This is the first Michael Ruhlman book I’ve read. Since it is one of his early efforts I found a clumsy sentence here or there that brought me out of the life of a chef but the conversational tone and explanations was able to pull me back in. My introduction to Ruhlman (and Michael Symon) was the Cleveland episode of Anthony Bourdain’s tv show No Reservations. Ruhlman has written many books (memoirs, cookbooks, and non-fiction) since this one was published. I plan on reading more of his books.
This book has three parts and an epilogue. The first part is about the certified master chef exam. The second part is about Lola, Michael Symon’s first restaurant. (Since the book was written, Lola has moved to another Cleveland location and Lolita now resides in the original Lola space.) The third part is about the French Laundry and Thomas Keller. The epilogue is Ruhlman’s ruminations on the entire experience. As a bonus, there is an Appendix with recipes from some of the chefs featured in the book.
Part I: Certified Master Chef Exam (Or the Objective Truth of Great Cooking)
If you have ever seen Bravo’s Top Chef with it’s quickfire challenges and judges table then you have a small taste of what the Certified Master Chef Exam is like. But imagine paying thousands of dollars for ten days of classes and tests with no guarantee that you will make it beyond the first day and there is no guarantee you will receive the certification that many in your industry look down upon. Each candidate is given a list ahead of time of the equipment and kitchen staples. They attend classes in the mornings and then get the afternoon and evenings to prepare for their exams. Each exam covers the use of the knowledge imparted during the lecture, execution of cooking methods, food combinations, and so forth. Brian Polcyn is one of the chefs featured in this section.
Part II: Lola
I’m sure no one predicted during the writing of The Soul of a Chef that Michael Symon would become a Food Network star. He is currently one of the American Iron Chefs and the host of Dinner Impossible. (Note: It was recently announced that Robert Levine will return to hosting the show and Michael Symon has two shows currently in the works at the network.) This chapter is basically a profile on what can make a successful restaurant. These ingredients include (1) good food, (2) a personable chef, (3) dedicated staff and (4) high expectations from everyone involved in the restaurant. Symon was just named one of the 10 Best New Chefs for 1998 in Food & Wine when Ruhlman decided he needed to spend some extended time at Lola to see if he could pinpoint why it was going so well for Symon.
Part III: Journey Toward Perfection
Through a mutual acquaintance, Ruhlman is introduced to Thomas Keller and eventually co-writes a cookbook with him (and Polcyn from the first section). During his time with Keller, Ruhlman meets with Keller in California and Ohio. They discuss not only food but the philosophy behind what makes a good food experience. After all, someone can have a perfectly executed meal that still falls flat on flavors and vice versa.
The epilogue is really a summary of the time Ruhlman spends with these chefs. At the heart of this experience is a conversation between Ruhlman and Keller. It is the one of the points Bill Buford was trying to get across with his book Heat; we’re becoming a nation of non-cooks. And it’s true. Recently a recipe I was given called for grated nutmeg. When faced with a whole nutmeg I could not identify it on sight and had to ask if the whole thing gets grated or should it be broken open and then grated? And I realized the other day I’ve never made macaroni and cheese that did not originate from a box.