Garlic and Sapphires is Ruth Reichl's riotous account of the many disguises she employs to dine undetected when she takes on the much coveted and highly prestigious job of New York Times restaurant critic.
Reichl knows that to be a good critic she has to be anonymous - but her picture is posted in every four-star, low-star kitchen in town and so she embarks on an extraordinary - and hilarious - undercover game of disguise - keeping even her husband and son in the dark. There is her stint as Molly, a frumpy blonde in an off-beige Armani suit that Ruth takes on when reviewing Le Cirque resulting in a double review of the restaurant: first she ate there as Molly; and then as she was coddled and pampered on her visit there as Ruth, New York Times food critic. Then there is the eccentric, mysterious red head on whom her husband - both disconcertingly and reassuringly - develops a terrible crush. She becomes Brenda the earth mother, Chloe the seductress and even Miriam her own (deceased) mother.
What is even more remarkable about Reichl's spy games is that as she takes on these various guises, she finds herself changed not just physically, but also in character revealing how one's outer appearance can very much influence one's inner character, expectations, and appetites.
As the New York Times's restaurant critic for most of the 1990s, Reichl had what some might consider the best job in town; among her missions were evaluating New York City's steakhouses, deciding whether Le Cirque deserved four stars and tracking down the best place for authentic Chinese cuisine in Queens. Thankfully, the rest of us can live that life vicariously through this vivacious, fascinating memoir. The book Reichl's third lifts the lid on the city's storied restaurant culture from the democratic perspective of the everyday diner. Reichl creates wildly innovative getups, becoming Brenda, a red-haired aging hippie, to test the food at Daniel; Chloe, a blonde divorc e, to evaluate Lespinasse; and even her deceased mother, Miriam, to dine at 21. Such elaborate disguises which include wigs, makeup, thrift store finds and even credit cards in other names help Reichl maintain anonymity in her work, but they also do more than that. "Every restaurant is a theater," she explains. Each one "offer the opportunity to become someone else, at least for a little while. Restaurants free us from mundane reality." Reichl's ability to experience meals in such a dramatic way brings an infectious passion to her memoir. Reading this work which also includes the finished reviews that appeared in the newspaper, as well as a few recipes ensures that the next time readers sit down in a restaurant, they'll notice things they've never noticed before.