Monday, January 28, 2013

Book: Garlic and Sapphires - The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise

I cannot remember having savored reading a book this much. I picked up this book at the height of my 'food blogging' days. (Have I ever explained that? It was a private joke among friends, a dig at self-important bloggers. Whenever we were out, I'd stop everyone from eating—they have to keep still and watch me photograph their food. It started out as a joke although eventually, I did blog about the restaurants to fully play the part. My friends were nice enough to play along that later, they would actually remind to take pictures or else, they won't start eating. *I just have to say, I loooove my friends.*

And then I partly joked on Twitter about how serious I was going to be with my reviews: I'm not writing about a restaurant until I've visited it at least thrice. Well, look at what that got me: 0 reviews since, lol. That simply means I've been eating in a lot of new restaurants—which is true—and I've been dependent on my staples, such as Max's, McDonalds, and Jollibee, lol.

Aaanyway (what an intro)... so yeah, I've started to take my food reviews seriously that in December, I decided to check out the available food literature in Fully Booked. Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise is what jumped at me. It's one of the best and entertaining books I've ever read.

It's easy to get to know her: she's very accessible, which is in fact, one of the reasons why she earned a circle of haters early on in her stint as the new food critic of The New York Times. Under her helm, she shifted attention to what was then a burgeoning, yet ignored, underworld of global cuisine (think Korean, Indian, and Chinese), which was a huge departure from the point of view of her predecessor, who was a vanguard of classic European food. That alone was very enlightening for me, to think of food as a global industry with an economic and social impact, in the same manner that Devil Wears Prada, the film, gave similar credit to fashion.

Today, Asian restaurants are very much a staple in cosmopolitan cities around the world. (And I suspect, Ruth had a hand in it.) In Manila, Asian food franchises are becoming de rigeur. (In my mind, I was trying to argue that the concept of an Asian restaurant franchise in Manila was unthinkable a decade ago, but I've no data to back it up*. I'm thinking along the lines of Chowking and Thai-in-a-Box versus actually bringing in say, Bon Chon or Bulgogi Brothers, which to me, is more a validation of our Asian neighbors' cuisine. We were then more welcoming of Western, mostly fast food, joints.)

* * * * 
*Texted Pam for her opinion: 

Pam: "I think it's because we follow worldwide trends rin and Asian food has boomed in the past years. Bon Chon (and Korean fried chicken) had been a hit in New York for several years before someone brought it here. Parang it had to be validated muna by the Western market. Same thing with the frozen yogurt companies—sa Korea nagsimula tapos sumikat sa States bago dinala dito. Ganun din yung milk tea places. I also think it's because Pinoys are traveling more... they have more exposure in terms of seeing what's out there.

"I'm happy we have Wee Nam Kee, J.Co, and all these Asian grown restos in the country pero pangarap ko talaga is to see our homegrown restos branch out naman and enjoyed by a more international market."

We had a far longer conversation until she eventually mentioned that she recently found a food book that she had been hunting—it turned out to be Garlic and Sapphires!

* * * * 

Her accessibility is such that she goes out of her way to disguise herself so she may report on a dining experience that would be closer to that of the ordinary person. (The disparity between the experience of an average consumer and a New York Times critic is worlds apart: in one instance, the King of Spain—certainly not ordinary—was made to wait at the bar for a table, while Ruth was immediately ushered in.) Hence, she writes a review, which the average reader may relate to even if it’s about a three-star Michelin restaurant.

I also learned how dining out can be a political exercise, more so in a city whose denizens rule the world. I don't know about the high-end restaurants here (but I sure hope it is not the case, because hello, this is Manila—no restaurant can ever be that self-important), but the disguised Ruth had to contend with waiters and sommeliers who ignore her, and tables meant to hide her from the rest of distinguished patrons. I also learned that restaurants can be sexist.

Even wine selection is an art—a patron and a sommelier can spend the first few minutes volleying questions to determine if the diner is worthy of special attention. Should you immediately agree with the wine recommendation, you may be regarded as a pushover and be relegated among les miserables.

Those stories were definitely frustrating to read about. Since this was written in the late ‘90s, the book did make me think about how such pompous restaurants would react to the food culture today, specifically, one that involves Instagram. As it turned out, they did not disappoint: see Restaurants Turn Camera Shy.

However, there are also the heartwarming stories—especially when she digs deep and talks about her own personal relationship with food—and glowing reviews that wax poetic about glorious dishes and which eventually made me so hungry at inconvenient times of the day. Consider yourself warned :-)

2 * :

Deepa said...

Ruth Reichl is one of my favorite guest judges on Top Chef. Medyo mabulaklak magsulat ang lola mo and she's also kind of like that in her critiques on the show. One of my favorite Ruth moments was when the contestants cooked for a wedding dinner. Her greeting to the newlywed couple: "May you live happily forever." Imortal? Haha.

Jason D. said...


I've yet to see her on Top Chef, but yes, she's definitely a colorful character. If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend it!

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