The Accidental Change Agent – Ruth Reichl, Gourmet Magazine and “Save me the Plums”.

You may remember Ruth Reichl as the food critic for the New York Times (1993 – 1999). She was hired by S.I. Newhouse to become the editor of Gourmet Magazine in 1999, during a period when Gourmet Magazine was aging out as America’s attitude towards food was rapidly changing. This is her book about that period of her life.

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I was in the food manufacturing business during that period. As an ex-New Yorker, I followed her reviews religiously. I also had a friend who was a publisher for one of S.I. Newhouse’s papers during that period, so this memoir was of special interest to me.

The book covering Ruth Reichl’s time at Gourmet reads a little like a thriller, but offers incredible details on what happens when an “accidental change agent” becomes the leader of an industry.

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Ruth Reichl had a definitive view of what she wanted her readers to experience and that view clashed with the “Status Quo” at Gourmet. She had to change out all key positions at the magazine and replace them with fellow unconventionals (i.e. younger and more diverse), who brought their own visions with them. The result was a totally changed “Brand” from the old Gourmet Magazine. However, it would not have been possible without S.I. Newhouse’s own willingness to take chances and the support she received from the series of publishers that reigned during her time.

The book ends with the closing of Gourmet Magazine, a victim of the transition to the web and other external circumstances.

I want to mention here, on a totally personal note,that her description of 9/11 and the days following moved me to tears.

If you find yourself in a position to be the “Accidental Change Agent”, this book will provide you with some insightful examples.

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First, you will need to be able to effectively combine lessons from Sun Tzu and  Dale Carnegie and practice them daily.

Secondly, insist on bringing in your own team. Make sure the team compliments you and shares your vision and goals.

Thirdly, have a mentor or guardian in the layers above you. “Save me the Plums” makes it very clear that a mentor above and a good team around you are an absolute necessity.

Finally, always remember that everything comes to a conclusion or end, and usually when you least expect it.


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