Monday, December 21, 2009

Washington Post Restaurant Critic and author Phyllis Richman

For nearly three decades, most Washingtonians wouldn't have recognized Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman, even if she was sitting at the next table. She kept a low profile, was rarely photographed, and often wore a silk scarf over the bottom of her face when she went out in public. Since retiring in 2000, the woman who could make or break a restaurant's reputation is no longer hiding.

I had the honor of having lunch with the famous food critic, and wrote the story up for Crystal City etc., a business publication in Northern VA just outside of Washington DC. See that below.

Lunch with Phyllis
By Hope Katz Gibbs
Crystal City etc.

Phyllis Richman will have the sorrel soup, please. And the grilled squid. And, if possible, one perfect oyster. "Thank you, madam," says the gracious, white-shirted waiter at the elegant P Street seafood bistro, Johnny's Half Shell.

"Thank you," replies Richman with a grin that indicates she is happy to be ordering exactly what she wants for lunch—and not sampling the entire menu, as was her mission for two decades as the _Washington Post's_ award-winning restaurant critic.

Readers often awaited her opinion before trying a new dining spot. Indeed, the success of a restaurant sometimes depended on her opinion. It was a serious responsibility, she realizes. "I often said mine was the world's most wonderful job," Richman says today. "Still, every job has its drawbacks."

*Eating out for a living*

On her list of the downside to her job were the years of evenings spent away from home, leaving her three children behind to try a new establishment for dinner after feeding them first. And, she admits, it wasn't always easy to stay objective.

"You always have to be out, on, and alert," Richman explains. "I constantly worried that I was getting into a rut. I wanted to be fair and impartial, and I felt the need to cover every new restaurant. It wasn't always easy."

But this, she admits, was just part of the job—one she never dreamed she'd have. Early in her career, in fact, her goal was to be a city planner. After earning a BA from Brandeis University, she started graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania but realized she'd rather study sociology and moved to Indiana to attend Purdue.

Just as she was about to start her master's thesis, she was invited to a dinner party in Greenbelt, MD by her thesis advisor. Over _hors d'oeuvres_, she leaned that his brother-in-law had taken over as publisher of the _Baltimore Jewish Times_ and was in the market for a food critic. By dessert, Richman had landed the job.

In the next two years, due to the patience and support of her husband and three children, Richman travelled weekly to Baltimore to sample restaurants. She also wrote a cooking column, and began freelancing for _Washingtonian_ magazine and the _Washington Post_.

"Being able to freelance while you are raising young children is the perfect balance," Richman says, noting that in 1976, the year her daughter entered kindergarten, Richman was offered a full-time position at the _Washington Post_. "It was scary to go back to work because I wanted to be with my kids as much as possible. So I'd drive them to school in the morning and rush home to be with them after school. Then I'd dash out to do a restaurant review, but by the time I'd get home they were asleep. It was tough."

In 1980, she added to her roster the job of food editor while still writing her column. "I found out pretty quickly that I didn't like managing others as much as I liked writing," she admits, and for the next decade did what she loved best—reviewing new DC restaurants. By 1995, she was ready for another challenge.

*The Butter Did It*

Writing a book is a natural progression for most journalists, and the idea of being a novelist always appealed to Richman. In 1997, she debuted the first of three works of fiction published by Harper-Collins: _The Butter Did It: A Gastronomic Tale of Love and Murder_.

It received rave reviews from _Publishers Weekly_, which said: "Richman's prose is as smooth and easy to swallow as premium ice cream. She brings a welcome angle and authenticity to the expanding menu of culinary mysteries."

Her protagonist was Chas Wheatley, a restaurant reviewer herself. In _The Butter Did It_, Chas grows suspicious when a DC chef named Laurence Lavain collapses the night before he is to prepare the meal for a star-studded black-tie benefit dinner. Police and beat reporters blamed his death on years of indulging in _foie gras_. Chas, who had an affair years before with Levain, has her doubts and uses her experience in the food biz to uncover the truth.

In the sequel, _Murder on the Gravy Train_ (1999), Chas discovers that something is rotten at Washington's most popular new restaurant when the head chef is discovered missing. When dead bodies start appearing around the nation's capital, she sets out on the trail to find the killer.

