Thursday, November 13, 2008

BOOKS | THE SOUL OF A CHEF

The book-chats are suffering a little on this blog lately. What so often happens is that I would much rather use the time to read a new book, than take the time to plan and write something about a book I’ve just finished.

But sometimes a book deserves to be talked about. Because it is that good, and more people should know about it. There are some books that deserve multiple posts – because they are just so interesting, there is so much to talk about. Then there is the question of whether your own literary ability can do the book justice; if you can’t say it well, better to say nothing at all, right?

So much easier to just start a new book instead, isn’t it?

Regardless, I’m going to try to write more on the books I’ve read. Let’s bring the book-chats back to this blog, shall we?

I’ve just finished Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef recently. For his earlier book, The Making of a Chef, Ruhlman went on assignment as a student of the Culinary Institute of America. The Soul of a Chef is his follow-up on culinary journalism – except this time his aim is to discover the truth about greatness.

He ends his book trying to unravel the enigma behind the genius of Thomas Keller, from the French Laundry. It seems to me that in Thomas Keller, Ruhlman found the answer to his question of greatness.

Keller is an interesting subject indeed. He is a chef deeply rooted in classical French cuisine, yet without any formal training. His culinary career was a string of unspectacular ventures, until he found the French Laundry.

Ruhlman described Keller as a self-taught chef who had to “make the critical intellectual leap and apply what he learnt, this new knowledge and instinct to everything he touches.” Keller’s genius lies not just in how he applied culinary knowledge to his job. It is how he applies everything he learnt to his job, and how he applies his attitude to his job to everything else. Here is a three-star chef who earns millions of dollars from his restaurant, and he still insist on picking up cigarette butts from the floor, and getting on his knees and cleaning the kitchen himself everyday. Keller lives by example. The first thing he does when he walks into the kitchen every day is to clean. His staff sees him doing it, and eventually they start doing it themselves.

It is not just a matter of cleanliness. It is about an attitude of exacting perfection in every aspect of his life and his surroundings. Keller is successful because he takes his logic to its most extreme conclusion. As Keller explains the standards he expects from his staff:

Most of these cooks, Keller explained to me, hoped town their own restaurants one day; if they were good enough for that, they would treat this place as if they were the owners. If they didn’t, they would never be successful, he thought, because you can’t spend half a career as someone else’s employee and then suddenly, one day, start thinking like an owner. If you wanted to be a great chef and restaurateur, you had to think like an owner and act like the owner from your very first job as prep cook, or you’d never develop the muscles for when the time actually arrived.

Then there was the episode with the rabbits. Keller decided one day he was going to add rabbits to the menu for the first time. He could have just asked his purveyor to deliver twelve prepped rabbits to his restaurant. It was how cooks usually do it. Keller, being the man that he is, decided he needs to learn how to butcher, skin and gut the rabbit – himself. It didn’t help that the bunnies are so damn cute. He had to knock them out, then slit their throats, pin them to a board, before skinning and then gutting them. On top of that, bunnies scream. It was horrible. Yet this experience was enlightening in its own way:

He stunned, killed, sinned, gutted, and butchered them all for service that week, and he did learn how to break down rabbits. But he learned something more. He had taught himself about respect for food and, its opposite, waste. It had been hard to kill those rabbits because life, to Keller, wasn’t meaningless. If their lives hadn’t meant anything, it would have been easy to kill them. He took that life, and so he wouldn’t waste it. But how easy it is to forget about a piece of meat in the oven, throw it in the garbage, and fire a new one. He would not overcook this rabbit. He cared about it too much at this point. These were going to be the best rabbits ever. He was going to do everything possible, short of getting in that oven to cook with them, to make sure they were perfect.

This man deserves to eat rabbit.

This is not a call for everyone to go butcher, skin and gut your dinner of course. Keller, admittedly, is a man of extremes – but it is this very attitude that allowed him an excellence that most of us dream about, yet dare not strive for. He goes all the way to prepare the rabbit, from slaughter to the kitchen. He does not shy away from the gruesome and difficult part of the slaughter. Most of us, being asked to slaughter a chicken, would balk at the task; Keller does not. He acknowledges what it truly means to cook a rabbit—that to partake of the pleasure of eating a rabbit, you need to take a life. You can’t look away as though it doesn’t matter. What we do matters. How many of us approach our food, our job, or anything at all – with this kind of awareness? With this sense of responsibility?

It is this level of engagement that makes the Thomas Kellers of the world who they are. How is it that a book about food can turn out to be a book on life’s lesson?

5 comments:

Andi said...

I've wanted to read Ruhlman for a while now. Great to see this discussion!

Anonymous said...

It is interesting and thought provoking when we are been enlightened on life’s lesson and experiences, how we feel and aware of the meanings in the things we do, read or encountered. It can be anything, be it the book we read, lyrics in a song, some lines/scripts said by the actors in the movie, some moving scenes, some whispering. I like this awareness; somehow it makes us wake up a little in what we do in daily life in and out of it. Enjoy life to the fullest, embrace the good and not so fun part of it cos it will bring out the best part even more. quietletters ; )

ovidiayu said...

thank you for this. I totally know what you (& your bunny killing chef) mean but could put it into words till you caught it in this post. I think it's taking responsibility. I feel that if I could make myself raise & kill chickens (or pigs or cows) my conscience would feel okay about eating them. What I feel bad about is the buying a slab of meat & pretending to myself I don't know it came off some creature's leg or chest.

Bybee said...

I bought The Making Of A Chef for one of my guy friends who likes to cook. I really wanted it for myself, though!

Dark Orpheus said...

Andi - Ruhlman takes food to another level. It's a spiritual and very emotional and philosophical subject with him. I hope you get to read him soon.

quietletters - I like how Keller describes himself as a monk searching. That everything we do can be a spiritual journey. Everything is a life lesson.

Ovidia - We all need to take responsibility for how we live our lives. The way we eat, drive, everything. That's the reason why I follow your blog - you try to live responsibly, and that's so admirable.

Bybee - Hahaha...you should borrow the book from your friend. And maybe just forget to return it!