Sous Chef by Michael Gibney

Cooking is an exercise in kinetic awareness, economy of movement, master of the senses. You can smell when a sauce is scorched; you can hear when a fish is read to come off the plancha. You must trust these senses to help you through the night. Your whole body must remain active. No matter what recipes you know, no matter how much experience you have, each piece of fish in each pan presents a unique set of circumstances to which you must react, based on the sensory information at hand in the moment. You must take what you have before you and make something lovely out of it. And while it might be the same thing every day, it’s something new every second. (p. 118 Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line, Hardcover First Edition)

Michael Gibney, a Sous Chef in an undisclosed restaurant, presumably in the West Village of New York City has put out a superb and captivating debut novel. The book is described as a day in the life of a chef and true to its word encompasses 24 hours of life in the business. The focus is on the Sous Chef written in second-person narrative form.

Invigorated by additional time in my schedule I picked up this book from the library because of its title, not because I had heard about it previously. Books that I am familiar with are usually written about or are from the point of the chef, not the second in command.

With my interest piqued I turned it’s pages and quickly made my way through 24 hours on what could have been any Friday of a Michelin starred restaurant, and yet 24 hours of grinding and grueling work that are likely only topped by that of a doctor or solider. It was intriguing to read about hours of the day that a chef spends their time on beyond what most people thing about, the cooking. An evident lesson from this novel is that preparation and order are they keys to success in the kitchen and the day truly starts hours before the first dish is ordered. As an added bonus, the camaraderie and pecking order in the kitchen are not only clearly explained but diagrammed for the reader to clearly understand.

From the early hours of the morning to the wee hours of the next morning the book takes you through a roller-coaster of excitement, learning and understanding of what it’s like to be a Sous Chef and a member of a high-end kitchen. As I read, the career perspective that the book provides include what it takes to get to Sous Chef and ultimately what it might take to become Chef. The story told is about aspiration, love for the profession and reflections on why people become part of a kitchen, who it attracts and what it takes to survive.

As a glimpse into kitchen life, the book provided a backdrop for what I am not looking for. 18 plus hour days of back-breaking work away from loved ones in the pursuit of making others happy is a story often told in many professions but one that appears to be expected in the kitchen. That aside, the writing is excellent, the passion authentic and should I ever figure out what restaurant this is mostly based off of, I’m sure the food will be amazing.

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My Life in France by Julia Child

I’ve been meaning to write this post forever. It’s my 100th. Life gets in the way, but the timing is perfect. I’ve left my job at Jumptap to start my own company, Media Armor. On top of that, I’ll be taking the second part of the Back to Basics series at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. This is a time for new beginnings which parallel’s Julia’s experience as chronicled in the book, My Life in France, based on her journal entries. The challenge of writing a post about her and the book is daunting. Books have been written about her. By no means could I ever do her justice, so I won’t profess to. In fact it is probably more appropriate to be simple, like her cooking and to talk about how I connected with her and her writing.

Of course I’d seen Julia and Julia. This book reflects the half of the movie that was about Julia, and my opinion the more interesting half. My exposure to Julia Child is rooted in my childhood like many. I remember watching her cooking shows with my grandmother when I was young. We loved watching Julia. Her passion, simplicity and comfort in the kitchen where inspiring. I had no idea what to expect while reading this book.

It goes without saying that this was an amazing read. Her desire and courage to take on new challenges made me want to learn more. She easily conveyed that she was like anyone else to her fans which helped make her so likable. Best of all as she learned throughout her life, she understood that her passion beyond food was teaching others, and this she excelled at, changing the food industry forever. Her stories, humor and openness were welcomed.

Maybe because she was older, or maybe because I was much younger and couldn’t understand…Julia was much more “raw” and progressive than I ever could have imagined. Tall, slightly awkward, loud, and fearless, she approached her life in France and cooking with conviction and fearlessness. Her life’s story came alive with each and every page turn. Most striking was her honesty about life, her relationships and lessons. While I read this I couldn’t help but think back to Jaques Pépin’s own autobiography The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen which I read and wrote about previously. It is no wonder why they became such close friends in life.

This book doesn’t portray a woman seeking glory, recognition or vanity. She is humble, appreciative and genuine. To fully appreciate it, another read is necessary so as to absorb the detail and experiences that she painstakingly recounts. Since I started this blog I have definitely become more comfortable with cooking. Hell, I even won a work cooking competition. I now challenge myself with new recipes and ingredients and feel free to experiment. As I embark on my own new life with respect to work, I’m encouraged by Julia to go after what I want in life, to take risks, and embrace the unknown and unexpected. Life is sweeter.

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The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin

The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin
The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin

A lifetime of learning, sharing and eating; now this is what cooking is all about! The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchenby Jacques Pépin is a fun and amazing autobiography that I simply couldn’t put down as I read it. A classically trained French Chef, Pépin, the well known and likable culinary personality, great friend of Julia Child and other notables, chronicles his life in this book filled with a mix of serious and funny memories and stories that provide a simple, yet profound perspective on cooking and life. The book conveys a love for family, tradition and cooking all with ease and feeling as if you were having a conversation with an old friend or even Jacques himself.

