Taste for the Good Life Keeps Publisher in Kitchen

Reader's Digest Association Chief Thomas O. Ryder Is Also a Chef

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An executive from a major shareholder in the Reader's Digest Association was so pleased with his meal at the Cookhouse in Darien, Conn., last August that he asked to see the chef. As the story goes, the chef emerged drenched in sweat and covered in food. Nonetheless, he was unmistakably Reader's Digest Association Chairman-CEO Thomas O. Ryder.
Retiring Reader's Digest Association Chairman-CEO Thomas O. Ryder is a gourmet chef on his own time.
Retiring Reader's Digest Association Chairman-CEO Thomas O. Ryder is a gourmet chef on his own time.

'Pay you enough?'
"He looked at me and said, 'Don't we pay you enough?' " Mr. Ryder recalled. "His first assumption was that I was working short order on the side on weekends."

In a way that was the right assumption. Mr. Ryder has led RDA since he was recruited from American Express in 1998, but he has been pitching in and investing in his family's restaurants since his son Rob opened the first incarnation of the Cookhouse in New Milford, Conn., in 1997.

Even before that, Mr. Ryder was an evident gourmand. While at American Express, he started the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen as a way to bring Food & Wine to life.

Winemakers and great cooks
"The concept was to bring together winemakers with great cooks and celebrate life and food and wine," said Mr. Ryder. "It became a hell of an enterprise." This June the event, still going strong, will host chefs like Mario Batali, Giada De Laurentiis and Jacques Pepin over three days.

Born in 1944, Mr. Ryder grew up in Louisiana and cooked, well, to eat. "Food was not a hobby for a long time," he said. Because both his parents worked, Mr. Ryder said he learned to cook dinner for himself and his younger brother, Rob. He picked up techniques, too, hanging at out with his mom during some of her 45 years waiting tables in Alexandria, La.

When Mr. Ryder's son first opened the Cookhouse, he built the menu from old family recipes, food that Mr. Ryder had eaten as a kid and fed his children.

Retiring later this year
Today Mr. Ryder, who is retiring from RDA at the end of the year, can help out at restaurants operated by his wife and his son that include an inn in Newtown, Conn., and Cookhouses in Darien, New Milford and East Hartford. (Branford, Conn., is next.)

"I get to play the dilettante, which means this Saturday I will go in and cook at one of our restaurants," he said. "I get to do it on my terms and my schedule." He described his chief roles as "very good taster" and "very good cook."

All the while, particularly in Darien, he encounters acquaintances and business partners. "Something like half the publishers in America live around there," he said.

But the two worlds can only come together so much. Mr. Ryder can't show off his family's culinary success to the RDA board because it can't spend company money in restaurants where he has a stake. "It's hard for Reader's Digest to participate," he said.

Vice president's wife
(There was one exception. "I had my son do a pro bono dinner one night for our board, one of whom at the time was Lynne Cheney," he said of the vice president's wife. "Rob wound up feeding half the Secret Service contingent.")

The big question for many who know both Mr. Ryder and his family's restaurants is whether Mr. Ryder is the inspiration for Cookhouse mascot "Fat Tommy." Menus describe Fat Tommy this way (in part): "He drives an old rusty truck with a Smithfield pork butt hanging from the rearview mirror in case he needs an emergency snack." They also call Fat Tommy "the spiritual leader."

Asked directly about his connection with the character, he demurred. "Fat Tommy?" he said, as if he hadn't considered it. "Fat Tommy is a spiritual being. I'm tall, thin and look like George Clooney."

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Ad Age is looking for interesting Off Hours stories from marketer world executives. If you have a fascinating Off Hours activity, describe your passion in an e-mail to Mike Ryan at mryan@crain.com.
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