A Conversation With Phyllis Richman

by Claire E. White

Recently retired after reigning as Washington, D.C.'s premier restaurant reviewer,
Photo of Phyllis Richman
Phyllis C. Richman served as food critic of The Washington Post for more than 23 years. Always donning a disguise to ensure her anonymity, Richman was known for her unbiased, forthright, and accurate assessments of restaurants. She wrote a dining column in the Magazine each Sunday, dining guides each year and food features for nearly every section, from Style to Financial. Her freelance articles have appeared in Gourmet, Bon Appetit and other magazines. But after so many years writing nonfiction, she finally realized her secret dream: to write fiction. In 1998, her first mystery novel, The Butter Did It was published by HarperCollins to rave reviews and an Agatha award nomination. The Butter Did It features amateur sleuth Chas Wheatley, who just happens to be the restaurant critic for the fictitious Washington Examiner. The series is known for its witty humor, deft plotting and insider's look at the world of gourmet dining. Murder on the Gravy Train is the second novel in the series, which has just been released in paperback, the third book in the series is forthcoming in May, 2001: Who's Afraid of Virginia Ham?

Richman, a native Washingtonian, has been writing about food for 28 years, first as a freelance writer, then as a staff member of The Washington Post since 1976, where she was also food editor from 1980 to 1988.

A graduate of Brandeis University, she did graduate work in city planning at the University of Pennsylvania and in sociology at Purdue. She is author of four editions of Best Restaurants & Others: Washington, D.C. (101 Productions,1980, 1982, 1985; Ortho, 1989), and wrote the restaurant chapters for Gault-Millau's The Best of Washington and two editions of The Washington Post Dining Guide (1996 and 1998). She co-authored Barter: How to Satisfy Your Needs Without Money (Scribners, 1978).

Richman has won first place for Best Section in the Newspaper Food Editors & Writers Association and second place for her syndicated column, as well as honorable mentions in the Penney-Missouri, Bert Greene and James Beard awards. She is a member of "Who's Who in American Cooking." She serves on the James Beard Restaurant Awards and IACP Cookbook Awards executive committees.

She spoke with us about the paperback release of Murder on the Gravy Train, how she made the transition from restaurant critic to popular novelist, and what the life of a famous restaurant critic is really like.

What are some favorite books from your childhood?

To start with the early ones, I was a big fan of Curious George, Babar and Madeleine. I went on to Nancy Drew, of course, then in high school read everything Steinbeck wrote. I loved to read, and worked out routes so I could walk everywhere with my nose in a book.

I'd like first to talk about your other career as a restaurant critic and food writer. How did you get your start in the business?

"Write, write, write. Many people plan to write, which is a farther cry than they realize from actually writing. Then, when you have written, show it to two or three writers -- or readers, if you can't lasso any writers -- and beg them to be harsh and critical."
I was lucky. I'd always been a cooking fanatic, since around age 3. And I'd always been writing. Then, when I was working on my master's thesis, my advisor invited me to a dinner where I heard about a restaurant-critic job at a very small paper. I tried out for it and got the job, and immediately discovered that was the job for me. By freelancing, I worked my way up to being hired as restaurant critic for the Washington Post. I never finished my thesis. Too late now, I suppose.

What trends are you seeing in the top restaurants lately?

The most welcome trend is that we are not quite so trend-frenzied.

When you are reviewing a 5 star restaurant, what are three things about the restaurant that will immediately put you in a bad mood?

Snotty service, indifferent service, clumsy service.

What is the biggest misconception people seem to have about the life of a restaurant critic?

That it's a continual round of glamorous and wonderful meals. Actually, a restaurant critic eats more bad meals than anyone else who cares about good food.

When you've been reviewing a great deal and you're feeling a bit jaded on food, what do you like to eat to get you back into the swing of things? Is there anything you can always be in the mood for?

Popcorn. Vine-ripened tomatoes. Champagne.

I understand that you retired from the Washington Post in May. What prompted your retirement? What will you miss the least about being a restaurant critic for a major newspaper?

I wanted to spend more time writing books. And I was tired of going out every night.

Cover of The Butter Did It by Phyllis Richman
When your first novel, The Butter Did It, was published, you already had a fantastic career as a food writer, reviewer and editor. What prompted you to try your hand at fiction?

I'd always dreamed of writing books, and had been making notes on them for decades. I decided that if I wanted to develop a second career, I had to bite the bullet and try it while I was still active in the first one.

In The Butter Did It, we met Chas Wheatley, restaurant critic for the Washington Examiner who has a habit of stumbling over dead bodies and into murder investigations. What was the most challenging aspect of writing your first novel?

I don't really enjoy writing about death. Everything else was a challenge, too. I'd never written anything so long, hadn't developed characters or a plot before, and was new to writing dialogue. For a start.

The books explore a number of Chas' relationships: with her grown daughter, with her boyfriend, investigative reporter Dave, and with her good friend, Sherele, the drama critic. The books seem to explore many kinds of close "families," but not necessarily the traditional nuclear family. Is this a reflection of your philosophy about the importance of relationships and friendships in our lives today?

Is there something else that's important?

