Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio remains one of the most essential cookbooks in my kitchen for its reliance on basic formulas rather than completed recipes – the core idea is that once a moderately experienced cook has the underlying ratio of a recipe, s/he can build up or embellish from there on his/her own. But Ruhlman first came to prominence as a food writer for a series of narrative non-fiction books on the American culinary scene as depicted through its chefs; one of those books, The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, combines three mini-books into one volume that explores three different corners of this world.
Part one takes us through the Certified Master Chef exam, a controversial test that runs participants, most of whom are successful chefs but none of whom (at least in this telling) are celebrities, through the gamut of cuisines with a particular emphasis on French classical cooking; each candidate must pass every part to earn certification, although s/he can fail one section and retake it after the rest of the test is completed. Ruhlman weaves together the individual candidates’ experiences – mostly struggles – with discussions of the food and cuisines covered and some mentions of the disdain held for the exam in parts of the industry. Part two jumps to Michael Symon, at the time a rising star in Ruhlman’s native Cleveland but now a bona fide national celebrity who’s one of the Iron Chefs on Iron Chef America, taking us through a few weeks at his flagship restaurant, Lola, with a window on the beginnings of his emergence on the national food radar. (I’ve been to Lolita, a more casual restaurant Symon opened in Lola’s original space, and was very impressed, but clearly I need to get back to Cleveland to try Lola proper.) Part three is an inside look at Ruhlman’s work with French Laundry chef-owner Thomas Keller on the first of several cookbooks they would write together, probably the section with the least narrative greed but the most interesting food, as Ruhlman gets as far into Keller’s mind as anyone short of Dom Cobb could. (Also interesting was the name of one of the young chefs in Keller’s kitchen: Grant Achatz, today famous for his wildly inventive food at Alinea and for his battle with tongue cancer, about which he wrote in Life, on the Line.) Best of all, The Soul of a Chef concludes with recipes from all three of the primary chefs profiled in the book, including Symon’s signature corn crepes with BBQ duck confit and several of Keller’s best-known dishes from The French Laundry.
Ruhlman’s gift as a food writer is the way he combines strong storytelling with passion for and knowledge of great food. He went through the Culinary Institute of America’s program when writing The Making of a Chef and thus understands the fundamentals of professional cooking but also areas of cuisine now considered esoteric outside of the great restaurants, like forcemeats and terrines or offal, and can make these foods or techniques accessible to the lay reader. He will have you rooting for candidates in the CMC exam, and rooting for Symon to earn his restaurant, successful locally, more national notice that will boost him personally but also the Cleveland restaurant scene as a whole.
If there’s any real weakness to The Soul of a Chef – aside from the proofreading, which, while I am a huge Ruhlman fan, I must admit is not his strength – it’s the lack of any real tie between the three sections. They’re all chefs, they are all dedicated to their craft in a way that straddles the line between admirable and obsessive, and they do sit at three separate places on the scale of culinary celebrity (which I would not conflate with culinary success). But this book read like three non-fiction novellas, three very good ones that told compelling stories (Ruhlman infuses the visit to Lola by an influential national food writer with a ton of tension, almost as much as occurs naturally in the CMC section) and expanded my knowledge and/or understanding of food. I’m not even sure that that disconnect between the three sections is a flaw, but enter this book expecting a collection of very strong essays rather than a single 300-page narrative.
* Ruhlman now has a new cookbook out, called Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques 100 Recipes A Cook’s Manifesto, but I haven’t seen it yet and probably won’t until deeper into the offseason. I’m just now working through Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill Cookbook, which I bought after seeing it included recipes for everything I’ve had and liked at the restaurants of that name.