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Former ‘Gourmet’ Editor Ruth Reichl Travels Back in Time with ‘The Paris Novel’

In a Q&A, the 76-year-old talks about the medical emergency that delayed her book tour, how nostalgia for Paris sparked the novel and plans for a sequel / BY Corey Mintz / March 21st, 2024

Restaurants, as an artform, are ephemeral. A celebrated restaurant, once gone, can be accessed through menus, photos, recipes or stories, but no one can experience it again – not with the fidelity that we can still listen to The Beatles or watch Casablanca. Renowned food writer Ruth Reichl, 76, has bottled that elusive dining history in her second work of fiction, The Paris Novel which follows Stella St. Vincent, an introverted thirtysomething, who finds purpose in a search for art, fashion and food on a 1983 Paris trip.

It may seem odd for Reichl, former editor of Gourmet magazine – who has never been shy with an inquiry – to craft a character afraid to ask personal questions. Perhaps that’s what makes Stella, a neophyte, the perfect lens through which to present Paris and its cuisine. After “wasting” two months (not visiting the city’s finest restaurants), Stella makes an impulse purchase of a vintage Christian Dior dress – and soon finds herself in the company of cultured Parisians, such as the elderly art dealer Jules Delatour, whose lives revolve around books, art and fine dining. The author devotes pages to Stella experiencing her inaugural taste of good food and wine. “The first swallow of Chablis was deeply, shockingly, cold,” writes Reichl. “She thought of melting snow rushing down a mountainside as she took another sip and then another.” Oysters and foie gras are equally revelatory.


Ruth Reichl


 As Reichl explores Stella’s burgeoning passion for food, she also captures what the early ’80s were like at legendary French restaurants; some still in operation. For instance, at the atmospheric L’Ami Louis, Stella indulges in (now-banned) ortolan, a tiny songbird long considered a delicacy, which is eaten whole with one’s head covered by a napkin: to trap the aroma and hide one’s shame. 

Restaurants exist to serve a moment. And Reichl has captured that magic, intimately, so that readers can join Stella on her culinary journey.  In the following Q&A, the author talks about the family emergency that postponed her book tour, the marvels of Paris and reinvention.

Corey Mintz: The Paris Novel is set in 1983. What’s the basis of your nostalgia for that time and place?

Ruth Reichl: I went to Paris a lot, as I was in my late teens, 20s and 30s. The dollar was very strong. It was one of those times when you could be in Paris, as an American, on very little money. It has rarely been that way since. And it was a Paris that was very much the Paris of the past; the Paris when writers still went there.

Also I wanted the Jules character to connect to the war years. I wanted someone who could have lived through the war. I really wanted to invoke literary Paris, art Paris and fashion Paris with someone who had lived through its best times, who remembered that Paris.

CM: Were you in Paris enough at that age that it felt like a second home to you?

RR: No. I never had enough money to be there that much. But of all the cities that are not New York, it’s probably the one that I know best.

CM: What about your home now? Are you speaking to me from Spencertown, N.Y.?

RR: No. My husband is still in the hospital. So I’ve been in New York since January and I’m staying at my son’s apartment. 

CM: We had to delay our talk due to a family emergency. I didn’t want to pry then, but has the situation improved enough to talk about it?

RR: I’m happy to talk about it. Because it’s kind of a miracle. 

CM: Please, tell me the story.

RR: He had a very ordinary operation. An ablation for atrial fibrillation. I know a million people who have had this operation. It just went seriously wrong for Michael. And he ended up on life support – all his organs failing, being in a coma for three weeks, intubated. They told us he would never walk again, would never talk again. And you can only be intubated for a certain amount of time and then they have to remove the tube because your trachea will collapse. So they told us when they extubated him that they’d have to do a tracheotomy and have to put in a feeding tube, because he wouldn’t be able to breathe and swallow. And we basically said, ‘Let him go. He does not want to be a vegetable kept alive by machine.’ It was very emotional. It took us a long time to make that decision. But we did. And they said we expect that he will die within a few minutes of removing the tube. 

CM: You were that close to the end?

RR: Yes. They said, if he does manage to breathe, he will probably be alive at most a few days. They extubated him. He immediately started breathing. He started talking. He’s basically fine. Except that having been in a hospital bed for 10 weeks, he has to learn to walk again.

CM: What was that moment like for you when he started breathing again?

RR: We got the miracle. It’s just not supposed to happen. I would sit by his bed all day watching his body being kept alive by a million machines. And I thought I’ll never hear his voice again. And all the sudden he’s talking to me. The first day, he can talk, but he can’t read. And then he can read. The elation of the first few days was unbelievable. 

CM: My wife and I drafted a will and we had to have end-of-life discussions. Had you and Michael had this talk?

RR: Absolutely. And he had been very clear. Still, in the moment, you start thinking, what should we do? It’s one thing to be in the abstract. We all know that there’s the DNR, the Do Not Resuscitate. But I had never heard of a DNI, which is Do Not Intubate. And then, as they were pulling the tube out, we had to sign this thing that said, ‘no you can’t put it back in’. The whole thing is amazing. And not anything I ever want to go through again.

CM: Wow. Now that you’ve shared such a personal story, let me pry into what feels personal in this book.  Stella, though curious, has an almost crippling fear of asking people personal questions. From following your career, I don’t think you’re afraid of that. Why was it important to explore this fear through Stella?

RR: When I wrote Tender at the Bone about my terrible phobia of driving, I was stunned by how many people said to me, I have that too. All of us have terrible fears that we don’t talk about. I wanted to make that front and centre, that you can overcome fear.

CM: Maybe it’s not a phobia, but I read that you dislike writing. What changed? 

RR: I’m someone who pretty much hates writing, but I loved writing this book. It was a whole new experience for me. The best thing about writing is you sit at your desk and you wait for something to happen, and most of the time it doesn’t happen. But on the best days, it’s like you go away, and when you come back, there’s something on the page. I probably took longer with the book than I needed to, because I just didn’t want to let [the characters] go.

CM: For most writers, that spells sequel. 

RR: I want to write a sequel. I was planning to start it when we went on this odyssey with Michael. I look forward to spending more time with Stella and Django and Jules. I just like them.

CM: You’ve already got your story and your outline?

RR: I don’t do outlines.

CM: What do you do?

RR: I have a vague idea and then I sit down and wait to see what happens. I have two more books I want to write. One is the sequel to this. And one is an updated version of the cookbook I wrote when I was 21. I want to do an annotated version because that gives me a chance to do the whole history of the last 50 years in food.

CM: Stella reinvents herself in Paris. You’ve gone through many reinventions in your career – restaurant critic, editor, author. Is novel writing your second act? Third act? Is it something you’ve wanted to do earlier in life?

RR: I had always aspired to write a novel. The family I grew up in, writing novels was probably the highest calling. When I lost my job, when Gourmet closed, I’d always said when I didn’t have a day job anymore I’ll try and write a novel. With this one I feel like I found what I’m supposed to do. I love the balance. 

CM: Now that you’ve had what seems like a pinnacle writing experience, with plans for a sequel, do you think you’ll ever retire?

RR: No. Not a chance. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. When I first wrote fiction, I had this fantasy that it would be like reading fiction. That you could vanish into it. And my first novel was not at all like that. This novel was. I went to Paris every day when I was writing this book. It was the most fun I ever had. Having experienced that once, I want it again. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.



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