9 Essential Cooking (& Life!) Tips We Learned From A Food Legend

Photographed by Mikkel Vang.
Ruth Reichl is my personal food idol. Her books sparked my interest in writing when I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. And, trust me, you don't have to be obsessed with all things food to read her stuff, either. As she put it in our interview, Reichl likes to create "word pictures," which make you feel as though you're actually eating whatever she is telling you about. If you're not familiar with her work, start at the beginning with her debut, Tender At The Bone, and then work your way through her memoirs — just don't read her writing when you're hungry!

Along with her numerous books, Reichl served as the restaurant critic for the New York Times and was the editor-in-chief of Gourmet. Her latest release, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life,is a personal account of the recipes she used as catharsis during the year after the magazine shuttered in 2009. We caught up with Reichl to talk about her new cookbook, get her advice on cooking as a busy millennial on a budget, and discover what you can learn about someone from their eating habits. Check out her responses below.
1. You Don’t Need Great Equipment.
"The best cooking I ever did was when I was so poor I couldn’t even afford a rolling pin, and used a discarded wine bottle instead." 2. Don't Try To Be A Chef.
"Cooking, I believe, is man’s natural activity. It’s easy, it’s fun, but don’t try to be a chef. If you’ve been going to restaurants, don’t think you’re going to replicate restaurant food. Restaurant food is essentially an assembly line — everyone has a piece of it. Cooking at home is totally different." 3. Stick To Easy Dishes At First.
"The more success you have in a kitchen, the more confident you become, and the more you want to keep cooking! So figure out what do you really like to eat, and then work your way through it." 4. Don't Be Afraid To Make Mistakes.
"Don’t expect that you’re going to get everything right the first time, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It doesn’t matter; it’s a meal. You make a bad meal, well, there’s another meal coming down the road in a few hours." 5. Ask For Help.
"If you haven’t ever cooked before, ask your friends, 'What are cookbooks that work for you?' The truth is that there are a lot of cookbooks out there that don’t work, and that’s very discouraging. You make something from a cookbook and it doesn’t work, you kind of think it’s your fault, and it probably isn’t — it’s probably the cookbooks fault." 6. Always Have Some Homemade Chicken Stock In Your Freezer.
"You have the basis for all kinds of things from simple soups, to risottos, to Asian cooking. You need a little bit of chicken stock in so many things that you cook, and homemade chicken stock will make everything taste about a million times better." 7. If You've Only Got 30 Minutes To Make Dinner.
"I think baked potatoes are highly undervalued. I mean, they take virtually no time, and they’re delicious. So, the first thing I’d do [if I only had 30 minutes to make a meal], is stick a potato in the oven. Roasting a chicken, again it takes no time, I mean you basically put a bird in the oven and then you have a couple of meals right there. So that would be another go-to dish, and I always have the makings for spaghetti carbonara in my refrigerator. You can make carbonara essentially in the time it takes to boil the water for pasta. And that is one of the staples in my household." 8. You Can Tell A Lot About A Person By The Way They Eat/Cook.
"I think that a lot of people use their food choices as a way of declaring to the world who they are. If you say that you’re a vegan, you’re not just saying I don’t eat animals or animal products, you’re saying, I have a certain take on life. I think our food choices start out being culturally defined, and then we take them and make more of them. I think there’s a reason that children use food in that way. It is a very clear way of saying, 'This is who I am! I will not do this, eat this.' Cooking is, I think, much less conscious. I think we don’t know how much we’re giving away in the way that we cook...You open somebody’s refrigerator and you know in a minute who that person is — how many condiments they have, what the condiments are, how adventurous they are, whether they throw things out or they don’t throw things out... There are the cooks who weigh everything measure everything, and then there are the cooks who say, 'Oh, it doesn’t matter, it’ll be fine.' It tells you a lot."

9. How To Deal With A Big Change Or A Hard Time.
"Remember, you will get through it. Cooking is my way. And it may not be your way, but find something you really love and hang onto that, and it will get you through. "
Photographed by Mikkel Vang.

More from Food & Drinks

R29 Original Series