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Michael Ruhlman's "The Soul of a Chef"

The book's cover
Jacob Wojnar

Michael Ruhlman "The Soul of a Chef"


This 2001 book was and remains one of the emerging 'insider' accounts of various celebrated kitchens, culinary icons, and the internal society of cooks and foodservice workers. This particular volume deals with three completely different mindsets, yet very similar outlooks on the world, and how, in the end, it really is all about the food, giving a double handful of phenomenal recipes and preparations.

The first third of the book deals with something most people, even most culinary enthusiasts know much at all about: the exam to become a CMC, a Certified Master Chef. Proctored at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, this is a test that distills centuries of preparation techniques to their fundamental essence. For a modern chef in an age of improvisation, of jazz-like innovation, this return to ruthlessly enforced basic principles is both enormously taxing and immensely humbling. There's a very good reason this test has only a handful of candidates every year, and very few success stories, even from those.

However, the downside to this component is that it's rather choppily written. The candidates are rather flat, and while their trials illuminate them, it's often not enough. Most of them aren't detailed with enough personality or history, so it's hard to cheer them on except in a somewhat abstract manner. Imagine, if you will, the difficulty of transposing a television program like Iron Chef into a short story- if you don’t grasp the concept intuitively, the presence, the impact just isn't there unless you spend untold amounts of time on descriptive, dramatic language.

The second part of the book dives headlong into a renowned restaurant, Michael Symon's Lola, in Cleveland. It goes into detail about the modestly laissez-faire kitchen, its loyal staff, brilliant menu, and the restaurant's enormous success, serving beautiful food with their own unique style. This section is much more smoothly written, and serving in seeming counterpoint to, the beginning's rigid focus; underneath though, the very same intensity and passion for excellence is still strong and easy to see.

The third section finds what may be the perfect synthesis of the CMC exam's classical pedigree and the modern groove of a contemporary restaurant, Thomas Keller and The French Laundry. A superb analysis of the man, his history, his food and his philosophies is accented by a breathless commentary on the food itself.

A short epilogue revisits the highs and lows of the book, doing some thoughtful comparing and contrasting between the sections and characters portrayed throughout. It does an excellent job of bringing the components together and closing out the manuscript.

But it's not over. Following that, as I noted earlier, there are recipes; some from each part of the book: the CMC exam candidates, Lola bar and bistro, and Thomas Keller's French Laundry. Each stands on its own merit, and are much less intimidating outside of their environments of origin. Home cooks will adore dishes like Lola's Slash-and-burn Grouper (p 352), but may avoid trying their hand at Keller's intimidating Oysters And Pearls (p 358). Nonetheless, there are recipes for all degrees of intensity, and most levels of casual or professional talent.

I liked this book. It gives useful insights into a field that is defined by excellence, and in thorough exposition, shows how difficult it can be to define something that sounds so simple. There seem to be many forms of success, from business savvy, popularity with locals, with media, or even sheer mastery of technique, creativity, and that elusive, ephemeral quantity that's either there, or it's not. The industry is trying to define it one way, many successful chefs are defining it another, and the world of people they serve often has something else in mind entirely.

Who's right?

Whoever's happiest.

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