Born of modest beginnings, the book starts with Jacques recounting his life growing up in France during World War 2, and at a young age immediately discovering a love for food and cooking. Incorporating poingent stories of family history and learning, he describes his call to the stove to further his education in cooking by becoming an apprentice at a well respected hotel far from home at the young age of thirteen. Jacques Pépin moves through a life of culinary adventures, quickly rising the ranks to work for notable figures such as Charles de Galle and Howard Johnson. He then moves on to successful ventures such as a soup business in New York City, cooking demos and classes that are fully booked years in advance as well as a couple of television series. Through hard work, occaisional mishaps and sheer determination, his learning transforms him into a well respected man of great talent, aptitude and accomplishment.

Even through misadventures and misunderstandings Pépin is always likable, easily making friends and garnering support for his ideals.  As his success and lessons unfolded, I constantly found myself reflecting on my own training and learning, identifying with commonality of vision and enjoyment in cooking.

If one thing can be said about this book, it is that it demonstrates a pure love of cooking by its author and a desire to make people happy through it. Unpretentious, down-to-earth, warm and insightful, this writing is captivating from the very first chapter to the last. As I mentioned, I simply could not put this book down as I followed Jacques’ evolution into the culinary luminary he is today.

At his core, Jacque is a teacher keenly focused on the next generation of cooks. In an era where it was the norm, he honed his craft through hard work, creativity, rigorous training and time. The same is required today to be successful in any endeavor, though he takes it to the next level for this generation, understanding that time seems to be a luxury noone has anymore.

His mission to teach others was furthered by becoming a founding dean of the French Culinary Institute in New York, a top tier culinary institution in the Unite States and the world with its roots steeped in French tradition as well as a co-creator of the gastronomy program at Boston University. His love for teaching guides him to condense his lifetime of experience into a learning path fit for today’s “right now” society. While taking a steady path of learning over a lifetime does sound romantic I can also more clearly see the value in an accelerated learning program and in enrolling in culnary school. The idea of learning from others and their successes as well as their mistakes is something my father constantly tries to instill in me and is a valuable lesson in effeciency of time, something we are all limited in and is arguably our most valuable asset.

My only regret with this book was that it was not longer. A lifetime of culinary experience proved to be exciting and was probably nearly impossible to write without leaving out equally pivotal memories and captivating stories. I encourage anyone with an interest in cooking or a great true story to read this book and as Jacques is known for saying, “Happy Cooking”.

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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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The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

“I don’t want to go to work today. I’m not feeling well. I’m going to call in sick. It’s a holiday, so I don’t have to go to work. It’s snowing out; I’ll stay in.” These are all things most people have said as part of their working lives. These are choices that most people are able to make, however these are not things choices a chef will ever make. Chefs work while others enjoy the fruits of their labors. They work long hours, holidays and weekends under tough conditions. They are not deterred by sickness, weather or long hours. They are passionate about what they do. The training they endure solidifies what they know already inside them, that they are different. What it takes to become a chef  and what makes them different is what Michael Ruhlman set out to learn at the Culinary Institute of America which culminates in his writing a account of his time there.

Ruhlman is an accomplished writer, the author of of many books on a variety of topics. The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America is a unique work, part narrative, party story, part culinary education.  Have you ever really thought about where your food came from, how the idea for a dish was conceived, how your favorite dish at your favorite restaurant looked and tasted the same each and every time you had it or wondered what chefs go through to acquire the knowledge necessary to do their job well? Have you ever wondered who decides to be a chef and why? These and a myriad more questions are researched and answered not through survey’s and telephone calls, but a unique first-hand experience at one of the world’s best culinary schools. “I was never one to get all goosey about recipes. Recipes were a dime a dozen. You could follow them for a hundred years and never learn to cook. I was after method; I wanted the physical experience of doing it, knowing what the food should look like, sound like, smell like, feel like while it cooked.”, he states and throughout the book details the process and experience one goes through to graduate from this highly competitive and prestigious school with a set of standards and experiences and most important of all, knowledge that will allow them to be called  a Chef.

The curriculum of the school is described as rigid and methodical. Each chef upon graduation is expected to have the same broad knowledge about cooking as their peers while being armed with the requisite skills to acquire more knowledge and be successful. It provides a structured blend of theory, practice and in-field knowledge through an externship. The chef instructors, the top in their field instill a desire for perfection within their students.  They understand that no-one can be a great cook without the basics and instill this in their students from the top down. Ruhlman is provided unique access to the school facilities and faculty allowing for many insightful and instructional interviews. “With his first statement-the fundamentals of cookery don’t change-he seemed somehow to extend his meaning all the way back in time to remind me that water has always behaved as it does now, the physical properties of heat work the same way now as they did ten thousand years ago. Cooking, now as ever, meant learning the physical forces of the world and applying them to eggs, to flour, to bones and meat.” Chefs learn the hows, whens and whys of cooking in exacting detail with an appreciation of the science of cooking.

