This 1997 second book by journalist Michael Ruhlman is his first of several essays and collaborations in writing about the upper reaches of the American culinary scene. The most fascinating thing about the book is in learning with Ruhlman, as an outsider to the culinary profession, exactly how demanding a job in the culinary arts can be. What is taken as a matter of course by people like Daniel Boulud and Jaques Pepin comes as a surprise to outsider Ruhlman. The surprise is in the commitment to performance which chefs are expected to make to maintain a service to their customers.
The book is a reporting on Ruhlman's taking an abbreviated version of the full curriculum at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), where only the President of the school and a few select senior instructors know of the author's real role at the school. This means that when the author did attend classes, he attended the full class, from start to finish, and was expected to perform as well as any other student. While the CIA has many of the appearances of a liberal arts college, it is much closer in practice to a trade school. One symptom of this is that the stocks produced by the basic kitchen skills classes are then used by other classes at the school and they are used by each of the four restaurants run by the school for students, faculty, and outside guests. In a sense, this is a mix of trade school and graduate school, where it is expected that no one will do work worthy of a grade less than a B-.
The epiphany that reveals how serious the culinary profession is about uninterrupted service comes early in the first year when the school is hit by a serious snowstorm and the author considers whether or not he should attempt the difficult trek into the school. The great revelation is that the school and the instructor of Ruhlman's class on that occasion did not expect it to be above and beyond the call of duty to make it to class, and they would have not thought twice about lowering Ruhlman's grade had he been a true, full time student.
When I left school, I was surprised at how much easier life at a job was compared to life in school. I am sure that had a lot to do with the fact that I entered a largely intellectual avocation where so much about how things are done and how long they will take can change from job to job and even lowly technicians are give some opening to contribute to setting target dates. Culinary trades are a much different kettle of fish, literally.
In a professional kitchen, the line cook is totally at the mercy of who happens to walk into the restaurant that day, and how many people walk into the restaurant that day, and at what time. The challenge is to prepare so well and exercise one's skills so often that making six or eight different dishes to perfection at a sauté station becomes second nature. Since it is the job of the CIA to teach you how to do that, the classes can be very demanding.
The first 30% of the book covers the introductory class on basic skills and the main character is the instructor of that class. The last 30% of the book covers time spent in two of the CIA's four practice restaurants. The middle of the book covers experiences in specialized classes for Garde Manger, baking, and other specialities. If you do not already know the serious difference between savory cooking and baking, the books chapter describing the baking class will clear this up in a big hurry.
I confess that I am very fond of this type of book. To me it represents a successful presentation of material that reality TV shows can never hope to achieve. The paradigm for this kind of writing is Tracy Kidder's book 'The Soul of a New Machine', to which I would favorably compare this work. You should find it doubly interesting if, as I do, you have an interest in the how and why of the culinary arts and personalities.
Very highly recommended.