The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, by Michael Ruhlman

Daniel Wahl reviews The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, by Michael Ruhlman.


The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, by Michael Ruhlman. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. 370 pp. $18 (paperback).

Michael Ruhlman entered the office of Tom Peer, food and beverage director at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. “I figured out where you’re going to be from,” Peer said. “You’re going to be from the National Council of Accreditation.” When Ruhlman said he never heard of it, Peer chuckled and said: “That’s because I just made it up” (p. 7).

Ruhlman had been granted permission to observe and later write about a Certified Master Chef examination. The exam is a grueling ten-day experience that leaves participants little time to sleep. Passing it requires mastering a wide range of cooking styles, methods, and techniques. More precisely, it requires demonstrating that mastery under very strict observation and an always-ticking clock.

In part because of its difficulty, few take the test. And few pass it. Indeed, as of the writing of Ruhlman’s book, out of the approximately 170 chefs who had taken the test since 1981, only 53 had passed (p. 7). And this, Ruhlman explains, is why he must be from the fictitious National Council of Accreditation.

The people who ran the test worried that if I simply roamed the kitchens as a journalist, asking the chefs intimate questions and then writing down their answers in my notebook, I might distract them. The test is hard enough as it is without their having to endure someone who is nosy by profession. Also, they didn’t want any chefs fretting over the possibility that I might broadcast their failures all over the country. (p. 7)

So Ruhlman, in effect, operated undercover at one of the most grueling cooking tests in the world. His retelling of that experience is one part (out of three) in The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, but it is so good it could be a satisfying book in itself.

In terms of psychological demands and requisite skills, passing the test is as difficult as completing a Navy SEAL training camp. And Ruhlman’s telling of it is engaging and dramatic. The stakes are high for the would-be master chefs. The challenges require them to use their creativity and skills to the fullest. And the judges are severe. They have clear standards, standards that are as objective as they are exceptional, and they critique deviations from them mercilessly.

Ruhlman’s reporting and story telling are magnificent. He recounts the chefs speaking in distinct voices, planning and acting in their own unique ways, and striving with great ambition for success. He selects telling details, zooms in and out with purpose and power, and artfully conveys the atmosphere and intensity of the test with communicative skills akin to the cooking skills of the chefs that pass it. Ruhlman does not say that a moment is intense; he says, “The air feels about two hundred pounds per square inch” (p. 89). He does not say that the kitchen is quiet; he says it is “so quiet you can almost hear the steam rising off the consommés” (p. 91).

Such descriptive writing is the norm throughout A Soul of a Chef. For example, Ruhlman devotes the second part of the book to the kitchen of Lola, a popular restaurant in Cleveland run by Michael Symon. He describes Symon as a “big, rumbling, hilarious fullback of a chef”—and shows him to be about as far removed from the buttoned-up seriousness of the exam’s judges as you can get.

Symon dispels many of Ruhlman’s preconceptions of a master chef, however. For example, writes Ruhlman, “by his own admission he was a slob when he worked.” And “almost nothing [he] did anymore relied on the classical French tradition” (p. 148).

Nevertheless, the food at Lola is good—so good that Food & Wine named Symon one of the ten best new chefs—and, as Ruhlman tells it, both the dishes and menu are ingeniously created.

Ruhlman shows Symon creating the menu in real time as he talks out loud about the changes he is considering. Lola’s menu is delimited by definitive constraints. “If I can’t finish it in two pans, I won’t do it,” Symon says (p. 150). And the menu is integrated by creative verve. For instance, it is designed so that the scraps from some dishes are parts of other dishes; and so that some starters, such as the “Roasted beet salad with watercress and horseradish vinaigrette,” can become an entrée simply by the likes of placing “a horseradish-encrusted salmon filet on top” (p. 152). The menu is also, as Ruhlman explains, designed to cut out expensive waste and thus make more money. Symon’s approach in general is so geared:

He used to do a classical crème brûlée—adding fancy flavors like orange and ginger—but it was a traditional brûlée in concept and served in the traditional ramekin. Those ramekins kept chipping and breaking, though, and this was annoying and expensive. In order to get rid of the ramekins, without denying customers the popular crème brûlée, he came up with a crème brûlée napoleon: crème brûlée (cooked in the afternoon and spoonable as pudding at service) layered between sheets of crispy phyllo (baked along with the custard). Ramekin problem solved. (p. 151)

For Ruhlman, these ingenious creations, produced and served with a smile and for a profit, make Symon a distinctly American chef.

