meisel. The group was there to pre-test wines to bring into the Gilt cache, but the main event for Reichl this weekend is tonight's Good Food Awards ceremony at the Ferry Building, where she'll be the keynote speaker. Last night, before running off to dinner at Mission Chinese Food, Reichl shared behind-the-scenes judging tid bits, 2012 predictions for Gilt Taste and the latest on her much-anticipated Hollywood screenwriter debut with Garlic and Sapphires.
How did the partnership with the Good Food Awards come about? Sarah [Weiner, Good Food Awards Director] started talking to me about them before I was at Gilt. Later on, it seemed like a perfect match because they're doing exactly what our mission is [at Gilt Taste]. I went to our people and said that it would just be a perfect match for us to be a sponsor. Everybody agreed.
So it wasn't Alice Waters calling you up and asking you to get involved? I knew Sarah because she worked for Alice. But she talked to me really early on. I don't know why I couldn't come out and talk last year, maybe because we were shooting Top Chef Masters. Oh and I was supposed to be a judge the first year, and my husband had an operation so I couldn't do it. So I've been really involved since the inception.
Are the Awards and Gilt Taste going to become more intertwined? I hope so. I have this enormous respect for Sarah. When she first started talking about it, it seemed like such an enormous project. She had this vision and it's not easy to pull it off. Doing the judging this year was so fun.
You judged preserves, correct? I did a part of the preserves section. There were a lot of preserves. But I was doing it with Nell Newman [of Newman’s Own Organic]. I've never met Nell before.
Is Alice one of the tougher critics? We were all so on the same page that it was so much fun. We were all completely in sync. Nell was every bit as tough.
So no big debates back there? You know, good food is good food. You don't need to be a genius to realize it.
What's the product selection process like before the judging happens? How does an artisan producer in, say, Indianapolis find out about the Good Food Awards? We do judge products from all over. The food community is very small. Everybody knows everybody. Canners know canners and chocolate makers know chocolate makers. I was up at the Artisan Cheese Festival thing in Petaluma. People came from all over Northern California and everybody knows everybody. If you're a cheese maker in Montana, you have connections with cheese makers all over and they tell you about it.
How long does the judging process take? All day. One very full day. You start at 9 in the morning and I don't think we were done at 6. There was an hour break. It was a long, serious, very silent day. We were all in this big room.
Is Bauer a judge? I don't think he was there. Lynne Char Bennett was there from the Chronicle.
So on to Gilt Taste. Has it turned out how you though it would? You know it's different than I thought it was going to be. We knew from the get go that we were going to be feeling our way in many ways, that we were going to be discovering what people wanted, finding out who our audience was. While a magazine is a slow laborious process, it really interested me in the first place was how quick the feedback is on the web. You know you get these metrics. We found out that people really love the long pieces, but they tend not to read them until the weekend. Initially we were doing the very long pieces during the week, and now we realize we need to save them for the weekend.
What's worked? I've started to write this "How to Make it Better" column and you can see instantly that's a good idea. The first column I wrote about grilled cheese, instantly we could see oh yeah this is working. Francis [Lam] did the same thing: a piece on vegetarain carbonara and immediately we could see that's what people want to read about.
What didn't work? We were doing these gorgeous videos I was so proud of and people weren't watching them. So we're not going to do them anymore. It's a shame.
What were they about? They're very artsy movies about making recipes. They're very moving and beautiful. We spent a lot of time and a lot of money on doing them, but nobody wants to watch nine mintues of video on the web. It's too long. We very reluctantly are deciding that it's not where we should put our budget.
What about the breakdown between commerce and editorial? Is one taking off more than the other? We're still finding out. Everything is coming together in a very satisfying way. December was fabulous for everything, especially for the commerce side. You know we're only six months in. We're still very much figuring out what works. We at first thought that the merchandise team would be in one place and the editors would be in another, and now we're all together in the same room and in meetings.
What kind of changes are on tap for next year? The big thing is really that Francis and I are going to be writing on the regular. I'm going to be doing this column all the time. Francis is going to write once or twice a week. We're going to do more recipes. That's really one of the things that people want. The wine program has been very successful. We'll probably do more discovery wines, inexpensive wines, wine notes, stories about the people behind the wines. We're finding people are really excited about under $20 wines.
The other thing that has been very successful are the story pieces. We had a great sister and brother piece about two chefs. She's working at Chez Panisse while he's working at The French Laundry and it's about them at the dinner table cooking together. Then there's another one about a woman falling in love through vegan dating. It's the kind of thing that always struck a chord with people at Gourmet.
Where are the readers? Demographics? I think it is mostly cities, and that's a surprise because I thought we would do really well with people who don't have access to these things. If you're in San Francisco and you want saffron or black garlic you can go find it, but if you're on a farm in Omaha, you're not going to find it. There are tons of people who are great cooks out there.
Now, you're movie, Garlic and Sapphires, when is it coming out? Well, in a while. It has had a very checkered career so far, as have all movies in Hollywood. First Annie Hathaway was attached to it, but the latest is Paul Feig is going to direct it. He's made the deal. He's a major food person actually. I've had a few meals with him, and he's very excited. He has a very clear vision of what it should be. We were writing it for the 20-something. He's thinking it should be for 30-somethings. So we're starting from scratch all over again. This will be script number six!
Gosh. Who do you think should play you? [Smiling] Oh, I don't know. Ask me when we have the script.