Michael Ruhlman Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Michael Ruhlman. Ruhlman is the bestselling and award-winning author of many books on cooking, including The French Laundry Cookbook, The Soul of a Chef, The Elements of Cooking, Ruhlman’s Twenty, and his newest book Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World's Most Versatile Ingredient. He is also the author of several nonfiction works on various topics. He has appeared on television as a judge on The Next Iron Chef, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, A Cook's Tour, and other shows. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times and winner of the James Beard Award and the International Association of Culinary Professionals Award. Blackstone Audio published the audio format of Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef, narrated by Donald Corren, on May 13, 2014. Welcome, Michael. Thanks for joining us today.
MICHAEL RUHLMAN: Delighted to be here.
MH: Congratulations on the audiobook release of The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection. What inspired you to write this book?
MR: Fear and desperation. It really came together in sort of a haphazard way. In fact, so haphazard that I was terrified that it was going to sink like a stone and be completely lost. I needed to keep writing about the industry. I had just come off writing The Making of a Chef. I had the extraordinary experience of spending a lot of time out at the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, working with Thomas Keller and his cookbook. I worked as a cook, I had all this material, and I didn’t know how to make it into a book. When Michael Symon won Food and Wine’s Best New Chef, before any midwestern chefs had been awarded this honor, I knew I had someone nearby who was worthy of writing about, and it gave me three parts to this puzzle. One was the Certified Master Chef Exam, in which I explore the objectivity of great cooking. Then, it was the American chef with Michael Symon, and then my experiences of working with Thomas Keller, who is the chef’s chef and was considered the best chef in the country, and still is. That’s how the book came together. It came together in three parts and it worked. I was just floored by, and gratified by, its success.
MH: What first drew you to writing about chefs and cooking?
MR: I had always liked food and cooking. I just finished a book about all-boys education, and my wife said, “Michael, you want to write books? You’ve got to come up with another book idea.” Given my interest in food and given the year that it was—summer of 1995—the Food Network had just come out, and people were starting to become more interested in chefs. I thought, “I’ll talk my way into the most prominent cooking school in the country and see what it says you have to know in order to be a chef.” That’s really what started everything. Once I got in there, I realized you couldn’t know what it meant to be a chef unless you became one yourself because the changes are interior, so many of them. How you relate to heat and cold, how you relate to challenges, how you work with other people, and all kinds of things like that are interior, not visible to a reporter. So I had to become a cook, and once I’d become a cook, well, you can’t un-become one.
MH: Like The Making of a Chef, it seems The Soul of a Chef is an instant classic in food writing and it’s one of the fastest growing and most popular subjects today, food writing. What do you think is the continuing appeal of this topic and genre?
MR: I think this all started because our food in this country has started making us sick on a massive scale. Obesity is epidemic. Kids are getting adult diseases. Allergies we’d never heard of are cropping up in our kids. When something that you need to survive starts making you sick, you become obsessive about it. If you didn’t have enough air right now, you’d be very obsessed about breathing. But it’s been hidden by the fact that we’ve got plenty of food everywhere. It’s available 24/7. It’s cheap. And that’s the problem. I think that we’ve recognized that our food is really important and we look to chefs and the professionals as guides and leaders—people who can teach us how to think about our food.
MH: The Soul of a Chef takes an in-depth look into the world of professional cooking. You go inside. You talk about the secrets of successful chefs, and at what point cooking becomes an art form. Tell us a little bit about the behind-the-scenes life of a professional chef, what they really do day-to-day.
MR: It’s a life that is composed of staggering monotony, followed by intense action and adrenaline, followed by more monotony, followed by sleep, followed by more monotony, followed by intense action, followed by monotony. These cooks, especially at the high levels, they will get to the French Laundry, say at ten or eleven in the morning. They’ll prep their station all day long. At six o’clock, service begins, and then they are moving nonstop for the next six to seven hours. This is followed by an hour to two hours of cleanup, ordering food for the next day, and figuring out the next day’s menu. It’s a killer schedule.
MH: When did your love of cooking start? You seem to have a profound love for it. You’ve written on many different subjects, but something special happens when you start to write about cooking.
