I generally dislike cooking. I can create a good meal when I put my mind to it, but I tend to see it as just another chore on a long list. I try to get it over with as soon as possible, so I can do other, more interesting things with my time. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that if I dare read any more of Michael Ruhlman's books, I may come to have a grudging affection for the act of preparing a meal.
My copy of The Soul of a Chef is sitting here on the table with sticky notes on many of its pages marking lines that resonated with this reluctant cook. The fact that I was compelled to mark pages is interesting because I don't often do it with the books I read for pleasure. I might copy down an interesting passage or mark a page or two, but the bristling pink marks in Ruhlman's book are an immediate clue that there is more to this book than recipes.
There is a story here--actually several compelling stories--and as Ruhlman searches for the answer to his question (what makes the "soul" of the quintessential chef), he reveals a way of looking at life that is both intriguing and inspiring. This perspective comes from Ruhlman's study of several chefs, most notably Brian Polcyn, Michael Symon and Thomas Keller, but also from observing many of the "minor players" that populate the kitchens of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and the restaurants of Symon and Keller.
Michael Ruhlman knows the world of food and chefs and restaurants well. A journalist by trade, he enrolled in the CIA so he could play at being a student for a while and "then write an intimate, colorful narrative of learning to cook, a lively description of what one needed to know to be a professional chef....I figured this was going to be neat." What Ruhlman didn't expect was to get completely pulled in to the intense, the often exhausting and utterly gratifying life of a chef himself. He quickly forgot that he was on a lark, of sorts, to gather material; Ruhlman became a trained chef.
I learned mental flexibility: You can accomplish anything, anything at all, if you put your mind to it. One must adopt a can-do-anything attitude. You were a professional. You didn't say no, not ever. You didn't complain. You didn't get tired. And you showed up, no matter what. You got there. Nothing but nothing kept you from reaching that kitchen....Also, you accepted the implicit obligation of excellence: Every effort would be your absolute best. Otherwise it was simply not worth doing.
But though he became trained as a chef, Ruhlman became more and more curious about what makes a true chef because "what I was seeing was [the] professional chef almost in caricature." What Ruhman sought was the professional chef out in the real culinary world, in busy, successful restaurants. So Ruhlman went from this own training at the CIA to working in restaurants himself to observing the chefs who were taking the infamous and grueling Certified Master Chef (CMC) exam. And then he sought out Michael Symon, then a rising star, now very well known, and Thomas Keller, the most renowned chef in the United States.
What Ruhlman learned from these two very different chefs (and also from observing the CMC exam) is that while very skilled and talented people can be trained to be excellent chefs, there is something inherent in "becoming not simply a chef and not a great cook but rather a great chef" that comes from the soul. There is an essence within a great chef that goes beyond all training and all experience. With Michael Symon that essence, comes from passion, exuberance, the ability to make people happy with his own joy at presenting them delicious food. He was at the beginning of his game when Ruhlman observed him and he had that culinary charisma already in his late twenties.
Keller, who was already well established as the premier chef in America when this book came out, had a more zen-like "soul":
Thomas Keller had been 100 percent driven toward cooking for nearly twenty-five years, a quarter century's active engagement in food and feeding people and watching how the world worked in relation to the cooking. He was smart, sensorily engaged in the world and seemed to be connected to the life core, that energy, that meaning, that order I sensed in the world and that cooking could connect you to. He tried to put all he was and all he knew into his food, always striving toward perfection, and had been doing so for a long time. To be a great chef required this much time, this much presence within the work.
Ultimately, Michael Ruhlman comes to believe that there is something that every amateur cook and "great chef" shares:
...people who truly love to cook...seek in our collective struggle, to learn more and to cook better, but we are in fact reaching for that connection to humanity that we've lost or maybe never had or simply want more of.... This connection will ever elude us until we learn to move deliberately, to take a long time, to make sure our counter is clean every night. And it will elude us if we ever lose sight of cooking's fundamental importance to others.
A little romantic, this vision of cooking? Perhaps. But it's a vision that is very appealing. Seeing the preparation of a meal as a form of connection rather than as an end-of-the-day chore makes it valuable and worthwhile rather than an obligation. It turns it from an "all about me" job to an "all about them" offering.
Now, about that counter....