Ray Sokolov was recently appointed to the Gardiner Planning Board. Prior to that he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, and for many years he wrote a monthly column for Natural History magazine. For two years in the mid-1970s he was the restaurant critic for The New York Times, but most recently he has written a book titled Steal the Menu: A Memoir of 40 Years in Food, slated for release by Knopf this March. If the tales from the journalism trail that he tells with great humor and flourish at the kitchen table in his circa-1742 stone house in Gardiner are half as entertaining as those in his book, this could be a best-seller.
Originally a Midwesterner who graduated from Harvard, Sokolov married his beloved wife Johanna, pursued a journalism career from Manhattan, raised two children and went on to land some of the most coveted newspaper positions and food columns in the business. In the mid-1960’s Sokolov was working as a cultural reporter for Newsweek magazine. “It was my first big ‘grownup’ journalist job, and I was able to write some fun pieces and serve as a cultural correspondent in some wonderful places like Paris.” But after a number of years he felt that he wanted something more. Becoming a restaurant critic for the Grey Lady was probably the last job title he imagined ever pursuing or being hired for, but that’s exactly what happened.
He described a friend and colleague at Newsweek who was a “stone-cold foodie,” but also “catatonic,” as he went for a full year without writing one piece for the magazine, and knew that he was on his way out. While Sokolov loved food and had written some pieces on restaurants and chefs for Newsweek, he said that he really had “no experience whatsoever — in fact, I didn’t cook. My wife cooked, and she was quite good at it. Sure, I liked going to good restaurants more than the average person — though we couldn’t really afford it — but that was about the extent of my experience.”
Nevertheless, his colleague knew that the renowned food writer and restaurant critic for The New York Times, Craig Claiborne, was going to retire, and thought that Sokolov was the man for the job. Through some two-degrees-of-separation-style networking, his colleague was able to put him in touch via mutual friends with Charlotte Curtis, “a brilliant journalist who had risen from a fashion reporter to the editor of the Family/Style section, and was at the time the cultural dictator of New York City,” said Sokolov. By chance of fate, Sokolov was invited to lunch by Curtis at La Côte Basque, which was at the time “as fashionable a restaurant as anyone could imagine being invited to — particularly by Charlotte Curtis.”
He describes walking in and seeing Curtis at the very first table by the door. “She was a small, trim, Chanel-suit-wearing woman with her hair pulled back tightly in a bun and a nasal Midwestern debutante voice…. The most desirable tables were those closest to the door, where everyone could see you; and the further back you were, the closer to cultural Siberia you sat.”
After discussing everything but the actual food columnist/restaurant critic job, the two finished their lunch; she offered him a ride in her cab, which he accepted; and she said that he had absolutely no experience for the position, but that she liked him. She offered him the opportunity to write three trivial pieces that he would be paid for, and if she and her colleagues liked them, he would be hired. “I thought, ‘This is great! I get to go to some wonderful restaurants, get paid for writing some pieces, and I know I’ll never get hired!’”