MR: I never set out to do this. I never set out to be a food writer. I never set out to write about chefs. I found that I was good at it, that I had a facility for it, and thinking about food and showing food in new ways. I’ve always loved cooking. When I was in fourth grade I started cooking for myself. I was a latchkey child. My parents both worked, I was an only child, and if I wanted anything decent to eat I had to cook it myself. And I loved to eat. I love to eat. And if you love to eat, you’ve got to cook your own food.
MH: You’ve coauthored a number of books by celebrity chefs. You mentioned Michael Symon in Live to Cook and you’ve worked with other top chefs to write books. How did those collaborations develop? How did you get them to want to work with you and tell their stories with you?
MR: The first one was Thomas Keller, and I can’t think of anything other than divine province. I was a broke, unemployed writer living in Cleveland with no national bylines on food to my credit. I was so desperate. I decided I was going to go get work as a cook because I knew how to cook, so I was going to get a job at the best restaurant in Cleveland. So, I went out to a restaurant in Bainbridge, Ohio, where the proprietor, Susie Heller, was. I knew she was really well connected and I figured she could help me get a job. She looked my stuff over, looked at me and said, “Wow, I didn’t know you did all this. I’m working with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry and we’re looking for a writer.” So, this broke, unemployed Clevelander with no culinary writing published yet was suddenly being flown out to the French Laundry to work with Thomas Keller on his cookbook—a gift from God clearly.
MH: The topic of food seems like such a visual medium. How do you approach it when you write a book about food, to make it more than just a recipe cookbook? How do you make recipes literary? Maybe you have an example.
MR: In my Egg book I have a recipe for soft-boiled eggs for buttered toast and I imagine the scene in which I would be eating it, which would be on a crapulous Sunday morning with my wife, and I’d be wearing a smoking jacket that I don’t own. I built these into the recipe and the headnote. One of the instructions in the recipe is to kiss your spouse’s crown and tell her that you love her. So just by being creative, being imaginative. I’m first and foremost a writer.
MH: Let’s talk a little bit about your writing process. How did you develop your style? Who were your influences?
MR: I was a really bad writer for twenty years, but I wrote every day for most of those years and that’s how I learned to write: by writing bad prose for twenty years until I finally figured it out. My mentor, Reynolds Price, the author of Kate Vaiden and A Long and Happy Life, among many other books, gave me the tools I needed, which he told our class, and I took them to heart, “If you want to be a writer, you must learn to manage your own time. You must sit down at the same time, at the same time of day, and produce about the same amount of words five to six days a week, every week, forever.” I knew this to be true and I knew that I wanted to be a writer, so I took his advice. After a decade of sitting down and writing five hundred words every morning, something clicked and I figured out how to write.
MH: Your book, The French Laundry Cookbook, was the first American cookbook to explore the possibilities of sous vide cooking. Explain to us what sous vide cooking is. How did you intend to write about this? Or did it naturally develop as you were writing the book?
MR: Sous vide literally means under vacuum and refers to vacuum-sealed foods that are cooked at precise temperatures. It’s become shorthand for cooking food at precise temperatures. You can sous vide an egg, for instance, at one hundred and forty-four degrees for an hour and have a beautiful soft-boiled egg, even though it’s not vacuum sealed. We use it to mean cooking at precise temperatures. Thomas was one of the first chefs to embrace this new cooking method, which comes from France, and use it in a high-end way. Ultimately, he and his chefs wanted to do a book on sous vide cooking as more and more chefs were using the technology that immersion circulators give us, creating a water bath at precise temperatures. That’s how that book came about. He wanted to help educate other chefs and asked me to work with him and his two chefs to cuisine at Per Se and The French Laundry.
MH: You’ve also been involved as a judge on television shows, like The Next Iron Chef and Iron Chef America. What’s that experience like? What is it like to get into those situations and, in a sense, be a performing critic?
MR: It’s a lot of fun. You are cooked for by some of the best cooks in the country and best chefs in the country, and your judges are usually pretty interesting people as well. It’s about as much fun as it looks like, and I hope it looks fun. We try to have a good time. If anything, there is a lot of sitting around with TV and that’s the only downside to doing TV. There is another downside—criticizing chefs. I’m on their side, I’m not on the critics side. It’s very hard to criticize somebody’s food when you know how hard they work and how hard they’ve worked on the food. But sometimes you do have to criticize the food in judging it.
MH: Has there ever been a production that a chef came up with on one of those shows that absolutely gobsmacked you, either positively or negatively?