However, America is a large country, and the chef whom Ruhlman features in the third part of The Soul also is, in his own way, quite American. That chef is Thomas Keller. And the restaurant is The French Laundry, often cited as one of the best restaurants in the country.

After flying to California (to help Keller write his first cookbook), Ruhlman learns why so many people rave about the food Keller and his team cook. Fresh off the plane, and near the end of his first meal at the restaurant, Ruhlman relays:

I grow dizzy from the extravagance, from the angels swirling around the table, from the sights I have seen, from the incredible new sensations on my palate, and from all the wine I’ve drunk. You don’t understand, this is extraordinary! I want to say, but I don’t because it’s obvious. . . . To Susan, a New Yorker entrenched in the food world there, I say, “Do you eat like this all the time?” For a moment she looks at me as if I were an idiot, then shakes her head and says, “No.” (p. 221)

Later, after dessert, when Ruhlman feels as though he is floating back up to the clouds, the party wonders whether Keller will come out to greet the guests, which he rarely does.

But soon there he is, Thomas Keller, a skinny tower in clogs, with dark boyish, wavy hair, shy smile, enormous forehead, staring at his feet throughout as though at the curtain call of a school play. Soon he looks up, smiling: narrow face with very dark eyes. He seems to me, standing at our table, natural and quiet, quick to laugh, self-effacing. I got clips on Thomas Keller and read about him on the plane that afternoon. He worked at many restaurants in New York, I knew, and one in Los Angeles. He once had a temper but got that under control. His New York experience taught him an appreciation for economy. Standard newspaper and magazine fare. But the articles also told me this: He was forty-two, and he had no formal culinary training. (p. 222)

The lack of training is something that surprises Ruhlman as much as it impresses him, especially because Keller seems to him made in the same mold as the formal, no-nonsense judges of the Certified Master Chef examination.

When Keller says that making a good veal stock comes down to “having a high regard for food and how to think about it logically,” then clarifies what that means in his own terms—“You must have the right amount of bones and the right amount of vegetables to the right amount of tomato to the right amount of water”—Ruhlman has a flashback (p. 287).

I was all but transported to the classroom of chef-instructor and CMC judge Ron DeSantis. Here was Keller, a contemporary American chef with no formal training, a star chef, one far removed from the so-called fuddy-duddy world of the CIA, and yet he had virtually repeated words that had rung in my ears a year and a half earlier, in DeSantis’s classroom. “You GOT that?” Chef DeSantis had boomed. “That cook MEA-SURED! Counted. We got a certain amount of bones here, we need a certain amount of water here. And everything is beautiful, whether it’s brown or white stock. Everything works beautifully then. You have to mea-sure.”

I had agreed in principle with DeSantis, but I also knew how real kitchens worked. You didn’t measure your herbs and aromatic vegetables, your mirepoix; you eyeballed it. That was part of being a pro, not having to measure. Keller, the ultimate pro, one might say, wanted his cooks to measure. (p. 291)

Ruhlman shows, however, that Keller does not just want his cooks to measure. He wants the fava beans peeled before cooking, the asparagus treated “like a flower,” the fish cradled “as carefully as a newborn child” and “not only packed in abundant ice, but packed in ice in the same position it swims to avoid stressing the flesh of the fish unnecessarily” (pp. 287, 288). “The way Keller differed from the chef-instructors I’d known was not to contradict them but rather to exceed them; he took what they taught students and brought it to crazy levels” (p. 292).

What Ruhlman, and readers, come to see is that Thomas Keller is a master chef, whether formally trained and officially certified or, as the case is, not. He has got “it,” that “thing” that Ruhlman has been wondering about while observing chefs taking the exam.

But what is this “it”? While talking with Tom Peer about the differences between chefs in such terms, Peer says to Ruhlman, “I would love to know what ‘it’ is” (p. 64). Would you love to know too?

Read the book. Ruhlman figures out the “it” and shares the answer therein.

The Soul of a Chef is a marvelous book: humorous, without being mean-spirited; spiritual, without being nonsensical; reverent, without being otherworldly. Have some soul.


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