Saturday, July 12, 2008

BOOKS | The Making of a Chef

The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

In 1996, writer Michael Ruhlman decided to enrol in the Culinary Institute of America. His goal is to get the insider's scope in the process of becoming a cook. He transplanted his family to New York so that he could attend the culinary classes. What should have been a personal account of the process thankfully stopped one-third into the book, and he began focusing on the other people in the story: the other students, the teaching staff. For me, the most interesting part of the book are the stories of the real chefs – the teachers of the CIA: men and women who had served the line, and are now in the CIA imparting what they have learned.

The turning point in the book came during a great blizzard that coincided with the tests at the CIA. Ruhlman was one hour late that day, and he left earlier later to avoid the snow. The next day he called in to his Skills instructor, Chef Pardus, that he was going to skip the test because of the snow.

Over the phone, when Pardus said something that affected Ruhlman. Pardus told Ruhlman that perhaps he was just "cut from a different cloth" – a statement that shamed Ruhlman. It came with the implication that Ruhlman was just not cut out to be a chef.

That was when the question of what maketh a chef is truly explored. For me, this is when the book really started being interesting. For what defines a chef?

As Chef Pardus later explains to Michael Ruhlman:

"Part of what we're training students to be here is chefs—and when chefs have to be somewhere, they get there. …

"Chefs are the people who are working on Thanksgiving and Christmas, when everyone else is partying," he said. "Or at home with their family."

For chefs like Pardus, they believe that chefs are the stoic heroes. They are the ones who get things done despite the circumstances.

To be a chef is more than a training, or learning the skills. Along the way, Ruhlman finds himself evolving; his action becomes more efficient - for example, he makes less trips between the wardrobe to his suitcase when he packs, he plans the shortest route in advance when he's out for errands. To be a chef is to embrace a whole philosophy - a whole "ethics" of being. Which is why it is more than a job - it is a calling.

One comes out of this book with a greater respect for a chef.


Andi said...

Sounds really interesting. I've had an interest in Ruhlman ever since I was introduced to his stuff through Anthony Bourdain's show and books. Great review!

Bybee said...

I bought this book for CanadaBoy because he loves cooking. Secretly, I had hoped to borrow it from him...but now he's moving. Oh well, I had the fun of surprising him.