Ruth Reichl on Gilt Taste: ‘The Energy Felt So Right to Me’

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Photo: Marcqui Akins

Earlier today, we told you that Gilt Groupe had launched its new food site, Gilt Taste. Of course the big news is that Ruth Reichl is serving as the site's editorial advisor. In a welcome letter on the site, she discusses her take on the new project, calling it "a new kind of magazine." But we still had some questions about how this whole market thing is going to work. So we got her on the phone to talk about the site, her newfound love of part-time gigs, and why she's gone missing from Top Chef Masters for so many episodes.

First of all, congratulations on the launch. It looks good. I'm a little jealous of the half-animated photos you have as the headers.
Aren't they beautiful? This is the thing that's so amazing about Gilt. Two weeks ago [features editor Francis Lam] saw something like this and sent it and said, "Wouldn't it be cool if we do something like this?" And three days later I come in and they've done it. They have all these wonderful engineers sitting around and playing all day.

So why was your involvement with the site so hush-hush? There were rumors, but nothing official was ever announced.
[Laughs.] I don't know! [At this point, Gilt's public-relations manager told us they wanted Reichl to be officially onboard before making any announcements.]

You're the editorial advisor. Is that different from being editor-in-chief?
It's totally different. I'm not here full-time. I am literally that. I look at everything, I suggest things, I talked Francis into coming onboard, I talk to writers, I suggest products, and I spend a lot of time looking at the visuals of the site. Francis and I send copy back and forth. We have these editorial meetings where we discuss what stories we should be running. I was really insistent that we have something on what fracking was going to do, and I said let's call Barry [Estabrook] and see if he'll do something on this for us. It's kind of great because I don't have to be here sitting in an office all day.

How did you first get involved?
I just came to see what they were up to. I did not intend to be involved in it. I've known [Gilt Groupe chairman Susan Lyne] for a long time, and I heard about this and just came in out of curiosity. I got excited about it and thought, I want to be a part of it.

Really? It was just seeing what they were doing?
It really was. I came in and the energy felt so right to me. Look, I am still sort of in mourning for Gourmet, and it was killed by the fact that it was dependent on advertising. I'm fascinated by this next spin of the wheel, which is a marriage of commerce and content.

But if you're dependent on sales from the market, doesn't it create a conflict of interest for the editorial staff? Seems like it would be difficult for them not to just trump up the products and the producers you're going to be featuring.
That's what I love about it. If you have a traditional magazine, you take any ad that comes in, even if it's a product you don't approve of or can't stand. Here, what it means is that we have to have only the best products. It is a true marriage. We don't buy anything and we don't sell anything that we don't think is fabulous. It really is a new kind of marriage. If we're trumpeting these things, it's because we really believe in them.

So that vetting process is done before anything shows up on the site?
Right. We don't sell anything that we don't think is absolutely fabulous. I hope you can see from what's up there that we're not just talking about the producers and we're not just giving you recipes and telling you how to use these products, although we are certainly doing that. We're giving you the whole mix that you get in a great magazine. My experience with being in the food world is that people who are passionate about food really want to take a big bite of that world. They want to know about the environmental issues that are threatening the great new food that we're getting. They want personal stories about food people, they want to know about the farmers and the bakers, and that all goes into the mix. I was very insistent before I agreed to be here that if all we're going to do is write about a product and support this product, then I'm not interested.

It's interesting that you say you're still mourning Gourmet, because this does feel a little like an extension of the magazine. What you're covering, even the photography and the design look similar.
I have an aesthetic and part of my being here is that you sort of take who you are wherever you go. We're using a lot of photographers that we used at Gourmet. We spent a lot of time on the visuals. We spent a lot of time on the copy. Unlike so much that's out there, this is edited copy. Francis and I are batting these things back and forth. Even the product descriptions are written by good writers.

Speaking of good writers, the contributors list is pretty impressive — and really long! I'd guess that when you call someone up, they probably aren't reluctant to jump onboard.
[Laughs.] Well, yeah, we're paying people. I hate the idea that people are asked to write for free. I think people are looking for great outlets. Part of it is because the Gilt brand is so strong. I've had this amazing experience, for me, of getting two or three e-mails a day from chefs, from friends in the media, saying that their children, their college roommate's children, are dying to come work at Gilt Taste. They are passionate about Gilt and they're passionate about food, and this is going to be the perfect place for them to work.

I know it's the first day and it's still in beta, but how is it going to evolve?
There are going to be daily updates. This is just a little taste of what I think is going to be a feast. You've been working in this world and it's still new to me, and one of the things I love about it is that when you launch a magazine you know it has to be fully fleshed. When you launch something online, you think of it as an evolving product. You know you're going to get feedback from users. We hope we have a really robust community of people who become part of the Gilt Taste site, that we'll have user-generated content. The iPad app is going to be amazing. That won't launch until probably September. I think day by day you'll see the site get more robust. We're starting those animated GIFs. They're not all animated yet, but they will be. We have lots of new products coming on and lots of new writers coming on. We made this video that's a really beautifully created video of cooking an entire meal.

So, you're doing this, you're at Random House, you have a couple of books in the works. Does it feel good to be doing a little bit of everything, instead of focused on one specific project?
It feels great. I feel like one thing nurtures the other. I love wearing all of these different hats. I'm working on my book, going to Random House, Top Chef — all of that is great. It really is like one feeds the other. Even, as an example, I had to give a lecture last week in Rochester and while I was there, I found out about this great creamery in Minnesota that's one of the last great creameries in America. I thought, Oh, we have to get this product. The more you're out there in this world, the more you learn, you bring all of that to each of these different endeavors.

Funny you mentioned Top Chef. You disappeared from Top Chef Masters. People tune in expecting to see you, and instead they're stuck with me.
I'm on the last three shows. I had already committed to go teach at Dartmouth during the middle of that time. It was sort of a mind-bending switch going from this beautiful weather in L.A. and doing Top Chef to going to New Hampshire.

You'd done television before, but you hadn't done reality TV before that, right?
I hadn't, and I have to tell you I was so suspicious of it. I was so pleasantly surprised. I loved it. I love those people.

Do you watch yourself?
I watch the show now and I'm pretty addicted to it. It's so interesting, the stuff we don't see as judges and the stuff we don't see behind the scenes. Also, I did not believe [the chefs] would take it as seriously as they did, but it's real. It is what it is.

Does that mean you're going to be signing on for more? Or showing up on the other Top Chefs?
I'd definitely be in more Masters if there are any, but I don't know about anything else. [Reichl sounded a little coy as she said that.]

My last question for you, just because no interview with you can end without some Ruth Bourdain speculation: Did you see the thing about Guilt Taste that he/she/it "launched" this morning?
I have not. I just found out about it 30 seconds before your call. I'm dying to go look at it. Is it fun?

It's funny. It's just one image. It's like the homepage. I don't want to ruin it for you. But do you have any new leads on who you think this person might actually be?
I was thinking it might be you.

It's definitely not me. I don't know who it is.
I have no idea. I feel certain it's a man.

My theory is that it's secretly you.
Yeah, if only.

Earlier: Gilt Taste Launches With Ruth Reichl at the Helm, Melissa Clark in the Kitchen