The third book in the trilogy, _Who's Afraid of Virginia Ham_ (2001), Richman introduces readers to her newsroom nemisis Ringo Laurenge. His propensity to steal story ideas from other reporters makes him less than popular, and when he turns up dead Chas finds she has a new mystery to solve.

Of course, it's clear to readers as well as reviewers that Chas bears a striking resemblance to Richman—something the _Washington Times_reviewer found to be a positive trait when he wrote: "A tip of the hat to Phyllis Richman, who has followed the cardinal rule to write what you know."

Richman simply says: "Of course, Chas isn't me and the events in the books aren't real. But the books did grow out of my personal experiences, so while the events are fictionalized, everything is true in the sense that it did or could happen."

*On a personal note*

The one thing that did ring true was Chas' boyfriend, Dave, who is based on Richman's real life love. She met him in 1985, two years after she divorced her first husband. "In the book, Dave can't wait to marry Chas, but she is reluctant," Richman shares. "The truth is that we were both happy to keep our commitment quiet for years."

In 2000, however, Richman was ready to make a big decision public. In May, she officially retired from the _Washington Post_.

"I was ready to spend more time with my boyfriend, my children, read, and take long walks around the city," she says. "I never believed retirees when they said they were busier now than when they were working—but it's true. What has changed most, though, is that I'm multi-tasking less and enjoying my life more. I take my time, and it's a pleasure."

Of course, she does have another idea for new book. "I think maybe I'll get to work on that next week," she teases.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Riding Shotgun with Jennifer Niven's "Norma Jean"

In August, Costco Connection magazine published a piece I wrote about author Jennifer Niven's new book, "Norma Jean Learns to Drive." Read on for more ...

The Costco Connection
August 2009

“Daddy says I’m going to hell,” writes Jennifer Niven in the first chapter of her first work of fiction, _Velva Jean Learns to Drive_, a coming-of-age tale of a spunky young woman growing up in Appalachia in the years before World War II.

“You, my baby, are not going to hell,” comforts her mother. “You’re a good child, true and pure, and the Lord will call you when it’s time. You can’t bloom the flowers before they’re ready.”

After reading those few paragraphs it’s nearly impossible to keep from being drawn into Niven’s melodic prose as she unfurls the bittersweet drama of Velva Jean’s life. Readers are quickly catapulted into the pivotal period from July 22, 1933, the day her father insists she be baptized, to the tragic moment her beloved mother dies a few weeks later.

Before Velva Jean’s mama passes, she urges her only daughter to “live out there” in the great wide world. “That’s where you belong.”

From then on, the gifted young singer dreams of becoming a star in Nashville — until she falls in love with Harley Bright, a handsome juvenile delinquent turned revival preacher. As their tumultuous love story evolves, Velva Jean must choose between keeping her hard-won home and singing in the Grand Ole Opry.

Niven admits her life has been nearly as tumultuous as her protagonist.

“The novel is incredibly autobiographical,” she shares. “I basically opened up a vein and let it flow onto those pages. It was a strange and uncomfortable experience for me because I'm a very private person. But I'm there with her on every page. Velva Jean and I experienced very similar journeys to freedom.”

Interestingly, the character of Velva Jean wasn’t Niven’s creation. The fictional character first appeared decades before in a short story by her mother, author Penelope Niven, who has written, among other books, a biography of Carl Sandburg and Voices and Silences with actor James Earl Jones.

“My mother’s four-page story always stuck with me,” says Niven, so while at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles she bought the rights to Velva Jean from her mom for $1 and began turning it story into a screenplay. It became an Emmy Award-winning movie in 1996, but she just couldn’t get Velva Jean out of her head.
“I knew that eventually I wanted to bring her back to life in the form of a book.”

It was tricky turning the 25-page script into a 400-page novel. Research was essential to fully fleshing out a realistic character and authentic setting, so three years ago she moved to Atlanta and began traveling to Velva Jean’s fictional home in North Carolina.

Breathing, touching and tasting the world where her characters lived is the approach the award-winning writer used when writing her first two books — both works of nonfiction.

Niven’s first book, _The Ice Master_, was published in 2000 and became an award-winning true story of a retired Canadian whaling ship that set sail for the Arctic in June 1913. It sank, leaving its passengers stranded on polar ice and, later, on a desolate island, the captain walked 700 miles to find help. In 2003 she released "Ada Blackjack: The True Story of Survival in the Arctic," which became a Book Sense Top Ten Pick, and was optioned as a movie.

