The Reach of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

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BOOK REVIEW- The Reach of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

For my birthday this year Beck spoiled me royally:

Not with roses-  not with sparkly trinkets, but with books. A stack’s worth.

I salivated over the anticipated titles my eyes skimmed- this was my kind of celebration. The hardest question was which to read first. And so I reached, a few years later for “The Reach of a Chef”, written by Michael Ruhlman. In sitting down to tell you about “Reach,” I ended up writing a long overdue ode to “The Soul of a Chef”, its predecessor. So, it ended up being a two for one kind of book discussion.

I toted “Reach” in my bag for several weeks. Anytime I left the house, it was with me. It became my bus book- the one that faithfully logged my place as I set out en route.

At the 2010 BlogHer Food conference, I had a chance to hear Ruhlman speak and even sat in on some similar sessions. He spoke about “the dance” a little in both “Soul” and “Reach”- that particular choreography when the kitchen is in sync. In “The Soul of a Chef”, he cites Thomas Keller as saying, “[w]e are becoming a nation of noncooks.” (p.330). While “Soul” discusses this from a restaurant perspective, it is something Ruhlman passionately mentioned in the closing remarks of BlogHer Food for the domestic cook. This topic is definitely one that puts a flame under him as was masterfully captured in the videos “Michael Ruhlman has something to say.”

In “Reach”, Thomas Keller is re-introduced as is Grant Achatz now cooking in his own kitchen. We meet Masa and Melissa Kelly and he revisits the Culinary Institute of America and finds you “can’t go home again.”

So much of the culinary landscape he had outlined in “Soul” had changed in a very brief amount of time starting the book with Thomas Keller.

“It was not only Keller’s life that had changed. In no instance did I find a situation that I’d written about previously unaltered; in fact the changes were profound given how little time had passed.” (p.29)

“Reach” starts out with part one entitled “The chef has lost his shoes” and immediately this play on words made me think of the emperor losing his clothes. We find Keller about to open now famed restaurant Per Se and scrambling to find his shoes in the several roomed kitchen as 60 Minutes is waiting to film. We find him knee deep in opportunities that actually take him out of the kitchen. He has created a well-oiled machine that can get on beautifully without him.

It’s inevitable that a chef eventually will leave the kitchen- the job is grueling and often without all of the perks that restaurant-goers thinks are involved. The popular restaurant that has no reservations open for several months still may not have hit profitability. No better time to see this in action as the recession closed several restaurants in San Francisco I personally fancied. Then again, you have the strains and toils it takes on a person physically. Then again, does the restaurant of the chef’s own celebrity require his/her presence? Different opinions exist. It depends on the chef.

In “Reach” the portion depicting Masa would tend to say it’s essential.

“He’d created a single restaurant that was wholly dependent on his presence. A restaurant that without him couldn’t even open. ‘When I catch cold, I close the restaurant.’ The goal of most chefs was to train their staffs so well that they, the chefs, didn’t have to be there- when the staff could replicate a chef’s goals without his being there, that was an extraordinary achievement.” (p. 321)

I read an article about Ferran Adria closing el Bulli in July and found Adria’s words bringing me back to “Reach.”

“In el Bulli, the chef needs to be there,” he said. “You need to see him.” (from The Telegraph)

When el Bulli shutters in July, this is a perfect example of what “Reach” is getting at. The reach of this chef- Adria is that he is going to share online all 1800 recipes from el Bulli so others can attempt them, describing his sharing them as open-sourcing in a “Google-style environment.” He’s going to open the el Bulli Foundation and what sounds like an incredible think-tank and place of creativity and experimentation for chefs, artists and engineers who must all apply and be accepted for a brief stint to work alongside him. This shows the “reach” of this Spanish chef.

So what does success look like to today’s chef?

In “Reach”, I read voraciously of the opportunities that are taking chefs out of the kitchen including television and media. While it did not surprise me to learn that many students now entering the Culinary Institute of America are seeking the glory and audience of the boob tube, it did somehow show a shift that has taken place.

Working in food marketing and social media, I have seen how vocal many of the best chefs have become online, starting their own Twitter accounts, posting 20-something photo recipes on facebook and basically looking to continue building their own personal brand. Would it be horrible to say that in some ways, it seems the playing field is leveling online?

An article written by Lael Hazan on food-writing blog “Plate to Page” continued to have me thinking about this. She says:

“I find it amusing that the net bewilders many of the well-known cookbook authors…they know they should “be out there” but are intimidated. They are very concerned that their book sales are declining and see social media as the only salvation. On the other hand, I have yet to meet a food blogger who doesn’t secretly harbor the idea of a book deal. Many have published, but only a few of the blogger books have been truly successful. Is it because they are truly two separate worlds? Is it because bloggers don’t buy books when they can get it free on the net?” (from Plate to Page)

What I mean by this is that you have food bloggers, many of whom have no previous culinary schooling jostling for the same audiences online as chefs, or notably the “celebrity chefs”. Perhaps another way of saying this could be the proliferation of self-publishing and bloggers who get scooped up by cookbook publishers, putting out beautifully photographed cookbooks with original recipes, that sit on the shelf next to the celebrity chef’s title. This is its own interesting dance to watch and I’m an advocate and appreciator of both types. It is an interesting time to be alive and passionate about food.

