In her new memoir Save Me the Plums, former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl delivers an intimate account of her tenure at the beloved food magazine, where she accomplished everything from publishing David Foster Wallace’s now-famous “Consider the Lobster” essay to cooking for rescue workers on 9/11. She also details an experience very few have had: being a top editor at a Condé Nast publication during the heyday of publishing.
Save Me the Plums is replete with anecdotes about Condé Nast’s culture, from Reichl’s start in 1999 through Gourmet’s unceremonious closure in 2009, when executives gave the magazine employees just a day’s notice. It was an era in media when allowances were unlimited, parties extravagant, and budgets oft-ignored. And while Reichl expressed shock and skepticism over much of the opulence throughout her tenure at Condé Nast, she still was thrilled to benefit from the luxuries afforded to her — even as many incidents left her completely baffled.
At her first meeting with the former Condé Nast editorial director James Truman at the historic Algonquin Hotel, before she was offered the job, Reichl asked the “waiflike” man about Gourmet’s budget, which she was told was not her concern. He continued, “You don’t suppose Anna Wintour worries about budgets, do you?”
Sounds like a wild time.
Si Newhouse banned garlic from the Condé Nast cafeteria.
The legendary chairman of Condé Nast was quite a particular man, as evidenced by his strict ban on one of the key flavoring ingredients in everything from aioli to pretty much anything with the word “roast” in it. At Reichl’s first meeting with him at the legendary Da Silvano trattoria, during which she recalls him wearing “an ugly olive-drab sweatshirt,” there was an incident that caused Reichl to panic: As she was criticizing Gourmet for “living in the past,” she noticed Newhouse “recoil,” which was followed by a lengthy awkward silence. Turns out, he had simply gotten a whiff of garlic in his food, which he, just like Queen Elizabeth, refuses to eat. “I told you, I cannot eat garlic,” Newhouse reportedly told the server before elaborating to Reichl that “no garlic will ever be served in the Condé Nast cafeteria.”
The cafeteria was the hottest place to be seen.
The Condé Nast cafeteria at 4 Times Square was rumored to cost more than $30 million, and on any given day, Reichl writes that it was “packed with celebrities whose agents had wrangled invitations.”
“The cafeteria might masquerade as the company canteen,” she writes, “but Si had wanted to create New York’s most exclusive club.”
However, per Reichl’s discerning palate, the food was mediocre at best: the seaweed at the sushi station was “soggy,” the vegetables were overcooked, and the fried chicken was lukewarm, though it was passable to the GQ editors. “I’d bet my life that’s not Velveeta!” one of them reportedly said, eyeing what Reichl describes as “a vast tray of macaroni paved in a thick orange crust.”
Top editors were given clothing and decorating allowances.
Not only was the salary offer that Condé Nast made Reichl reportedly six times what she was making as the restaurant critic at the New York Times, but it also came with allowances for nonessential luxuries: a country club membership, hairdressers, travel, drivers, and even clothes. This was all slightly overwhelming for Reichl; even with the benefits, she writes that she still enjoyed taking public transportation, which many of her colleagues found repellent. On one specific occasion, when Reichl was waiting to catch a plane for a book tour, she ran into esteemed architecture critic Paul Goldberger and New Yorker editor David Remnick, both of whom were shocked to discover that Reichl was lying coach. “You shouldn’t be traveling like that,” Goldberger reportedly said.
Condé Nast editors also went all out on their offices. Before Reichl even started at Gourmet, former Condé Nast editorial director James Truman invited her to design her new office, even though the media company was scheduled to move in just a few months. The publisher had hired a decorator, who asked Reichl about her ideal color schemes, the style of furniture she wanted, and what she thought of certain bathroom fixtures.
And Reichl wasn’t simply getting special treatment. Per her research at the time, legendary Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter had hired a private architect to design his office.
Seriously — budgets were not a thing.
At a lunch at the Four Seasons, Reichl writes that Condé Nast CEO Steve Florio bragged about losing a massive amount of Newhouse’s money during his tenure at The New Yorker, going on to explain that this didn’t bother the chairman.
“Si doesn’t mind about the money,” Florio told Reichl. “He just wants to be the best. But don’t think you can cross him; he really hates to lose.”
Florio then went on to recount a time when Newhouse reportedly ordered one of Condé Nast’s publishers to fly to Milan to apologize to an Italian label that his publication had reviewed negatively. “Si has no boundaries when it comes to business,” Florio reportedly said.
The parties were daunting and extravagant.
Just as Lucky founding editor Kim France wrote on the Cut last year, the annual Condé Nast holiday party at the Four Seasons was anxiety-inducing, as she “felt a distinct spirit of exclusion the moment [she] walked in the door.” Reichl acknowledged that there were workplace politics being played, even at celebrations, writing, “According to accepted wisdom, sitting with Si was an excellent omen.” If you ended up at longtime public-relations spokesperson Maurie Perl’s table, though, “it was widely believed to mean that this was your last lunch.” (Healthy office culture!)
And then, there was Newhouse’s birthday party, to which only a select few of the top editors were invited. Every year, he apparently invited guests to the Museum of Modern Art, where he would hold a private screening of an old remastered film — and that was just the pre-party. Afterward, guests would go back to Newhouse’s home, where Reichl writes that she was denied a glass of red wine. Apparently, Newhouse liked his wine white or sparkling.
There was quite a bit of competition between the Condé Nast food publications.
“I think we just took business away from Bon Appétit, which is extremely satisfying,” former Gourmet publish Gina Sanders reportedly told Reichl after an ad call. “Just winning isn’t enough; I don’t feel good unless the other person loses.”
And Bon Appétit wasn’t the sole food publication with whom the Gourmet editors were in competition. When Gourmet was tasked with creating a digital presence, Reichl received pushback when asking for a stand-alone site; instead, Newhouse wanted related content to live on “super-sites,” which is how Epicurious ended up hosting Gourmet’s recipes. (Meanwhile, while other media outlets were working on their digital strategy, Newhouse reportedly “sank” $100 million into Portfolio magazine, which folded two years later.) People were bitter.
“I did not fume alone,” Reichl writes. “Everyone at Gourmet hated Epicurious. They were our archenemy.”
Management butted heads over David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster.”
Reichl never thought David Foster Wallace would be up for writing for Gourmet, so when he accepted her pitch to go to the Maine Lobster Fest after quite a bit of convincing, Reichl was relieved. But when his manuscript for what would become “Consider the Lobster” arrived and Gourmet’s management read it over, they were divided over whether it deserved a place in a food magazine. “You can’t possibly print this piece,” one person reportedly told Reichl, who fought for the story that pondered the ethics of eating. It wasn’t without a generous amount of convincing — both of other Gourmet staffers and DFW himself, who unsurprisingly objected to his edits — that the piece was published.
“It was 2004 — and that article changed everything,” Reichl writes. “Two people canceled their subscriptions, but hundreds wrote in to say how much they valued a magazine that published such thought-provoking articles.”
Gourmet editors found out the publication was folding the day before it closed.
When Newhouse told the Gourmet staff that Condé Nast had decided to close the magazine, everyone was reportedly shocked, though they relaxed, assuming that most likely “the end was not imminent.” They were wrong.
“Your key cards will work today,” Newhouse reportedly said. “And tomorrow. Until 5 p.m.”
Ah, media — while so much has changed over the past few decades, some things have alarmingly stayed the same.