The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

“We are becoming, Keller lamented, a nation of noncooks. In restaurants he said, ‘cooking has become short order sauté. What can I get that I can thrown in a sauté pan or on the grill? How much really do I have to process this thing once I get it in the back door?…Shortcuts in cooking have resulted in noncooks.’ While the French Laundry received pigs’ heads and entire baby lambs to break down, most restaurants received their meat in preportioned, Cryovac packages. This had been my experience. I had cooked a thousand strip steaks as the grill cook at Sans Souci, but I would never have known where on the cow those strips had come from; the only butchering required was slitting open the plastic. Shortcuts in cooking in fact was a form of not caring, therefore a form of waste.” (p. 300)

Chef means many things to many people. Formal training is not a prerequisite to becoming a chef, and having it does not automatically make you one. Much of the identity of what it is to be a chef has been lost over time in America. In The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, Michael Ruhlman goes in search of the essence of what it is to be a chef, what makes them different from most people and what separates the good from the great. In his first book The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America he embarks on a journey seeking the knowledge on how to cook. He leaves realizing that he didn’t have that knowledge and that the secret of cooking still eludes him. He left the CIA with the tools to learn how to be a great cook and in this book gets at the core of what makes a great chef.

The first part of the book concerns the Master Chef Exam, administered at the Culinary Institute of America, an attempt to standardize and evaluate culinary mastery using objective evaluation. The test is administered by a board and he follows a test takers seeking to obtain the title of Master Chef. The failure rate is high, even for those at the top of their career working in some of the best restaurants in the world producing some of the most unique and creative and great tasting food. The test aims to evaluate perfection objectively over a broad set of culinary exams evaluated by master chefs themselves. It’s grueling, exhausting and a measure of excellence that is not agreed on by many in the industry primarily because so few can actually pass it. Given the time, expense and stress it imposes on those who take it, it’s any wonder anyone takes the test at all. The writing captures the intensity of the exam and left me wanting to turn each and every page as quickly as possible to see what came next

Masquerading as an observer, Ruhlman observes the candidates taking the exam, witnessing critical mistakes in execution and perfection by people who have performed these same tasks countless times before. Some do poorly under the circumstances while others prevail. The test that tries to set a standard for excellence in the industry seems to make many crumble under the pressure, calling into question its validity given the chefs’ proven professional talent. Brian Polycn is a chef who feels the pressure to take the test as everyone he works with where he teaches has mastered the exam. He having failed once is again followed while taking the exam a second time after a lot of money, time of practice to prepare. Why would anyone put themselves through such stress again? While measuring technical execution, the test fails to evaluate something that only becomes apparent after Ruhlman completes the second and third parts of his book.

The second part of the book follows rising chef Michael Symon as he struggles to open Lola, a restaurant that will catapult him into culinary notoriety. Symon is known for his creative and flavorful dishes and boisterous and positive persona. Ruhlman shudders at what appears to be the antithesis of his culinary education at the CIA, where Symon finished near the top of his class. The restaurant is hardly a model for perfection in the kitchen and on the plate and yet he is considered a great chef, one who incidentally never wishes to obtain the title of Master Chef. The waiting list is long, restaurant is always packed and the reviews are always laudatory despite it all. His staff is loyal, never wishing to leave. How could this be at a place that doesn’t strive for perfection? What does he have that makes him great?

Ruhlman then moves on to notable chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, considered the best chef in the country and perhaps the world. Keller having no formal training, but a desire to be perfect and instill perfection in those around him also never cares to be considered a Master Chef and yet he perhaps surpasses them all. Keller observed is portrayed as a Zen-like cook with a philosophy on cooking and how things should be. One tenant of his philosophy is to use the entire plant or animal that he is cooking as part of one of numerous dishes he prepares for his guests, as a sign of respect to honor the animal and even the vegetable. Both life forms in his mind need to be carefully cherished so as to respect them and the lives of those who cared for them. Keller also concerns himself with taking each ingredient and making it more than he started with; he desires to make everything he touches better than it was. Eating at his restaurant is an experience forever remembered for the great food that was eaten and the stories Keller tells through his cooking.

The author fortunately does obtain a clear glimpse of what the soul of a chef is about. He understands what a test is not able to measure and what makes a truly great chef. When reflecting on Michael Symon’s Lola he observes, “What I didn’t realize at the time was that the sauce on the glass didn’t matter, nor did it matter that the plates were spotted, the floor gritty. That’s not what mattered here. All that mattered was that you felt good the instant you walked through the door.” (p. 205) On cooking he states, “despite the fact that ‘Cooking is art’ was widely considered a given, I knew that cooking was craft only, a humble one that could achieve greatness through refinement and skill, but always a craft.”

Keller with his standards, Symon with his personality, Polcyn with his love of food. They all share one thing, the desire to make people happy. Some cook for money, some cook out of necessity, but the great cook because it drives them. And this very reason is as Ruhlman observes perhaps the reason why so many great and talented chefs fail the Master Chef Exam. They are forced to cook in an unnatural setting to please a panel of judges. They are asked to take what they have been doing their whole lives, cooking to make people happy, and put it aside so that they can be evaluated objectively. Their main connection to cooking is removed and as such a piece of their soul is missing from the exam.

This book made me think about what makes a great chef and the core of their soul? I asked myself questions like, Do I have that? If not, can I get it? What standards will I set myself? How should I obtain the knowledge I need to be great? Why do I want to be great?

A nation of noncooks, people cooking for money instead of passion, like any profession breeds mediocrity. I know I don’t want to fall into that category. Without being founded in the basics with an appreciation for food and its story we might as well be served by robots as the soul of a chef is missing. The story is missing. The simple pleasures and connections of cooking are missing. And then I ask, what would be the point of that?

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