Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

What does it take to be a great cook?
What does perfect cooking taste like?

These are the questions Michael Ruhlman sets out to answer in his engaging book, The Soul of a Chef. The book covers three parts. First, Rulhman narrates an inside view of the Certified Master Chef (CMC) exam. Next, he spends time in the restaurant and kitchen of Michael Symon, the up-and-coming chef of Lola. Finally, Ruhlman stays at The French Laundry and meets Thomas Keller, named America's best chef by Time magazine in 2001.

The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection was our Kitchen Reader book in January, chosen by Lisa of Charleston Treasures. As it turns out, reading about how great chefs strive to cook the perfect food was enlightening for me, a humble home cook.

The Certified Master Chef exam supposedly allows a cook to be examined objectively. It focuses on many areas of cooking, especially French classical methods and preparations. "Nothing is complete without a sauce," dictates this style of cooking. Chefs take part in the gruelling ten day exam at their own expense and very few pass. Ruhlman explains that chefs have differing views on the usefulness of the CMC and therefore, not many chefs undertake it. But Ruhlman is fascinated by the exam since it pushes chefs to a level of excellence that is rare. And its objectivity appeals to him. He senses that cooking is a craft which can be mastered.

In the second prat of the book, we meet Michael Symon. Symon's personality is the driving force behind his modern restaurant. At times his craft of cooking is less than excellent. However, he garners many admirers because of his infectious enthusiasm and inventiveness. Ruhlman notices that Symon's dishes do not always contain a sauce, for instance, but they always taste delicious. The cooking at Lola is classy home cooking with added style and exuberance.

Finally, we meet Thomas Keller. HIs food is legendary, and Ruhlman is completely captivated by it. Keller has an unrelenting drive for perfection and it shows in this section of the book. The food Ruhlman tastes at The French Laundry astonishes him and makes him feel as though he has never eaten before. "Where am I? This is not the world I know," he whispers in awe, after his first meal there. Keller's attention to detail is noted by Ruhlman. Keller thinks of the taste of the food when considering the kitchen flooring and lighting, the layout of the restaurant, and size of the pots.

Ruhlman sums up his search for perfect (restaurant) food by noting that all the very best chefs talk with excitement about simple aspects of cooking. While some other chefs chatter over exotic ingredients such as foie gras or truffles, the very best chefs thrill to subjects like "cleaning oil bottles, how to cook a green vegetable, how to strain a sauce, and the effects of chopping shallots for your station by hand."

As a home cook, there is much to learn from the dedication of the great chefs in the pages of Ruhlman's book. I, too, can show care over my ingredients and strive for excellence in my cooking. Perhaps I won't cook a great meal often in my life, and possibly I will never cook a meal that transports the eater. But I can master the simple methods for cooking well. "The best cooks talked about the very basic elements of cooking." That is the kind of excellence I can attempt to replicate.

Is there a great chef who inspires you?
Have you ever eaten a meal that transported you?

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