So everyone knows about my clandestine relationship with Anthony Bourdain (so clandestine, in fact, that he is not yet aware of it) but there is another man in my foodie fantasy life, and that man is Michael Ruhlman. I knew he was out there, I’d seen him judging “The Next Iron Chef,” and seen his books, I’d heard him interviewed on various podcasts, but when I saw him on “No Reservations” with Anthony, in Vegas, I knew that he completed me. Smart, handsome, nattily attired, he is both a fine writer and an inquisitive and thoughtful student of food. There is really nothing more that I need.
I am trying to get past the fact that he likes Claudia more than he likes me (she is prettier and, incidentally, has actually met the man) and focus only on my responses to The Soul of a Chef the 2001 book in which Ruhlman looks beyond the recipes, the celebrity opportunities and the public persona of chefs and into what makes them do the work that they do. Ruhlman, who attended the Culinary Institute of America (“CIA”) in order to write his first book, The Making of a Chef, brings to the table his own strong opinions, as well as an unusual combination of knowledge and curiosity. This is no PR piece for the chefs about whom Ruhlman writes; he pulls no punches and seems at all times to be mindful of the difference between the intentions and philosophies of each chef and the ways in which those interior forces do (or in some cases, do not) work themselves out on the plate.
The Soul of a Chef consists of three parts: a description of the Certified Master Chef examination given at the CIA, and observations on the work of chef Michael Symon of Lola, and Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. (Ruhlman also provides a number of relevant recipes at the back of the book). The MCM is a test that makes the Bar Exam look like a mere bagatelle; conducted over several days it requires candidates to cook in a variety of styles to very exacting tolerances. The dropout rate is high, and the failure rate is high; furthermore, most “foodies” don’t even know of the existence of the exam, and many well known and successful chefs denigrate it as meaningless compared to the body of their work in the “real world.” Chef Brian Polcyn is prominently features in the CMC portion of the book, and regardless of whether one is a foodie, the description of Polcyn’s turmoil about the exam reads like the most compelling fiction. He wants to pass, he has already failed once before, he knows he is a fine chef, and while he wants desperately to prove that he can pass, he is unwilling to completely relinquish his own sensibilities and understandings in order to meet a standard that is largely based on techniques and rules that are no longer the currency of working chefs.
In writing about Michael Symon, it is clear that Ruhlman likes the guy, and so will most readers. Symon is clearly no slouch as a technician or in terms of creative vision; he beat a field of fiercely talented competitors to become the newest of Food Network’s Iron Chefs. In the book, we see Symon triumphant, Symon chain smoking anxiously in his basement office, and Symon bucking the Kitchen Confidential image of restaurant kitchens as brutal, inhuman cesspools by treating his staff as family with high expectations, bluntness, righteous anger and encouragement depending on the situation. He is intense, and certainly cares about imagining and preparing food that will delight and satisfy, but Symon is no anal perfectionist and we do not envision him giving up a week of working days and spending thousands of dollars to travel to Hyde Park and try his hand at the CMC examination. The measure of his work, it seems, has to do with the daily successes and failures in his own restaurant (now restaurants) and not against an arcane and possibly irrelevant standard of excellence.
While I liked Brian Polcyn for his entirely recognizable inner struggles, and Michael Symon for his passion and exuberance, I had a harder time with Thomas Keller. It is in writing about Keller, though, that Ruhlman demonstrates the level of his insight and his gift for distilling the essence of a complicated man much like Keller distills the essence of a carrot to create a clear soup that makes you “understand what a carrot is.” Keller has a vision, and a way of shaping his kitchen, his restaurant and his food that is in many ways rigid, but also elevates ideas and ingredients to the point where they become art. It is in the way his mind works that this alchemy begins; many chefs could prepare similar dishes or riff on the same classic recipes, but Keller is able to imagine food so evocative, so simple and so essential that it creates emotional responses ranging from laughter to blubbering, embarrassed worship in his audience.
If you are interested in food, or art, or the workings of the human soul, I strongly suggest adding this to your “to read” list. Its also okay to read it just because Michael Ruhlman is all that and a bag of chips, but even then I promise that you will end up admiring his fine mind…too.