MR: Yes, both. I’ll never forget Chris Cosentino’s kidneys—and that’s all I’ll say. Though I adore chef Cosentino, and he’s a wonderful guy and a fabulous chef and cook, but you’re cooking in unfamiliar circumstances and not in your own kitchen, which is very hard. Michael Symon, fellow Clevelander, is just, he really is a talented cook and I always love his stuff, and Bobby Flay. Both of those cooks are my favorite for their really dynamic flavors and interesting food.
MH: I can’t let you go without asking you about one of your books. You actually wrote a whole book about—I lived in Vienna for a while so I know something about this—Schmaltz: pig fat. Tell me how that came into being and what drew you to schmaltz?
MR: This is a particular form of schmaltz. It’s the Jewish schmaltz, which would be chicken or goose or duck fat. In Germany, of course, schmaltz just refers generically to fat, and I’d used lots of that kind of fat in our book, Charcuterie. Fat, as all chefs know, is flavor. We’ve been taught in this country to fear fat and that’s wrong, so we wrote a book called Charcuterie, which is pretty much reliant on animal fat and salt, and it did really well. I was exploring all different kinds of fat. I knew about schmaltz from a sort of a Jewish phrase for, “overly sentimental.” It didn’t even have a meaning in so many kitchens. But when I heard my neighbor, Lois Baron, say, “Oh the holidays are upon us. I’ve got to go home and make schmaltz,” I knew I had my chicken fat muse, and I went on to write a book about cooking with chicken fat.
MH: Any ideas about what your next project might be?
MR: The most important thing to me is that more Americans cook. Our lives are better when we cook our own food and share it with the people we love. My interest is in technique rather than recipe. When we know a technique, we know a thousand recipes. I’ve actually started working on a series of technique books on cooking.
MH: Your bio says you make smartphone apps and actually cofounded a company that manufactures and finds unique cooking tools. How did you get involved in those kinds of projects?
MR: I wrote a book called Ratio, which is not about recipes but rather about proportions of ingredients. Bread is in a series of ingredients. It’s really five parts flour and three parts water. When you know a ratio, you know a thousand recipes. Someone contacted me, Will Turnage in New York, and said, “This would make a great app. Are you interested in making one?” I said, “You bet.” And that’s how the apps came about. Just one guy. We worked on spec, and it’s been really successful—the ratio app. Cooking tools. A high school buddy said, “Mike, I make stuff. What do you want to make?” I’d bent this spoon because I needed an offset spoon, but it was really awkward looking. I said, “I want to make this spoon, but I want to make it really elegant.” He says, “I can make that.” That’s how our kitchen tools started.
MH: How do you think technology has, in general, changed the food and cooking industry?
MR: Wow. That’s a huge subject. It certainly has, it’s so vast. The Internet has made access to recipes, to chefs immediate. People ask me questions about charcuterie, curing, schmaltz, and eggs on Twitter and I answer right back. The Internet has changed our whole lives, and given that food and cooking is such a fundamental part of it, it’s changed that area as well.
MH: Do you like audiobooks? And what type of audiobooks do you enjoy listening to, if you do?
MR: I love audiobooks. I’m so excited to have The Soul of a Chef come out as an audiobook. My favorite books to listen to are memoirs. I don’t know why. I just obsessively listen to them. I spend a lot of time walking our dog, doing dishes, and going to the grocery store. These books are my constant companion when I’m not at my desk.
MH: Michael, this has been great talking to you today. We’re really excited about the audiobook release of The Soul of a Chef. Best of luck on your future ventures.
MR: Many thanks.
MH:Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Michael Ruhlman. You can find The Soul of a Chef, other Michael Ruhlman audiobooks, and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in April 2014.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
The Soul of a Chef
In his second in-depth foray into the world of professional cooking, Michael Ruhlman journeys into the heart of the profession. Observing the rigorous Certified Master Chef exam at the Culinary Institute of America, the most influential cooking school in the country, Ruhlman enters the lives and kitchens of rising star Michael Symon and the renowned Thomas Keller of the French Laundry. This fascinating book will satisfy any reader’s hunger for knowledge about cooking and food, the secrets of successful chefs, at what point cooking becomes an art form, and more.
Like Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef, this is an instant classic in food writing—one of the fastest growing and most popular subjects today.