Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Soul of a Chef (Michael Ruhlman)

When I was nineteen, I started waiting tables at a chain restaurant in El Paso. I worked until 2 or 3 in the morning, slept until noon, got out of bed to go swim at the pool up the street, then went back to work to do it all again at 4 in the afternoon. I could carry three heavy plates on one arm at a time. Ladies from Mexico with heavy gold jewelry and large sunglasses came in for lunch on Sundays, ordered Coke "sin huelo" and warned me "God forbid" if there were tomatoes on anything I served them. A drunk man tried to bite my arm when I took away his empty beer glass. A mariachi band left me a two-dollar tip on an $80 tab.

Anyone will restaurant experience will appreciate Michael Ruhlman's book The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection. The two restaurants and chefs he profiles are on a much different level than anything I worked in or anyone I worked for, but the basic operation is still the same. And in this book Ruhlman focuses on the basics of cooking, the smallest details of them and those great chefs that extend those details to great food and great restaurants.

The book is separated into three sections: the first on the Culinary Institute of America's (CIA) certified master chef exam, the second on Lola, a Cleveland restaurant run by a chef who's personality and style exemplify his cooking style, and the final section on the premier Northern Californian restaurant, the French Laundry, and its chef, Thomas Keller.

Ruhlman's writing is excellent, and I very much enjoyed the book. I do, however, disagree with Ruhlman when he says (and he's pretty adamant about this) that cooking is a skill, not an art. I think it can be an art. I'm a bit amazed he still held this opinion after the amount of time he spent with Thomas Keller, given the examples in the book of Keller's creativity and concepts with the dishes he prepares. I found the last two sections most engaging (though I did enjoy the competition aspect of the first section), and I especially was intrigued with Keller's story.

After I picked this book up from the library, I learned that it was a follow-up to Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef, where Ruhlman attends the CIA and writes about that experience. If I had known that before, I probably would have started with that book, but I think this one stands alone just fine by itself.

Next book up: Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

No comments: