Sunday, June 17, 2007

Recent Reads: The Making of a Chef

Sometimes, when I'm having a particularly hard week at work, I dream of leaving it all behind and going to culinary school. I imagine that the curriculum would be something like this:
Day 1: Searing Foie Gras
Day 2: Making Ice Cream
Day 3: Chocolate Souffles
Day 4: Perfect Sweet Breads

If you've ever had similar daydreams, then you too will be slapped awake by Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef.

What is culinary education really about? From Ruhlman's description, it's weeks and weeks of making stocks and brown sauce along with scintillating classes like culinary math and sanitation. Well, I guess the snow peas are always greener...

Ruhlman has distinguished himself as a food writer and this book, first published in 1997, has become somewhat of a classic in the genre. While it is worth a read to give you insight into the world of culinary education, I wasn't thrilled with the writing. Ruhlman has a fussy writing style and seems overly intent to draw spiritual lessons from the kitchen. Brown sauce becomes an unlikely metaphor for his own successes and failures, and his search for the perfect roux correspondingly becomes a search for the core of the human soul. It's as if he's trying too hard to be the Pynchon of the kitchen.

In his general take on the CIA, Ruhlman is the anti-Bourdain. Where Anthony Bourdain gives you the professional kitchen in all its drudgery and insanity, Ruhlman romanticizes culinary education. Every teacher is heroic, and he adopts wholesale the institutional idolization of the CIA president. While he ponders the ins and outs of each class lesson with a studied solemnity, Ruhlman is much less analytical when it comes to the institution itself. It is clear that he is not there to ask hard questions or raise difficult issues (unless the proper composition of a veal stock counts as a hard question), but to lovingly observe and mediate.

Still, if you ever dream of culinary school, you should read this first.

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