The Making of a Chef

First, a disclaimer. The content of this post is not intended to sound pretentious or condescending. It is not my intention to look down on the home cook (I am one myself), or to sneer at people who have not gone through a culinary arts programme. I’ve always hated when people with university degrees look down on tradespeople, and it’s very easy for people with professional training to look down on home cooks.

Which is why I’m not recommending Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef to anyone.

Oh, it’s not that it isn’t a great book – it is. But it would be like me trying to sit down and real a programmer’s handbook. Or a book of Latin. Most of what Ruhlman discusses in this book about his time at the Culinary Institute of America would appear to anyone who hasn’t trained professionally or worked in a professional kitchen to be in a completely different language.

Ruhlman went through the programme not to become a chef himself, but to write about the experience and the CIA. What he learned, most importantly, was how to think like a chef…

Efficiency: no wasted movement. This idea, this will, bore not only on one’s actions in the kitchen; it extended to one’s life outside the kitchen. It changed how I packed for a trip – I tried to diminish the number of times I moved from closet to bureau to suitcase just as I learned to minimize my trips to the pot room or dry storage.

He discovers the importance of sauce and spent an inordinate amount of time on the issue of blonde versus brown roux for a brown sauce. These are, apparently, issues that keep CIA staff and students awake at night, after a typo in a textbook mentions brown roux for a brown sauce while the CIA standard is blonde:

[…]Chefs Pardus, Smith and Reilly, all of them CIA gradulates, all of them relatively young, and Chef Almquist, a senior chef-instructor, sat discussing brown sauce. Chefs at the Culinary Institute of America did not talk foie gras and truffles at dinner, I was happy to know; instead, they talked brown sauce, specifically what kind of roux one used. Chef Amlquist, the ranking chef at the table whose girth suggested he had known many a brown sauce in his time, said, according to Pardus, “No one has ever made a brown sauce with brown roux since Escoffier died!” This sort of definitive comment was common at the Culinary. Passions ran high on such matters.

Takes ya back, doesn’t it? Okay, well, it takes me back. So much so that I had dreams of cooking school while reading this book, flashbacks to the days of making sausages, scrubbing pots and yes, making roux. Mother sauces, derivative sauces, knife cuts, monte au beurre – I still remember all of it!

And like most chefs and culinary students, Ruhlman got hot for sauces, and early on, figured out the difference between the home cook and a professional cook:

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.[emphasis mine] 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. I had made my own stocks and had talked to various chefs about their stocks, but at the Culinary Institute of America I would learn the classical preparation of stock, the foundation, the bedrock of classical cookery. If you didn’t know how to make a great stock, if you didn’t even know what a great stock tasted like, you were doomed to mediocrity in the kitchen, at best, and at worst, ignorant foolishness.

I guess it is more than a little elitist. But the instinct is what makes a good chef, and the instinct is what drives Ruhlman through the programme after an instructor disses him for his intention to not attend class during a rather ferocious snowstorm. Chef Pardus makes it clear – a real chef would find a way to get there. In the real world hotels stay open during storms (and tend to do their best business) – staff are expected to get to work. No matter what. Ruhlman fights his way through the storm and earns his Chef’s respect, as well as an understanding of what it takes to be part of the industry.

While The Making of a Chef made me want to run into the kitchen and brunoise things and make concasse and cook up a brown roux just for the hell of it, the book might be a bit dry and technical for the average reader. It’s not a cookbook, and it’s not food theory, it’s more like a look into some secret society that requires a lifetime of dedication, the ability to do fifteen things at once, the necessity of being hyper-organized, and a willingness to do demanding physical work; Ruhlman realizes late in the book why so many of his instructors look ten or twenty years older than they actually are – after decades in front of hot ovens and blazing stovetops, the heat had cooked their skin and aged them exactly as if they had spent hours on the beach tanning every day.

If you want to be a chef, if you aspire to attend the CIA or any other professional cooking school, Ruhlman’s book is a must-read. With a few variations in terms of scheduling and details, it reflects my own experience to an eerie degree.