The ideas put forth in “Reach” are more launch pads to the larger conversation about how the role of the chef is shifting. That said, we are in an era of the chef as celebrity, her/his restaurant the temple at which people will fork over a cool fortune to worship. And might I say what Las Vegas on the map from a food perspective?This gets me thinking about the article Grub Street just published interviewing several anonymous chefs on their thoughts on foodies with the overarching message of they pay the bills but we don’t like them. This might be the case for the few chefs interviewed for that article, but it does hint at a larger conversation at play here. Perhaps if the chef is taking opportunities outside of the kitchen, they are coming more head-to-head with non-chefs vying for that position? Perhaps not.

Ruhlman’s “Reach” takes a several part approach just like “Soul”. Part one shadows Per Se’s opening and sets the stage for the rest of the book. It speaks of Keller jettisoning from one opportunity to the next and mentions how infrequently he is now in the kitchen. Is it doleful for me to admit that I am one of those people who would have liked to taste his food made by him personally? As I mentioned in my “Soul” book discussion, I have tremendous respect for Keller and am glad to see him doing well.

“Reach” goes on in part two to revisit the Culinary Institute of America finding it changed. Today’s student has opportunities to study restaurant public relations, to become a food stylist and a bacteriological technologist among a few of the other areas of specialization. What a different world. He’s not kidding when he says it’s no longer a trade school.

In part three, he spends time following two chefs described as “The American Chef”, Grant Achatz and Melissa Kelly.

He dines at Trio, tasting the food of Grant Achatz, whom he first met at the French Laundry years before and then later Ruhlman enters the world of  Alinea during its opening (and on the very night that Frank Bruni is dining pseudo under-the-radar). Ruhlman describes the multi-course meals at both with such clarity and detail that I can taste the tempura shrimp with meyer lemon and gelatinous cranberry sauce pierced by a vanilla bean. For several years now, I have pined to have a meal at Alinea, to see and taste the originality for myself. You see Achatz interpreting classical dishes into new forms and then describing the process on e-gullet. Truly a chef of this era of open sourcing. Ruhlman’s description of his time in Alinea’s kitchen and as a patron does nothing to dissuage the mystique of Alinea. If anything, it only heightens the desire for me.

Melissa Kelly is a powerhouse. In reading the section describing her restaurant Primo’s, I am both struck at how “Californian” it feels (she has a full-time gardener to prune and cultivate the produce used by the restaurant) and how much I would want to be a part of this operation. Her restaurant is in an old house and her staff is small enough to be like family. I love that from a single restaurant she persuaded a large hotel chain to “plant gardens and initiate a recycling program” if she was to open secondary and tertiary locations of her flagship.

In Part four: “the power of the branded chef”, you learn about the rise of TV darlings Emeril and Rachael Ray. Part-entertainer, part-chef Emeril makes cooking look fun. Ruhlman even dispels the source of the oft-quoted “Bam!” as a way Emeril used to try to keep the camera guys awake and on their toes. I happened upon Emeril once or twice on tv and found him jovial, drawing glee and anticipation from his audience. As someone who loves New Orleans, I appreciated his contribution to food television and being a herald of that city by association.

Ruhlman describes Rachael Ray filming on set and quickly you see how gifted she is in that medium. Her ability to think quickly on her toes and come up with course additions won my respect in a new way. I love that she both got her start cooking at her mom’s restaurant growing up and then later got catapulted into television through offering cooking classes at the grocery market where she worked as a way to demonstrate easy applications for using spices in cooking. Her sunny disposition and easy recipes win over most people rushed for time but who still appreciate a good meal. This section in particular, highlighted for me that ineffable quality of the chef cum television personality whose overall goal may be for ratings, but perhaps more importantly, to get Americans / viewers back in the kitchen.

Part five: in “the chefs at Columbus circle”, you get to meet Masa and I am spellbound. From Masa to Melissa Kelly to Grant Achatz to Thomas Keller, their personal histories show hard work and apprenticeship. This sense of mentoring or memory built into the work and legacy they will leave behind themselves is one of the things about the foodservice industry I appreciate. Remembering the people who have gotten you to the place you are today, working to achieve the vision with unbridled passion- this is something that is contagious to the people around them.

It gets me thinking if you are not loving what you are doing, why are you doing it? The dedication, long hours and pursuit of excellence is something tangibly felt and evocative to diners of the care that goes into the making of the meal.

