Famed food writer Ruth Reichl lends support to Museum of Jewish Montreal

Ruth Reichl, one of the most influential food writers of her generation, did not have a good first impression of Montreal. In fact, the New Yorker was “beyond miserable” when her parents abruptly left her there at a French Catholic boarding school mid-winter 1961.

The teenaged Reichl’s mistake apparently had been to express a desire to speak French as well as her mother who had studied at the Sorbonne.

Reichl didn’t know a word of the language when she was plunked down at Collège Marie de France, a very formal private girls’ school so unlike the public one she had attended. Needless to say, there were few, if any, Jewish students.

By the end of term, she had learned French and, more importantly, discovered a different culture—including its cuisine, which would lead her to an illustrious career. She came to like Montreal so much she chose to return to the Collège the next year.

Reichl also explored the city’s Jewish food offerings and, even for someone from New York, she was fascinated by its delis and shops.

Most famously, Reichl was editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine, the pre-eminent fine food and drink publication, from 1999 until its demise in 2009 after 68 years. Previously, she had been restaurant critic at The New York Times and a trend-setting restaurateur in California.

In 2006, Gourmet devoted an issue to the Montreal culinary scene, including iconic Jewish eateries, alongside such high-end restaurants as Joe Beef and Toqué. Montrealers swelled with pride and copies were a hot commodity.

Reichl will return (virtually) to Montreal, for which she still holds a special fondness, as the star attraction of the first Museum of Jewish Montreal (MJM) fundraiser on July 13.

Executive director Zev Moses said Gourmet gave Montreal international exposure and made the city a destination for foodie tourists.

It convinced Moses that the Jewish culinary experience would be an essential part of MJM, which he founded in 2010. After all, foods such as bagels and smoked meat so closely identified with Montreal have Jewish roots.

MJM began as an interactive online platform celebrating Montreal’s Jewish history and culture, geared to a younger tech-savvy audience.

In 2016 MJM opened a physical location, on St. Laurent Boulevard in the heart of the old Jewish district. Its centerpiece was the food counter Fletcher’s, and The Wandering Chew, a cooking workshop series, both showcasing ethnic Jewish cuisines with a modern twist.

In time, a food tour was added to MJM’s popular walks through historic Jewish sites.

The pandemic forced the closure of the MJM premises and suspension of the tours in March of last year. The news got worse: the following June, the landlord did not renew MJM’s lease.

Its youthful team has carried on with online programming, including food-related events, concerts and art exhibitions, as well as virtual tours. A micro-grant program for emerging young Jewish artists has been highly successful.

But MJM’s financial situation has become precarious. Although a limited number of tours have resumed, participation is “definitely not what it was before the pandemic,” said Moses.

Pre-pandemic, ticket and food sales and facility rentals represented about 30 per cent of the annual budget, and its most stable component, said Moses. Federal and other government grants for projects typically amounted to 10-15 percent and private donations 50-60 percent.

Despite the setback, Moses is confident about the future. “We have been searching for a new space and hope to have good news soon, even this summer, but we would not open until 2022.”

“We’re not going to give up. Our staff and board are looking forward to launching an exciting new chapter in MJM’s story, led by young adults and filled with connection and creativity.”

The virtual benefit A Gourmet City takes place July 13 from 7:30-8:30 p.m. via Zoom with Ruth Reichl and Adam Gollner, a guest editor of Gourmet Magazine’s  2006 Montreal issue, in conversation with Lara Rabinovitch, whose PhD research included Montreal’s Jewish culinary history. General admission is $180 per household ($36 for those under age 36). Higher donor categories include a box of kosher macarons, gift items selected by Reichl, and a meet-and-greet with Reichl after the main event.