I've previously reviewed two other Michael Ruhlman books (The Making of a Chef and The Soul of a Chef), and The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen is the third book in this informal series. Ruhlman’s writing is good, the kind of good where you don’t even notice it because you’re so caught up in the story he’s telling. I am also a frequent reader of his blog, which I recommend because it not only provides good food discussion, but he actually engages in conversation those who comment, and you just never know when Anthony Bourdain will stop by and guest blog, going on one of those juicy, expletive-laden (but in the best way possible) tirades it is in his nature to do. Life is never boring at ruhlman.com.
Ruhlman begins this book by explaining how confused we are as a country about food:
Since the end of World War II, this country has been out of sync with the natural order of sustenance and nourishment, embracing processed foods, revering canned goods, “instant” breakfasts, and frozen dinners, then elevating fast food to a way of life with such force that its impact has become global, then simultaneously abhorring animal fat for health and dietary reasons, while still becoming the fattest community on earth, then turning around to proselytize on diets composed entirely of salt-rich protein and animal fat, and banishing bread of all things---the staff of life was now the evildoer, and just when bakers in this country had figured out how to make it well. We completely upended the food pyramid we’d always accepted as undeniable and good common sense. Ours is a country that for years held out a silver cross at eggs. Eggs are bad for you. Eggs! The most natural food on earth, a symbol of life and fertility, a compact package of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates whose versatility in the kitchen, pleasure at the table, and economy at the store is unmatched by any other food. We learned to hate the egg! Do you need any further proof that something is seriously wrong with this country that teaches people to avoid eggs?
He also returns to the Culinary Institute of America (the subject of the previous two books mentioned above) to see how the school has changed since the rise of the celebrity chef:
[Eve Felder] suggested the change in the dynamic may have begun in 1989, when the school first gave students teacher-evaluation sheets, officially called "Feedback Forms," to fill out at the end of each block. This was a revolutionary idea (and not a very pleasant one) to a chef who had been pretty much allowed to do what he wanted in his own kitchen. "My staff gets to evaluate me? Grade me?"
The Reach of a Chef focusing on some newer talents, two especially: Grant Achatz and Melissa Kelly. Grant Achatz (who worked for Thomas Keller at the French Laundry) is the executive chef of Alinea, which is among the first Chicago restaurants to get the a four-star New York--restaurant amount of press for the quality of the food and the sheer creativity. (“the PB&J. . . A peeled green grape, still attached to its stem, had been glazed with peanut butter, sprinkled with chopped peanuts, and rolled in a very thin slice of bread, then lightly toasted”). [A brief update on Grant: Doctors recently found a cancerous tumor in his tongue, needing aggressive cancer treatment. The standard treatment would mean loss of part of his tongue and most likely loss of his taste buds, which would be a tragic fate for one of the country’s top chefs. However, a team of doctors at the University of Chicago is working on an alternative treatment for him, trying to take care of the cancer, while saving his sense of taste. So far the initial stages of the treatment have been quite successful. I do wish the best for Grant.] Melissa Kelly seems to be at the opposite spectrum as Grant. While both chefs are centered in classic technique, Melissa takes a different approach, cooking food her grandfather would love. She and her husband own Primo in coastal Maine, located in an old Victorian house and have a large garden on the grounds they use for their restaurant, focusing on fresh food, new menu items daily. No foams, no deconstruction. Real fresh food, heirloom food, cooked well.
Ruhlman also discusses “the branding of the chef”---Wolfang Puck soups, chef’s outposts in Vegas, Emerilware---and talks some about both Rachael Ray and Emeril. Oh, and the chef consensus on Emeril? While everyone may not love what he’s doing on TV, they all say what a nice guy he is. Even Tony Bourdain.
If you like food, read Michael Ruhlman. That's really what it comes down to. Read his books, read his blog, watch him in the Cleveland episode of Bourdain's No Reservations. Watch him on his upcoming show The Next Iron Chef America (which starts this Sunday on the Food Network). I don't think you'll be disappointed.