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

Friday, November 20, 2009

Elan magazine features Laura Lee Designs

How did Harvard-educated California girl Laura Lee Williams beaded a path from a Fortune 500 exec to the head of her own successful handbag business? In an article for elan magazine, reporter Hope Gibbs explains.

elan magazine
August 2009

Beautiful beads from Tokyo—more than 30,000 of them—grace the most elaborate offering by Laura Lee Designs, a handbag firm founded in 2005 by California native Laura Lee Williams.

Other designs—such as her trademark M bag—feature fewer beads, but the focus here is on the three-inch wrap of Australian snakeskin in the middle.

“The white version is perfect for weddings, and pink version is a personal favorite because we contribute a portion of the proceeds from each purchase to Breast Cancer Research,” says the soft-spoken brunette, who shares the tale of how she got started in the handbag business as she sips chamomile tea at a café not far from her current base of operations in Vienna, VA.

As it turns out, the California native never planned to become an entrepreneur. She didn’t plan to go into the family business either—her father and siblings all work in the TV and movie industry. Instead, Laura Lee graduated with a degree in economics from UCLA, a master’s degree in international studies from Harvard University, and spent most of her career working on strategic initiatives and marketing programs for Fortune 500 firms such as Nike, American Express, and Apple Computer.

But when she accepted a job as VP of global business with Hong Kong’s Pacific Century CyberWorks (PCCW) in 1999, her time spent in China inspired her to look at the world in a new way.

“I helped PCCW transform itself from an old guard telecom company into an organization that provided Wi-Fi in airports, developed call centers and established broadband services,” she explains. “In doing so, I worked closely with Chinese executives and watched as they planned strategies that took a long-term view of business. It was a very different approach from what I experienced earlier in my career when I worked for U.S. executives. Too often, we Americans focus only on short-term profits and as a result, some very good ideas never got the chance to take root.”

However, Laura Lee says American firms also tend to be more entrepreneurial and innovative than many Chinese organizations. So in early 2003, she decided to meld the best of both cultures into a company of her own. Her mission: To manufacture elegant hand-beaded handbags and sell them to a sophisticated clientele in the U.S. and abroad.

Laura Lee’s timing was good. Although sales of pocketbooks dropped by an average of 4 percent a year in 1996, the total value of imports of women's handbags or purses recently hit $1 billion, according to the Gale Encyclopedia of American Industries.

“This growth in handbag sales is put down to women regarding handbags as essential, having more than one, coordinating them with outfits as fashion accessories and choosing different sizes or styles to suit the occasion,” says Glyn Barlow, director of the online store Fashion Shop UK.

Growth may also be attributed to an increase in supply, for more handbag manufacturers are outsourcing large portions of the production cycle to factories in developing countries such as China. Not only is labor dramatically less expensive abroad—but also Asian workers pride themselves on paying attention to detail and turning out high-quality products.

Laura Lee witnessed this firsthand when, in 2003, execs at Polo Ralph Lauren’s Hong Kong office hired her away from PCCW to help them with strategic initiatives. She watched, listened and learned—and on her off time amass traveled far and wide to find suppliers for her own line of pocketbooks.

In addition to the high-end beads she found in Tokyo, she discovered an Australia supplier for the snakeskin in Sydney. In her travels, she also located crystals, appliqués, and clasps to complete the look of the elegant creation.

Laura Lee’s connections at Ralph Lauren, as well as a family friend, led her to Timbacc International—a seven-factory operation based in Xien-Du, which
produces a variety of beaded products including evening gowns for Yves
St. Laurent.

“It was harder than I thought it would be to find a factory that would produce my bags,” she admits. “Although the Chinese are trying to be more modern, it is still a very traditional, male-dominated society. At the factories owned by men, no one would even return my calls. But a husband and wife team owns Timbacc, and the wife really runs the show.

Laura Lee had seamstresses there make enough bags to fill orders for about a year. By the fall of 2005, she was ready to peddle her purses. That December, she moved back to the U.S. so she could focus on getting her handbags into tony U.S. stores. Her first stop: Henri Bendel’s in New York City. As luck would have it the buyer was Foster Chang, a man of Asian decent. “He not only liked the quality and design of my bags, but appreciated that they were manufactured in China,” Laura Lee explains.

Chang set up a trunk show for her the week before Christmas, and Laura Lee sold two-dozen bags. It gave her the confidence to knock on more department store doors and today Laura Lee Designs—which range from $250 to $700—are sold internationally in Spain, Australia and the U.K. Nationally, they can be found at Bloomingdale’s, Fred Segal, the Ritz-Carlton gift shops, and tony boutiques from Los Angeles to Miami including Terri & Kate Clothier in Great Falls.

“I constantly have people telling me I need to meet someone who creates something special,” says Terri Parent, owner of Terri & Kate Clothier. “The work doesn’t always hold up to the praise—but that wasn’t the case with Laura Lee’s handbags. They are works of art. It’s the perfect accessory for a black suit or elegant evening down. You carry it, walk into a room—and you just stand out.”

That’s exactly what designers in Hollywood thought when they saw a sample of the bags. In fact, in a 2006 episode of Desperate Housewives, actress Eva Longoria’s character Gabrielle Solis carried a Laura Lee handbag—and the show’s costume designers made an outfit to match.

Soon after, organizers of the March 2007 Oscar Wilde pre-Oscar party called Laura Lee to order six of her purses to auction off to celebrities, and invited Williams to the gala.

“Now that was amazing,” admits Laura Lee. “I realize my bags aren’t for everyone, but the women who buy them are confident, and pride themselves on being fashionable, original, and making a statement. I like that in a woman, and want to encourage more ladies to stand out in a crowd and be recognized.”

For more information,visit

Thursday, November 19, 2009


When: Wednesday, December 2
Time: 6:00-8:00 p.m.

Where: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 3rd Floor Gallery, 1250 New York Ave., NW, Washington, DC
Register: Send an email to

How do we improve health care in the developing world? We start by improving the economic opportunities for women, says advisor to the chief economist of the World Bank, Dr. Maureen Lewis. Lewis will speak at a special networking event on Dec. 2 from 6-8 p.m. in Washington, DC, hosted by Robin Strongin, creator of the popular health care blog Disruptive Women in Health Care Other sponsors include Strongin’s public affairs firm, Amplify Public Affairs (, Strategic Health Policy International, Medco, Global Health Strategies, Creative Women and VirtuArte.

“It is gratifying to see how Disruptive Women has grown as a community, moving from words on a blog to global action. I am thrilled that this event and our bloggers have generated world-wide interest,” Strongin says. “We have created a place that takes the passion we have for health care and policy and merges it with solutions.”

This Disruptive Women in Health Care holiday reception will serve as the kick-off event for a series of blog posts by Disruptive Women and guest bloggers highlighting the connections between economic empowerment, the arts and improved health in the developing world.

“The Dec. 2 event is also the official launch for a series of blog posts that analyze the relationship between putting economic power in the hands of women — in the U.S. and abroad,” Strongin adds. “I am eager to hear the advice and ideas that Dr. Lewis will share with the impressive group that will be gathered. My belief is that when women put their heads together, great things happen.”


The mission of is to serve as a platform for provocative ideas, thoughts, and solutions in the health sphere. We recognize that to accomplish this, we need to call on experts outside of the health industry. The founding Disruptive Women have audacious hopes for our blog. We’re not managing change, we’re not thriving on chaos — we’re not waiting for cures. We’re driving change, we’re creating chaos, and we’re finding cures. In a nutshell: We’re disrupting the status quo in the health machine. Our goal is to become the “go to” health care blog -- one that is recognized as a Petri dish for fresh ideas and bold solutions. Won’t you join us?


Robin Strongin is the creator of the Disruptive Women in Health Care Blog ( and the president and CEO of Amplify Public Affairs ( She is an accomplished public affairs expert with more than 25 years of experience working in Washington, DC. Robin serves on the Board of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Capitol Chapter and is a member of the Women Business Leaders of the US Health Care Industry Foundation. She works with and for Federal and state governments, regulatory agencies, Congress, think tanks, nonprofit organizations, corporations, coalitions and trade associations.

Ampify Public Affairs is the next generation in public affairs, leading the way in the integration of new media and traditional communications strategies. With unequalled expertise in aligning allies, connecting voices, and promoting action, Amplify serves as a relationship builder, creating and sustaining win-win collaborations to move issues forward and influence targeted audiences. Through the blending of innovative communication technologies, credible coalition building, grassroots and top-tiered public affairs expertise, Amplify leverages connections to achieve targeted objectives in the public, private, and political arena.

Monday, November 16, 2009

NTSB Chairman Warns 'First Impessions Can Be Wrong'

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Debbie Hersman criticized the way some members of the press cover the aviation and transportation accidents at a National Press Club luncheon held on Nov. 16.

“We understand the need to solve the puzzle in the early hours of an accident, and we know your editors and producers want you to be the first to get the ‘cause’ of the accident, but what is the cost to your credibility if you are the first to get the cause wrong? We have learned from experience that first impressions can be wrong,” she said.

Hersman pointed to some of the less-than-savvy questions NTSB officials have received while on scene, including, “Who makes 747s besides Boeing?” “What kinds of planes make those white lines in the sky?” and “Who was steering the train?”

She said she understands that in today’s tough journalistic climate, “we don’t have the luxury of having only transportation experts cover our work. These reporters are very good surrogates for the public who, although they rely on our transportation system every day, often have a limited understanding of how it operates and how safe it is.”

The question, Hersman asked, is how do we provide important accident information responsibly?

“ As you know, the NTSB has been investigating major transportation accidents for more than 42 years, and in that time we’ve held thousands of press briefings near the accident scenes,” said Hersman, who joined NTSB in June 2004 and took over as its chairman in July 2009.

“I appreciate this opportunity to meet with journalists outside the atmosphere of a major transportation accident … I am often asked about how I feel about working with the press. I have to say, in the beginning, it was quite intimidating to stand in front of a bank of 20 microphones in a room full of cameras with reporters firing questions at me. “

She said that after accompanying NTSB teams to 17 major accidents in the last 5 years — ranging from the collision of two Washington Metro trains at Woodley Park Station in September, the mid-air collision involving a sightseeing helicopter and single engine plane over the Hudson River that killed 9 people in August — she said she had the opportunity to see her staff and the press corps in action.

“Of course all of our beat reporters are top notch, but occasionally we encounter reporters at the accident scene who don’t routinely cover transportation issues and have the – how shall I say it – don’t have a full grasp of the subject matter.

“Even in this changing environment, when you are being asked to re-invent yourselves on a regular basis, I hope you continue to achieve the professional satisfaction you sought when you became a reporter.”