'The Soul of a Chef' is the second of Michael Ruhlman's journalistic explorations into the world of culinary life in America. The book contains three long essays that chronicle parts of the careers of three different chefs at three different levels of achievement. Thus, the journey toward perfection is more the journey of the author than it is a journey by a single chef.
The first essay is a telling of the events in one examination for the title of 'Certified Master Chef'. The certification is carried out and bestowed by the Culinary Institute of America, often characterized as the Harvard of American cooking schools. The examination runs for more than a week when, on each day, the candidate must complete a particular task. The candidate knows the object of each task at least a day in advance, so they may at least mentally prepare for their challenge. Almost all tasks are taken from the pages of classic French cuisine, some lifted almost directly from the pages of Escoffier's books on the subject. Out of about a dozen qualifiers competing at each session, held once every six months, usually only two or three candidates pass the test and are awarded the title. The author participates in the competition under the ruse of being an inspector from a fictional qualifying organization that is verifying that the tests are worthy of an imaginary certification. In that way, the author can observe and interview all the candidates without arousing suspicion or apprehension in the candidates. Thus, this book picks up the narrative on American culinary careers at very much the same place the author left off at the end of his first culinary investigation 'The Making of a Chef'. Most candidates have been chefs for a few years and are looking to add to their credentials and marketability, especially those who work as consultants to food service organizations. In many ways, this chapter is the most interesting, as it holds your interest to see if the featured candidates in the narrative will achieve their certification.
The second essay had a much weaker hold on my interest, although the quality of the writing was equal to that in the first essay. The essay title, 'Lola' is the name of a major Cleveland restaurant whose owner and head chef is Michael Symon, a CIA graduate, who may be familiar to some of you as one of the co-hosts on the Food Network show 'Melting Pot' where he and Wayne Harley Brachman explore eastern European cuisines. In addition to this distinction, Symon has been recognized as a 'Food and Wine' best new chef, so he really does not need the kind of recognition one achieves by earning the Certified Master Chef award. Symon's position in the middle essay is a sign of his rank above the CIA Master Chef candidates and below the very top of the American culinary scene represented by the chef in the last essay. The most interesting episode in the tale of Symon and 'Lola' is in the story of a visit by John Mariani, a major American restaurant critic where it seems as if just about everything goes wrong. The moral of this story to me is its demonstration of how difficult it is to maintain 100% food quality in a very good restaurant. There is a very good reason why the executive chef stands at the expediter's table and checks on outgoing dishes. The connection between the second and third essays is the fact that Symon and his new wife go to Napa Valley to dine at the French Laundry restaurant for their honeymoon.
The third essay takes us to the very top of the American culinary hierarchy of achievement. It deals with the career of Thomas Heller, the owner and executive chef of The French Laundry. He has been recognized as the best chef in California, followed by recognition as best chef in the country by the James Beard awards. His quest for perfection is legendary. It is no coincidence that Ruhlman is the co-author of Heller's 'The French Laundry Cookbook' as I am sure this essay was done at the same time as he was working on the cookbook. Heller's reputation is well known among foodies, so I won't dwell on it here. I will only recommend this essay, plus a chapter in Tony Bourdain's 'A Cooks Tour' as excellent profiles of this very important American chef.
For knowledgeable foodies, this book is a pure delight. Just knowing how to make pasta Puttanesca enhances one's enjoyment of the story in the second essay. For non-foodies, the book will appeal as well or better than other famous journalistic essays such as Tracy Kidder's 'Soul of a New Machine'. The book contains some recipes.
Highly recommended reading.