One of my favorite characters in the books is homicide detective Homer Jones. How did you go about creating Homer? Were there any characteristics that you were trying to avoid with him?

I have no idea where Homer came from. He just emerged full-blown. I immediately knew what he looked like, how he talked, the way he dressed. And I instantly had a big crush on the guy.

I'd like to talk about Murder on the Gravy Train, which was just released in paperback. In this book, Chas takes on another mystery and also has a flirtation with a younger man. How has Chas grown since the first book? Is she a work in progress?

Cover of Murder on the Gravy Train by Phyllis Richman
In that book, Chas struggled with the breakup of her romance with Dave, and floundered around trying to adjust her life and expectations. I and many of my friends have lived through such situations and discussed them endlessly. We're all a work in progress, and to the extent that Chas is real, she must be a work in progress, too.

How much of Phyllis Richman is there in Chas?

In that I invented her, she's all me, just as Lily and Dave and Homer and Sherele and etc. are all me. That doesn't mean that she is just like me. After all, I have two more children than she has.

Another fascinating character is Robert's father, Samir, an ex-spy and current nursing home resident. What or who was your inspiration for Samir? Will we be seeing him again?

Oh, yes, Samir is now part of my life -- and Chas's. I'd always fancied writing about an elderly man in a nursing home whose powers and intelligence are underestimated in that setting. He'd been forming in my imagination long before I found occasion to meet him in one of my books. I was surprised that he turned out to be Lebanese and a spy (I'd sort of expected him to be a lawyer). Now I'm so charmed by him that I can't wait for him to emerge in the next book. (Note that, as other writers have always told me to expect, the characters in my books feel to me as if they have taken on lives of their own.)

The book also explores some of the scams that unscrupulous restaurants perpetrate on unwary diners. Would you share with us some of the most common scams to watch out for?

Check your bill to see that the price of each item is correct (particularly the wine) and that no extra items have appeared. Check your credit card statements against your bills and watch for double billing.

Are you a cook yourself? If so, what are some dishes that you feel you do especially well?

I love to scour the refrigerator for what's around and create something from that; the challenge somehow sparks my imagination. I don't bake as much as I used to, but I cook a wide range of dishes otherwise. Last night, corn chowder; the night before, eggplant risotto; the night before, midsummer BLTs.

In one scene in the book, Chas goes to waiter school and learns how to double the price of a meal, after the diners have finished their entrees. Did you ever sneak into waiter's school? What are some of the techniques used to double someone's bill?

"I used to be a sociologist, and I've always been fascinated with food as a cultural indicator, as a way people relate to one another, and with the role food plays in our public and private lives."
Nope, I invented the waiter school. But I know the techniques: "Would you like sparkling water or still water?" (as if free tap water weren't an option) "How about a salad to go with that?" or "The chef has some special oysters tonight; shall I save an order for you?" or "Why don't you let me fix you a little assortment of our best appetizers?" or "May we offer you an after-dinner drink?" or "Cappuccino? With sambuca?"

Food is still a featured element in your novels, but it seems that you write about food a bit differently in the novels than in your reviews. Do you consciously use food in your fiction to advance the plot or to bring atmosphere to a scene? Certainly in some scenes with Chas and the young taxi driver, food was definitely the spark that lit a fire. :)

I write about food all the time, so I wanted to write about it in a different way in my books. I used to be a sociologist, and I've always been fascinated with food as a cultural indicator, as a way people relate to one another, and with the role food plays in our public and private lives. Food is plot, character, setting. It is art and science. It is, above all, the most sensual experience we share in public.

I'd like to talk about the mechanics of writing. When do you write your fiction and what are your surroundings? (Do you write on the computer, do you listen to music, do you work at home, etc.)

I have a lovely large study with a very crowded desk on the second floor of my house. I couldn't possibly work with music; silence is what I crave. I write on a Mac, eventually editing on printed pages. My best days are when I wake up and immediately start to write. Most days, though, I do everything else possible -- answer email (like today), file, make phone calls, pay bills -- before I settle down to writing.

What is your advice to aspiring mystery novelists?

Write, write, write. Many people plan to write, which is a farther cry than they realize from actually writing. Then, when you have written, show it to two or three writers -- or readers, if you can't lasso any writers -- and beg them to be harsh and critical. Try again. Try it first person, or third person. Reorganize the chapters. Change the characters. Put them in a new plot. Figure you haven't really written until at least the third revision. When it dawns on you that the book you have is much better than the book you first wrote, go look for an agent.

Would you give us a sneak peek at your next book?

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Ham?" will be out next May (2001). In it, Chas Wheatley has to put up with the most arrogant know-it-all she's ever met, the hot new reporter at the Examiner. He steals plum assignments from Chas, steals Sherele's thunder, charms management and the public while playing dirty tricks on colleagues. And worse, as Chas gradually discovers. This is a man who destroys a restaurant for the fun of it. And when he gets destroyed himself, he takes Chas's life down with him.

The Chas Wheatley novels are also known for their wry and witty sense of humor. How important is humor to you in your writing, and/or in your life?

Remember what I said about food being our most sensual public experience? Scratch that. Laughing is even more scrumptious.

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