Masa says, “‘Here is my money.’ He touches his chest, and says, ‘Here is my money.’” (p. 305)

Do we not celebrate a bit inside when we see other people going for it and achieving success? There is definitely a part of me that gets swept into the excitement of the buzz and chatter of so-and-so’s cooking. You want to experience their interpretation personally. Maybe some of the magic might rub off on you. At the very least you’ll leave after eating a memorable meal that makes your senses tingle with delight.

Hazan says, “I think most of us are in a rut and are often frightened of life. Clinical Psychologist and Parenting expert Dr. Wendy Mogel recently reported that it wasn’t the best schools or highest grades that made the most successful people, it was those who were flexible and had a positive outlook on life.” (Plate to Page)

We want a brush with greatness.

“The Reach of a Chef” does a good job of showing all the advances happening in chefdom beyond the kitchen, but for you and I, it also points to possibility. It makes you wonder if you too are reaching high enough and gives you that extra nudge to think twice about your personal life.

Of Adria, The Telegraph says: “He may be stepping down from the stove, but he is not calming his creative fizz. ‘That’s what I like – obsession, passion. I’m going to create a centre for culinary magic.'”

NOTE: A favorite quote from “Reach”: “When you’re cooking you’re kind of eating in your mind the whole time. I can’t imagine the drudgery daily cooking would be if you didn’t love to eat.” (p. 29) – Well said!

7 Responses to “The Reach of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman”

  1. Lael Hazan

    What a provocative piece. I’m honored to have been quoted. One of the reasons my husband, Giuliano Hazan, hasn’t done a restaurant in a long time (although he does have a new concept) is that he truly understands that the needs of the restaurant kitchen are all consuming. To sustain it at the level in which it was envisioned, the chef needs to BE there!

    Our family isn’t made up of “restaurant” chefs, we celebrate the home cook and those who feed their friends and families. I’ve found that many of the bloggers and culinary students forget that there is a difference. There is artistry in those who can make recipes that feed hundreds, but that same recipe may not work for the family of four. Nor does writing the recipe make you a good teacher of it. The gifts are different as are the worlds, and just because you master one doesn’t mean that it translates to the other. Many fabulous chefs are unable to articulate; while many of writer’s recipes are unworkable.

    The internet, especially twitter, does level the playing field at least for now. We are all still grappling with how to use it. How do we know who is the “authority”, but how did we ever know? Perseverance with a big dollop of luck.

    I’m glad you were spoiled for your birthday and I hope you continue to celebrate all year.

    • Anneliesz

      Thanks for your thoughtful response Lael. I was a bit reticent to post this as I really wanted to be clear that I don’t have the answers on the chef in or out of the kitchen question. My desire is to celebrate those who love food and seek to pursue their passion in it. For those working in the kitchen it’s an arduous path to the fame and glory cited in the book as something many beginning culinary students aspire to achieve. I remember a pastry chef friend of mine saying those are the very students that upon externship and right after school are the ones who are difficult to work with. At the end of the day, it comes back to work- a whole lot of it. And love. The love has to be there- you can taste it in the food. The chefs who collectively are respected and thought to be at top of their game- there is a part of me that wonders what does success look like to them? When have they arrived? And in the end, is that the ultimate goal? I like to ask the questions and am interested in the answers, though I don’t claim to have them. I can completely appreciate the vantage point of your own family as I come from a matriarchal family who all love to cook and feed their families as acts of love. It’s a beautiful thing to behold and something that inspired me to take a stab at it personally from a blogging perspective. I want to capture those bits of family, that bit of story imbued in the food that is bringing my family and friends joy now and the dishes prepared by my grandmother, mom and aunts. I see myself as a bit of an historian of food for our personal clan and get excited sharing that with others. Is there a food authority at present? I think there are many. “Perseverance with a big dollop of luck” and the tenacity to keep at it when the cards are down- I think this definitely applies to chefs and food bloggers alike. Best to you on this crisp sunny Thursday from San Francisco- annelies

  2. Irvin

    What a great post. You’ve recommended The Soul of a Chef to me before, but I still haven’t had a chance to read it. Now it looks like I have two books on my list by Ruhlman.

    It’s funny, as someone who bakes as often as I do, people are constantly asking me why I don’t open up my own shop or go and work in a bakery/restaurant. The reality is it IS hard work. Anyone who has reads eggbeater’s blog knows that it’s physically demanding work with very little monetary reward. I realize that it’s not something that I have an interest in doing.

    What I do love to do is write about food, develop new recipes and teach people how to make food. Which is why food blogging makes so much sense to me.

    Happy birthday you.

  3. Anneliesz

    And it’s good to know why you do what you do (beyond doing it for the love of it). I really loved working front of house in a restaurant and would do that again. But really I’m doing what I enjoy in working with food and with people.

    Having a blog fulfills that need in me (as do parties, cooking for friends and family). For me this is good.

    Thanks for commenting Irvin & let me know if you want to borrow either book.

  4. Beck

    Books are great! But I believe Beck *did* give you flowers on your birthday, also…