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Michael Ruhlman's "The Reach of a Chef"

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Michael Ruhlman "The Reach of a Chef"

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For those of you who aren't in the food business, or who don't know who Michael Ruhlman is, I can give you the two minute run-through. A promising writer, he's authored several books related to the culinary field. I reviewed one of his earlier works, “The Soul of a Chef” some years back, but only published my critique recently. (I've included the link at the end of this piece) He keeps a frequently updated website at http://ruhlman.com/ with frequent recipes, gorgeous photographs, a small shop with useful kitchen tools, and even a couple of handy apps for your phone. If you're looking for a go-to other than Alton Brown, some of his other works ('Twenty', 'Shmaltz', and 'Ratio') are pretty safe bets.

I thought I might continue working my way back through more of his publications to give them a proper analysis. I re-read “The Reach of a Chef” and noted some thoughts on the matter.

The book begins with a back-of-house visit to a newly-opening Per Se, Thomas Keller's New York City bastion of excellence, revealing that even the greatest of us have off days- Chef Keller somehow lost his shoes. In his own restaurant! Imagine that. Normal day at the office, and suddenly you're in your socks going 'wait, what the...?!'

This and the following two chapters help to gracefully set the stage for the meat of the book, which goes into detail about the rapid evolution of the chef and the restaurant as concepts in the public eye.

A series of thought-provoking interview snippets from a mix of high-caliber restaurant chefs and veteran instructors at the Culinary Institute of America manage to encompass many facets of the culinary paradigm shift. These range from the treatment of students and development of the culinary educational environment, and the massive potential that expanding scientific understanding has served to develop in the culinary world regarding ingredients and methods of implementation, to things as simple as the exploding variety of visible career paths that can start with the knowledge and love of food.

The next sections take a step back into his earlier book- “The Soul of a Chef” to go into a fair bit more detail about a few people now that their careers have evolved. Touching briefly on CMC candidate Brian Polcyn and Iron Chef Michael Symon, the differing trajectories of the restaurant owners lead into the lengthy discussion of what Ruhlman calls “The Branded Chef”. Since no single restaurant can lead lead to the wealth and station that many professionals who pursue excellence in food are long past due, chefs and restaurateurs are modernizing their methodology, finding ways to expand awareness and raise capital that require less physical labor and (more importantly) don't compromise their standards.

The one troublesome thing I found with this book is that while it's engaging, it reads more like a handful of novellas than a comprehensive piece, Very similar to The Soul of a Chef in execution and style, the sections can be a little choppy, the transitioning not smooth as the narratives shift. Rather as if his style is too firmly rooted in short-form narrative to expand to a full length novel.

Metaphorically, Ruhlman's putting out fantastic food, but he keeps dropping his tongs between plate-ups. This is a fantastic read for aspiring culinary professionals and knowing veterans alike, full of keen insight and a well developed all-sides analysis. It's a few years old now, but like the author's other books, they possess a measure of timelessness, a vital component in valuable literature. A few stutter-steps in storytelling are a small price to pay for this superb result.

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