Today’s Klawchat transcript is up. I am planning to go to tonight’s Mets/D-backs game and hope to file something off it tomorrow.
The Culinary Institute of America has become the most prestigious cooking school in the country, expanding from a small, all-male class when it opened 66 years ago in New Haven, to a large campus in Hyde Park, New York, featuring four restaurants and a rolling calendar where a new set of students matriculates every three weeks. For the CIA’s 50th anniversary in 1996, writer Michael Ruhlman went through the curriculum as a student, albeit at an accelerated rate and without the required restaurant externship, and wrote a book about this first-hand experience. The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America became a best-seller and established Ruhlman as one of the top food writers in the business, succeeding both because of its lively, energetic prose and because Ruhlman absorbed so much food knowledge while working his way through his classes.
Ruhlman refers to himself as an “undercover” student, although the faculty are aware of his presence and role, and he cooks right alongside the students, finding himself judged and graded as they are – and often defending himself when he’s not happy with the results. These classes range from basic knife skills to butchering to sauces to pastry, concluding with a 15-week run through the four on-campus restaurants run by the CIA, which range from family dining to formal and assign each student to a different station each day, forcing them to draw on all of their prior education.
Ruhlman’s great trick in this book is finding and conveying drama in what otherwise might seem the most mundane of tasks: The preparation of food. From early classes where the object is to beat the clock and achieve a good enough result for a demanding professor to later work in the restaurants, where students’ work is served to paying customers (and, occasionally, the school’s president or a visiting celebrity chef), Ruhlman manages to evoke a sense of urgency in the reader, turning dry material into compelling prose. He achieves this primarily through dialogue, letting his fellow students (and, often, himself) communicate their rising stress levels, rather than trying to explain it directly in a way that would likely sound trite to anyone who’s never spent time in a restaurant kitchen. There’s a recurring theme in the book about the need for chefs to push themselves harder and faster than they thought possible, something hard to imagine if you’re in a job that doesn’t have the same kind of time pressures.
He also uses the open question of what type of roux (a cooked combination of flour and fat, used as the base for many major sauces, as well as for gumbo) one should use to make the poorly-named “brown sauce,” which also relies on veal stock, aromatics, and tomatoes (usually as a paste) for flavor and then itself becomes a foundation for countless other sauces. There are two answers to the question, blond or brown, but the way in which each instructor answers the question reveals much about his/her philosophy of food and, perhaps more importantly to this book, philosophy of teaching about food. The lengthy discussion of the making of consomme follows a similar path – it is not sufficient to know what consomme is or how to make it; one must understand why making it so clear that the instructor can read the writing on a dime at the bottom of a gallon of this clarified meat stock matters.
Although Making of a Chef is a book about cooking, it’s not a cookbook – there are no recipes, nothing more specific than a general description of some fundamentals like brown sauce. The story is full of unusual characters, instructors and students, but none becomes a central figure and some of the students blink in and out of the story as they leave campus for their externships at high-end restaurants – a requirement for graduation at the CIA. It’s a book about an idea, that cooking, only recently seen as a highly respectable profession in the United States, can be codified and taught to the inexpert so that they can enter the world of haute cuisine and develop their own culinary concepts. It also details Ruhlman’s own intellectual evolution from someone who enjoys food to someone who understands it, appreciates it, and, fortunately for us, can write about it in an informative and eloquent way. For a book that would seem, on its face, to lack a compelling hook, it was very hard for me to put down.
I own four other books by Ruhlman, none better or more heavily used than Ruhlman’s Twenty, an absolutely essential cookbook that I reviewed in November. It goes through twenty ingredients or techniques that are key for any home cook, with numerous foolproof recipes that often include step-by-step instructions and photographs to help the less experienced reader.