Niven isn’t quite finished with Velva Jean, though. She recently sold the sequel to the current book, scheduled to hit bookstores in 2010. And on September 1, this prolific writer’s next book, "The Aqua Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town," will make its debut. The hardback, being published by Simon Spotlight Entertainment, is currently being developed as a TV show by Warner Bros.

“It is going to be Will & Grace meets The Wonder Years,” she suggests, noting the story started out as an attempt at telling the history of high school in general. “In so many ways, this book has been a complete departure from the first three. It’s easily the scariest, most daunting thing I’ve written so far. But Velva Jean is still the story closest to my heart."

Hope Katz Gibbs is a freelance writer living in Northern Virginia who aspires to always “live out there in the great wide world.” Read more here online at

Friday, December 4, 2009


Cheers to Catherine Keitley, executive director of Girls on the Run of Northern Virginia! Tomorrow, rain or shine — or impending snow, according to the National Weather Service — more than 6500 girls in grades 3 to 8 are scheduled to turn out for this Saturday’s 5K Reindeer Romp Fun Run at the Reston Town Center starting at 8:30 a.m.

“We were blown away by the response and support we have gotten for this event and sold out so fast that we actually had to turn some runners away,” explains Keightley. “I believe that is simply a testimony to the power of this program.”

In fact, more than 3000 girls in nearly 180 schools from all over Northern Virginia have participated for the last 10 weeks in our Girls on the Run program to empower girls with a greater sense of self-awareness, self esteem and healthy living through the power of running.

“This run is the culmination and celebration of their efforts, and pairs the girls with a buddy runner to help them achieve their goals,” Keightley adds.

Sponsors of the event include Argon ST (, Fitness Together (, PTR Group, Potomac River Running, and the Reston Town Center.

For more information about the run, contact Catherine at (703) 405 5727, and visit


Stephanie Cohen, CEO of the health benefits firm Golden & Cohen, was named one of SmartCEO Magazine’s 2010 Smart100 CEOs this week.

“After another competitive year of nominations, the selection committee has chosen Stephanie Cohen to join an elite group of 100 of Greater Washington’s leading CEOs and their organizations,” announced SmartCEO magazine’s Makenna Coyne on December 1. “Combined, this group employs more than 150,000 people, boasts revenues in excess of $9 billion, and has won almost 1,500 business awards. In addition, the group shares a philanthropic spirit by donating time, energy and money to local Washington area charities.”

Each winning company reported revenue in excess of $5 million annually and was selected based on the CEO’s leadership, strategic vision and character, said Coyne noting that Cohen was an obvious choice to be part of the 2010 list due to her initiative to organize and host last year’s DC Health Summit (, her charitable work with the ALS Association’s DC/MD/VA Chapter (which helps empower people with Lou Gehrig’s disease), and other nonprofit organizations, and her sheer determination to fight for her client’s rights.

“I am incredibly excited to be acknowledged for the work that I do on behalf of my clients,” says Cohen, who with her husband and business partner Scott Golden has run her firm since 1992. “I have a passion for this work, and truly want to make a difference. I know I can't change the world, but I can do my part in improving things by helping one person at a time.”

Founded in 1992, Golden & Cohen provides health insurance benefit services to more than 1500 clients. Based in Gaithersburg, MD, the company generated $70 million in annual sales last year and currently has 15 employees. As the CEO and co-founder of the firm, Stephanie Cohen has more than two decades of experience in small group health insurance, disability programs and life insurance. She recently was a finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and annually serves on the prestigious United HealthCare, Coventry, Aetna and Kaiser Broker Council. She is also a member of the Women Presidents' Organization, the District of Colombia Insurance Commissioner Advisory Council, and The Greater Washington Health Underwriters. For more information visit

Listen to Stephanie Cohen live Dec. 12 on Executive Leadership Radio

To hear Stephanie Cohen talk about her leadership style and how she and her husband / business partner Scott Golden have built their company into one of the largest insurance brokerage firms in the DC Metro region, tune in on Saturday, Dec. 12 to WHFS 1580 AM. The show will air from 10-11 a.m. Or, log onto