DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And now let's meet a woman who believes cooking is about so much more than food. It's Ruth Reichl. She's a best-selling author who spent years as a restaurant critic for The New York Times and LA Times. She was also the last editor of Gourmet magazine, which closed five years ago. And her new cookbook is partly about how she dealt with that loss. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Ruth Reichl coped by cooking. Right now she's in her apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, stirring pungent fish sauce into a wok of sizzling pork.
RUTH REICHL: God, that smells great.
This isn't one of those fancy stainless steel kitchens with Viking stoves and double-decker ovens. Her stove's white, not high-end, in a little kitchen overlooking a wall of other people's windows.
REICHL: Yes, isn't it lovely, our view? It's so attractive.
ULABY: Ruth Reichl is in her element. Barefoot beneath a tumble of dark hair, black eyes, black eyebrows and dimples, Reichl's naturally warm. But she bristles if you wonder, why make caramelized Vietnamese pork if you could just have it delivered?
REICHL: Oh, I mean, that just makes me crazy.
ULABY: Reichl is such a food person she cannot understand why anyone would balk at taking 20 minutes to cook a lovely dish at home.
REICHL: Slow down for a minute. Enjoy - when you have a wok that's really hot and you put a flick of water in to see if it's hot enough and it makes this little tiny ball that rolls around, it's fun. Why would you deny yourself that?
ULABY: One of many little kitchen moments that for Reichl add up to something symphonic.
REICHL: You've got your wok. And then you throw in a little bit of oil. And then, very quickly, before that oil gets too hot, you throw in the garlic and the ginger. And the sound and the aroma explodes out of the pan.
ULABY: This recipe, with pork, lime, sugar, mint and basil, is in Ruth Reichl's new cookbook and memoir. It's called "My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life." It's about what happened when Conde Nast closed down Gourmet, the world's most prestigious epicurean magazine, 10 years after Reichl took over as editor in chief.
REICHL: I was almost 62 years old. And I really went into a tailspin. I mean, I just thought, one, I should have been able to save it. Two, what am I going to do with the rest of my life? Will I ever get another job?
ULABY: But wait. What do you have to be worried about? You're still a top-tier person in the food world. You've had a PBS show. You're on the Food Network. You've edited a dozen books about food. You're famous.
REICHL: I have certainly never felt that. I have never felt like the leading anything of anything in the world. I'm just a person with a family. And I go to work every day. And suddenly, I'm not going to work every day. And I really did think, you know, I mean, who's going to hire me?
ULABY: And let's just be clear about what Ruth Reichl lost. Gourmet magazine was a really big deal.
REICHL: We had eight test kitchens.
ULABY: Eight test kitchens and how many full-time cooks?
REICHL: Twelve cooks. It was a remarkable place. So, you know, we had people who were Chinese cooks and French cooks and Mexican cooks and a couple people who had been at the magazine for more than 30 years and who had seen every cook come through and could do really arcane things, like glove boning a chicken.
ULABY: When all that was gone, Reichl retreated to a house in upstate New York, lent out her Manhattan apartment and turned, of all things, to Twitter.
REICHL: You know, there was a community of cooks out there to talk to. I mean, you know, here I am, like, a lonely little hilltop in upstate New York. And I kind of found a voice in Twitter that I didn't know I had.
ULABY: The writer and editor found herself embracing the minimalism of the form.
REICHL: The goal was how do you use those 140 characters to create a word picture?
ULABY: Twitter became incantatory, formal, like haiku.
REICHL: Blackbirds swooping onto orange trees, beautiful ballet of the air. Ashmead's Kernels whisper from their skins, apple crisp.
ULABY: If you think that's ripe for parody, well, it was. Some people made fun. But Reichl did not care.
REICHL: I love Twitter. (Slicing onions) Good sound, huh?
Reichl realized when she ran Gourmet, she had actually drifted away from the most elemental thing that brought her there, the simple act of cooking. She was so busy, she rarely cooked at home. After she lost her job, she rediscovered the pleasure of slicing onions.
REICHL: I could probably make it thinner. But I would be slicing forever.
ULABY: Imperfection is cool with Reichl. That's clear in her new cookbook. She did not hire professionals to glamorize the pictures of dishes, like her homemade apricot pie.
REICHL: One strip of pastry is really thick, and one's really thin 'cause I'm not a stylist.
ULABY: In between her jobs, did she ever think about going back to her old gig as a restaurant critic, a job lots of people would kill for? I asked, does she miss it?
REICHL: Not at all, not at all. I would so much rather feed people myself.
ULABY: And invite her friends into her home to share the pleasures of experimentation.
REICHL: There is so much that's exciting that's around us all the time. And for me, it's in the kitchen. There's danger. There's surprise. There's excitement.
ULABY: Reichl sets out the charred Vietnamese pork and some plates.
REICHL: Do you want hot sauce?
ULABY: You know with Ruth Reichl, the answer should be yes. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.