This summer I finally got around to reading Michael Ruhlman's books on the art of cooking, and those who seek to do it professionally. Now I have reached the third book, which expands upon the idea, and takes a deep look at how the recent culinary boom is affecting how all of us eat today.
Ruhlman looks at the current phenomena that surround cooking, one of the most mundane tasks around. These days, food is very big business indeed. Flip on the television and not only are there instructional shows on nearly every sort of cuisine and course, but competition shows where the content ranges from sublime to just plain stupid, reality shows that have a famous chef or two wandering the world in search of new tastes and cultures, or watching another famous chef come in and revamp a dying restaurant. If that's not enough, visit any retail store or megamart and you have various celebrities pimping -- I mean endorsing -- cutlery, cookware sets, books, spices and even processed foods. You can't escape it, and I suspect that the wave is only going to get bigger as time goes on.
This phenomena, known as 'branding' in the industry, is what makes chefs become super-famous and gets them rich. Most chefs can only dream of this, and most of them slave away in kitchens, working themselves into early retirement -- being a chef requires hard physical labour, and stamina, and most can't last beyond their fifties. It certainly has brought about changes in the American culinary scene, as Ruhlman shows in his book, increasing the average home cook's awareness of just what is good food, and the fact that yes, you can indeed do it at home.
Ruhlman focuses in on several chefs here, with Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Melissa Kelly, Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, and a surprise that takes it all, and blows it right out of the water. Most of the stories here focus on how they turned into superstar chefs, and their struggle to get to the top. Some of these chefs don't give a damn about the stardom, they just want to do the very best that they can. Unfortunately, this can mean barely breaking even, as we see in the story of Melissa Kelly, and her struggle to provide organic food in its best form. Others have that entertainer quality that defies the odds, and turned them into mega-chefs, with very lucrative television shows, product lines and cookbooks.
It's here, I freely confess, that my natural tendency to sneer comes into play, and my hackles rose as I read. There's something in me that gets suspicious when someone gets fame, but they really don't have the talent or the training to back it up. I can respect Emeril even though his show makes me wince with the theatrical nature, he knows how to cook, he's worked the line and he knows what he's doing. True, it's entertainment at its most hokey at times, but he's done more to bring cooking back into the American household.
Then there's Rachael Ray. Ruhlman shows her meteoric rise from being a buyer for an Albany NY supermarket, her talent for selling something and the fact that in the space of a few short years, she has managed to make to the top. But -- and it's a glaring spot that those who have cooked professionally notice -- she's not a chef. Oh, she throws stuff into pans, and she opens cans and packages and has a line of cutlery and cookware, all in bright day-glo orange -- but there's something false underneath all that giggling, sweet-girl personality. Ruhlman tries to be objective in his depection of her, but there's a hint of infatuation there too, and it was this particular chapter that almost caused me to fling the book at the wall in disgust.
We follow along as Ruhlman describes restaurant openings, famous names, and finally, the restaurants that inhabit 10 Columbus Circle in New York City. Some of the biggest and best names in cooking have opened here, among them Thomas Keller's Per Se, where he's working hard to keep the perfection going that he made so famous with The French Laundry.
And then, I got the surprise, and it redeemed the book for me.
Beside Per Se there is a little sushi place. It's unremarkable, and the chef inside virtually unknown unless you have mega-bucks, and love Japanese food. Inside is Masayoshi Takayama. To dine there is an exercise in attention and the wonder of just how good very fine food can be. It's small, with ten seats at the hinoki wood sushi bar, and several tables beyond that. Expect to drop at least 350$US per person when you eat there. But what sets it all apart is this:
If Masa isn't there, the restaurant doesn't open for the day. Period. He doesn't write cookbooks. He doesn't sell knives. What he does is make food, exquisitely crafted mouthfuls that are presented with respect and all of the passion that he can muster.
And it's here that I found the deciding point. Sure, you can train others to fill in for you, you can open restaurants with your name on them across the country, do television, sell product, write cookbooks and make a bundle. But if your cooking lacks the urge to do the very best, it's going to show to the diner. Eventually you get lazy, sell out, let your ego rule, and down you go, propelled by hubris.
I'll be honest. I don't mind shelling out for a cookbook by a chef that I respect, or taking a hard look at a product that they suggest. And I'm willing to shell out big bucks for a really fantastic meal. Ruhlman carefully skates along that thin line between praise, and gushing, slipping a few times in places. After all, he is writing about his own bread and butter here. Despite his evocative writing, and breezy style, this book really bothered me in places. While he certainly tries to keep the feeling of his previous two books on chefs and fame going, this one didn't seize my imagination the way the other two did.
I'll leave it up to other readers to decide if they like it or not. I only found a few chapters of the book interesting, and it lacks the intensity of what it is to be a professional cook. It's a gossipy, name-dropping book, and frankly, it's a dud at the end, with the only exception being when he discusses Masa. Beyond that, I would suggest it only as a cautionary tale for those who want to be culinary stars, and what it really costs for that fame.
Somewhat recommended. Three stars.