The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman
Many years ago, I found myself guilty of a particular kind of deceit: that of giving a gift and then taking it back.
At the time, one of my roommates in our overcrowded apartment bordering Ocean Beach had just entered the culinary program of one of our local San Francisco colleges. Her aspirations of being a pastry chef were commendable, though I never saw her baking during the period of time we lived together. I came across “The Soul of a Chef” and as a gesture of good will gave it to her on her birthday.
I un-gave it the day I snuck into her room, “borrowing” it and then later moving out and forgetting it was still in my keeping. I bet you’re thinking, “Sure you did Annelies.” Well, I had every intention of putting it back where I’d found it… if that counts a little. Have you ever done something like that? With no forwarding phone number, no way to contact her, somehow once I moved was when I settled into the book.
And it was an epiphany.
In it, I found a congruence between my passion for food and the restaurant world with good writing and story-telling. Author Michael Ruhlman enticed me and I was hooked. It was the kind of read and I was the kind of reader who could quote whole sections from it. I had the great fortune through a previous job to meet the author Ruhlman at the Taste3 conference several years back. I gushed about how fantastic I had found his book, trying not to geek out too seriously as a writer can do when in the company of a writer they esteem. He gave me a kiss on the cheek and a smile for my kind sentiments- a nice interaction.
“The Soul of a Chef” tries to disseminate through clear examples what is the spark that defines the chef. Ruhlman explores this idea by breaking the book down into three sections. Section one deals with following several participants involved in the Culinary Institute of America’s CMC program. This section is gripping. You feel the sweat and nervousness of those chefs participating; you feel their hunger for the title of Certified Master Chef. You want them to make it all the way through and fret as it becomes apparent that some of them just won’t. This is also your first introduction to participant Brian Polcyn (with whom Ruhlman later goes onto pen “Charcuterie”).
Section two looks at up-and-comer chef (at the time) Michael Symon in Cleveland. Described as the “antithesis of the certified master chef”, Symon shows how cooking is fun. At the helm of his restaurant Lola, the reader gets an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to open a restaurant. He is an affable guy and if you’re like me, you want to hop on an airplane so you can experience his cooking.
Section three introduces the reader to Thomas Keller and his foray at the French Laundry. Upon reading “Soul’s” account of Keller, two things strike me that shifted my poor and just out of graduate school self into the camp of reverent respect. First, Keller talks about how learning to clean the bathrooms when he was younger really translated into a need for cleanliness and meticulous attention in the kitchen. The French Laundry’s kitchen uses CARPETED mats for crying out loud. Having worked back-of-house before, this is an incredble detail of comfort for the chef’s feet and testament to the cleanliness of his kitchen. Additionally,
“Keller was forever picking up cigarette butts himself. And I would warrant that if Keller had seen one of his cooks spot a butt and not pick it up, that cook would thereby have created an insurmountable barrier to advancement in the kitchen.” (p. 258)
I think for several months after reading the book, I aspired to be more conscientious about my bathroom cleaning abilities. It’s remarkable how if you do something in one area and it becomes habit it does translate to other areas. Excellence in one leads to excellence in others.
The second thing I deeply admire about Keller is that “Soul” describes his need to kill a rabbit if he’s going to serve it on his menu.
“It had been hard to kill those rabbits because life, to Keller, wasn’t meaningless. If their lives hadn’t meant anything, it would have been easy to kill them. He took that life , and so he wouldn’t waste it. But how easy it is to forget about a piece of meat in the oven, throw it in the garbage, and fire a new one. He would not overcook this rabbit. He cared about it too much at this point. These were going to be the best rabbits ever. He was going to do everything possible, short of getting in that oven to cook with them, to make sure they were perfect.” (p. 289-290)
“It goes back to the rabbit story,” he said. “At some point you either have to learn or be taught the importance of the food that we eat. It’s not about thanking God or anybody, that’s an individual thing, but it is about understanding the relationship between you and the food. And how that relationship has to be nurtured.” (p. 328-329)
As someone who has delved into vegetarianism for a year to try it on and feeling myself “a bad carnivore”, what resonated with me in this action of his was the respect for life and the desire to honor that life by preparing it masterfully and without waste. It’s something that influences me to this day.
By the end of “Soul”, you feel as if you’ve gotten an opportunity to play voyeur as you too are trying to discern that innate quality, the spark of what is the inner workings and makings of a chef.
At the point in my life when I read “Soul”, I had begun working in food marketing after many years working in a restaurant front-of-house during graduate school, a coffee shop in college, and then in a neighborhood bakery in high school. Of all the jobs I’d had had, those in food and namely hospitality made me happy and put a bounce in my step. I never had the slightest inclination to become a chef. I love to cook but for me that other essence is not there. Instead, I now rally behind chef friends who succeed and try to put in a good word for others whose vision and passion are ones that ring true. After the many years that have passed since reading “Soul”, I can say this was a seminal book in my life. It reminded me that I want to and love to write. Ruhlman brings you along on his culinary adventures and makes it fun. It also gave me enormous appreciation for the chefs mentioned in the book- for their hard work and dedication to excellence.
“In the chaos of kitchen work, writing about it, watching it, working it, from the torrent of sensory perceptions, the stress of the work, the flood of food information, endless, often contradictory, I likewise looked for patterns, repetitions. So much of life in kitchens, the work of cooking, and the food that resulted paralleled the bigger picture. And here was the overriding repetition: The best cooks talked about the very basic elements of cooking.” (p.262)
If you enjoy biography or food literature, I would heartily pass you my small tome, but well, I should probably look for that former roommate cum pastry chef in the making. Afterall, her sister is now friends with me on facebook.