“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!