Kelly the Culinarian: Media meal: "The Making of a Chef" by Michael Ruhlman

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Media meal: "The Making of a Chef" by Michael Ruhlman

In my leisurely summer (something like that) I've been getting to some long-awaited reading. After Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential," I had to read Michael Ruhlman's "The Making of a Chef."

The first couple of chapters were hard to get through. Where Bourdain was to the point and very nonchalant about his food, Ruhlman's account of his time at the Culinary Institute of America was filled with flowery language and unapproachable food terms that need explanation (I looked up several terms. I am not an educated foodie, just an enthusiast).

Ruhlman is a journalist by trade who entered the CIA as such in order to document what it's like to go through the program. While he took many of the classes, he simply observed others. At one point in his skills class, the initial indoctrination into the CIA, Ruhlman decides he transformed into a cook when he trekked out in a New York blizzard to be at his course's final exam, despite the 25-mile drive.

But there is more practical information to be gleaned out of Ruhlman's book. For example, there are four dimensions to a good palate: acid, sweet, sour and bitter. Knowing how to play with these elements and how they interact is key to developing your palate. There are also great tips and recipe ideas scattered throughout, such as this vegetarian quesadilla pizza: flour tortilla smeared with goat cheese, roasted garlic, rosemary and black olives, then topped with roasted red, yellow and poblano peppers, cheese and a sundried- and roasted-tomato sauce. Sounds good to me, I'd order it.

There's also presentation tips that Ruhlman writes about when he was working in the CIA's restaurants, like piping hot mashed potatoes on a plate or arranging steak fries like Lincoln logs. He notes that they arrange items on a plate based on numbers on the clock according to the china pattern. Customer service is king here and what the diner wants, they get.

Another fascinating point is the descriptions of the professors he encountered along the way. The portrait Ruhlman paints of CIA President Metz is rich in detail, taking into account his dress, demeanor, background and the general sense of respect people have for him. Most professors are analyzed in detail so that readers get the sense that the CIA is really presenting the best of the best, through their professors, execution of the food and flow of coursework.

The only thing that I found irksome was the self-congratulatory tone Ruhlman took at parts of the book when he discusses his own performance on exams and practicals. He notes his own progress and the compliments peers gave him. I assume his did this to try and build up his own credibility on the subject, but I think that would have been best addressed by talking about his background in food rather than his successes in an insulated school.

I still don't know if I can tell you exactly what makes a chef or why the CIA is the foremost cooking school in America, other than the fact that they're meticulous and teach every facet of cuisine, even the out dated ones. It would appear that the basic training each student receives in skills give them a base, while their externships in which they work in real kitchens polish them off.

It opens the door to the question of is the CIA really necessary to be a great chef. Maybe, maybe not. The same has been said about journalism schools, but that's another debate for another day.


Keren Brown said...

I really enjoyed this post. I can't wait to read this.

Retno Prihadana said...

Sound interesting!. I´m waiting for the next tricks and tips from CIA or you.

Dawg said...

This is a really good, concise review. Great job. It's been on my wish list for some time but haven't had a chance to get to it. I'm currently reading "The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine" by Stephen Rinella - it's a super fun read - check it out!