It was interesting to read that students would continually referr to Harold Mcgee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, a required text of the school. The book was considered The Bible of food knowledge, the frequent answer to the unknown. The combination of lecture, hands-on work and reading provides depth of knowledge for the graduates of the program.

While at the school Ruhlman could sense a change in his understanding of himself, a change that many students had already discovered and a reason for their being at the school or a change they would soon discover as a result of the education and their experience. “As in all matters of food, there was an intellectual and spiritual correlative. I’d already discovered that I was a cook. I could know what cooking was, fully in my bones. Cookies, I learned, came to cooking not to fulfill a desire, but rather, by chance, to fulfill something already in their nature.” Although students and instructors hold the title of “Chef”, they consider themselves cooks first and foremost; it is the essence of who they are. The education translates into an unconscious skill that allows them to free themselves from thinking and focus on the tasks at hand without getting caught up in thought.

This is a truly informative and fast-paced text with tremendous detail and insight into a culinary education. It is amazing how much you can learn from one person’s own experience; I found myself immersed in it from the beginning to graduation.  It was also fun to read this book as I took my basics class at The Cambrige School of Culinary Arts and it gave me a better appreciation for a solid foundation in food knowledge. As I read through the book’s pages I continually found myself asking, “Is this me? Is this what I want to do? Do I want a culinary education?”.  These questions and their answers are important to consider for anyone looking to enter the field and are easier to answer as a result of Ruhlman’s account of his experience and training. On to the next one!

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Book Review: Heat by Bill Buford

Heat, is a captivating account by Bill Buford of his journey from amateur to professional in the culinary world.  The book spans his entrance into the unknown at Mario Batali’s three star restaurant Babbo in New York city to his excursions to work with some of the finest chefs (including Marco Pierre White) and cooks in the world to gain an understanding of what food is and finally to work with tradition steeped culinary artists and tradesmen to understand what it represents beyond a briefly enjoyed source of nutrients, seeking to understand it’s essence.

I started reading it and wondered where it was taking me and what was going on. The immediate entrance into the life of a professional cook and the feelings associated with it are immediately felt not only through the writing, but the experience that is conveyed through it as your eyes pass over every word. As a reader I immediately felt what Buford was going through, reading terms that were unfamiliar, trying to understand cooking techniques that I have never used, trying to learn different stations, the pecking order in the kitchen, how meals were made and how recipes were created from a few simple ingredients . I found myself immersed in a new culture trying to keep up, every step of the way learning something new all with a very steep learning curve. Other new entrants into the world of cooking traditionally attend culinary school and gain an understanding of the kitchen and its tools. They become comfortable behind the line and working with others all before ever setting foot in a live do it now and do it right or go home environment. What Buford notices is that what tends to be missing from a formal eduction is an intimate understanding of food.

Buford starts with learning food and its preparation. Over time he gains mastery of the line at Babbo and other kitchens as once impossible tasks become practically effortless, part of his blood and soul. As he gains acceptance and transitions from a temporary worker getting his feet wet to a trusted and integral part of the team at Babbo he goes through a transformation. Preparing food is no longer something that must be learned but an extension of who he is and how he sees himself in and how projects himself to the world.

As I stated, a fascinating angle that the book takes is the breaking down of food to its roots and history learning from the masters. Buford follows the example of Batali and other great chefs and travels to Europe to understand how food is made by locals and their ancestors. He sets out to learn where it came from and why people make the food they do, learning about their past and how it is revealed and passed down from generation to generation, a form of history. He’s so obsessive with his learning he seeks to understand the smallest detail such as when eggs were introduced into the making of pasta. This education in contrast to a formal course of study is what allows one to understand food.

While in Italy he reflects that “without my fully realizing it, my mission had changed. When I’d begun this whole business-what I’d come to regard as my excursion into the world of the professional kitchen-I’d been a visitor. I’d been a tourist, and, like many tourists, I’d been able to throw myself into my journey with such abandon because I knew it would end. At Babbo, I seemed to endure abuse much more easily than others because this wasn’t my life. Now I wondered: had I stayed too long?” The desire to dig deeper and deeper into the roots of cooking and history become all consuming. His passion growing each and every day.

I hope that as I continue down this path of learning I am able to achieve enlightenment just as Buford has with the same passion and conviction that he was able to. Transforming from the desk drone to the passionate student is truthfully detailed in his account and yet through all of the abuse and sacrifice reward and peace are found in his life.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and can see myself reading its pages over and over reliving the adrenaline-rush filled moments followed by those of learning and understanding all while meeting interesting people along the way. This is a must have for amateurs and professionals alike.

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