What would make a journalist crazy enough to train at the Culinary Institute of America without getting a degree at the end? For Michael Ruhlman it was his Grand Uncle Bill rhapsodizing about potatoes he had eaten decades ago at Gallatoire in New York. Though the meal involved many fancy ingredients, to his uncle the simple potatoes stuck in his mind due to their simple perfection. Ruhlman decides he wants to learn how to “put himself in the service of the potato” and hatches a scheme to get the CIA’s permission to attend classes and write a book about it, The Making of a Chef. During the 8 week Skills class, Ruhlman’s journalistic objectivity goes right out the window—and the book is all the better for it.
Often called the Harvard of cooking schools, the CIA produces passionate and trained chefs. Critics of the school complain that the chefs often demand higher pay and arrive in kitchens ill-prepared for the fast, frenetic pace and to his credit, Ruhlman does not shy away from addressing these concerns. His fervor for cooking infuses the book from the beginning with energy. Though he may jump around from topic to topic within chapters, he follows almost the entire course of the school, albeit faster than an enrolled student. The introductory class on skills takes up the first third of the book and the instructor, Chef Michael Pardus, remains a influential figure for Ruhlman throughout the book. The CIA program ends with a stint at one of the school’s 4 restaurants, where the chefs also must spend a week as a waiter. Ruhlman’s book paints a thoroughly complete portrait of the school.
As an avid cook, I found this book fascinating—I even managed to pick up a few hints from it. Ruhlman’s enthusiasm for the subject makes this book hum. I think if he had retained his objectivity, the book would have failed. His zeal echoes the pace of a typical kitchen, and you get a real sense of what working in a kitchen might be like (you can also read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential). I am looking forward to reading his upcoming book The Reach of a Chef, which “looks at the state of cooking in a post-Child, Food Network era”.