Five minutes with a Legend: Rita Erlich

Published on 3 May 2021

Photo: Food writer and editor, Rita Erlich

Rita Erlich is a writer, editor, advisor, broadcaster, lecturer and guest speaker with an enduring passion for food and drink and all those involved. Among her many books, she worked with chef Philippe Mouchel for More than French, and with Scott Pickett on his first book, A Cook’s Story, and was co-editor of The Age Good Food Guide for 15 years.

Pre-pandemic, she travelled extensively, mainly to wine-producing countries, while last year she devised dishes to match the music broadcast on Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, and she has matched wine to music. She can be heard on Travel Writers Radio. Her favourite meal? The next. Rita Erlich was inducted into the MFWF Legends Hall of Fame in 2010. 

The proudest moment in my career has been many. I’m lucky, I’ve been able to do a lot I’m proud of. So I don’t think there has been a single moment. I’ve been proud of my writing, and the response to it over the years. I’m proud of all the books I have written or edited, starting with Two in the Kitchen (co-written with Dennis Pryor, who was my husband then, and published by Penguin in 1981). The most recent was The Makers: A Story of Food, Family and Foreigners (published by Hardie Grant Media in 2015), and I’m now working on a couple of others. I was proud of editing what was then the Epicure section in The Age.

The mistake that taught me the most was … mistakes? I like to think of them as learning experiences.

My first restaurant review was in The Sun (before it became The Herald-Sun) in the late 1970s. It was an experimental series at the time – I wrote six reviews, and the budget was $12 for two. I think that included wine, too. The reviews were in the women’s pages, which also had a weekly cooking column – not written by me, Nancy Baldwin was the cooking writer. My first restaurant review in The Age was in 1980, for a smart bistro owned by the late Rick Davis.

The reason I got into this industry was I began in journalism, and went from The Sun to The Age. I wasn’t known as a food writer – no one was – although I wrote about food sometimes because it was part of the job. That suited me because I loved cooking, and eating and drinking. At The Sun, one of my jobs was a weekly market column – I used to go to Queen Victoria Market on my way to work on Thursday mornings, to see what was in season, what the prices were, and then I would write the column when I got into the office about 10.30am, adding ideas for what to do with what was in season. The column had to be finished by noon for Friday morning’s paper.

The reason I kept going was … there wasn’t a single reason. One reason was that when I left The Age in 1981 because I was pregnant, food writing was something I could do freelance at home when the children were little. Part-time work for journalists didn’t exist then. The reason I have kept writing about food is that it covers so much – restaurant reviewing, recipes, supporting new talent and products, interviewing chefs, producers and winemakers, agriculture and horticulture, food history and food culture. It’s such a rich area.

My mentor was … there weren’t mentors as such, but there were two important people. The first was the late Caroline Ross, who was the editor of The Sun’s women’s pages. In the 70s, women’s pages were a bit of a problem. The executives weren’t sure what to do about them, because they seemed old-fashioned, but they attracted such a readership it was problematic to ditch them. Caroline was a journalist with great experience, and she was a strong and encouraging editor. The other important person was Claude Forell, who gave me so many opportunities. In the early 1980s, he was (among other things) in charge of what became the Epicure section (now Good Food). A recession at the time meant that freelancers were discouraged, and there was a directive at The Age that only essential contributors were allowed. My freelance work for the arts pages disappeared, but Claude deemed me essential. And so there were lots of opportunities writing about food, interviewing people, and so on. In 1983, I was asked if I wanted to join him as co-editor of The Age Good Food Guide. Of course I did!

If there’s one positive thing to come out of this lockdown experience … there has been more than one positive thing: the innovation, the creativity, and the support people have given one another in the industry. Providoor has been amazing. For me, it was an opportunity to cook lots. Early on, at a friend’s request, I started posting a daily dish, under #whatsritacooking, and I didn’t repeat a dish all last year. It gave me a small focus every day, and it challenged me. I keep thinking there might be another book in that.

If I could return to any moment in the Melbourne hospitality industry of the last 50 years, I’d choose … this is such a difficult question. Would it be a meal? I can think of a few that I would want to eat again. Would it be the late 1980s, with the reforms to restaurants that followed the Nieuwenhuysen report? That opened up the industry, so serving alcohol was no longer just for pubs and expensive restaurants. It was a game-changer.

But the most exciting development in the Melbourne hospitality industry in the last five years was a couple of years ago, the Governor of Victoria, the Honourable Linda Dessau AC, hosted an evening of Victorian women winemakers and a selection of their wines. It was such a powerful recognition of women in the wine industry. I know there have always been women as part of the industry, but their importance hasn’t always been acknowledged. Or encouraged. I thought that event was fantastic. And for food? Truffles, and truffle dinners in winter.

Keep up with Rita’s cooking adventures online or by following her on Instagram at @ritaerlich.

You might also like