When I grow up, I’d like to be a food writer.
Now, sure… if you subscribe to the “traditional” view of the world, I am indeed a grown-up (I’m 32). You’d also say that I’m pretty locked in to my current vocation, as I’ve been in the same field for going on 15 years. But, hey. A guy can dream, can’t he?
Over the past month, though, I’ve had the good fortune to see my little dream become a little less dreamlike. Readership of my blog has increased, and I’ve had the opportunity to speak with some very talented people in the food industry. Today, however, was the day to beat all days. I had the opportunity to spend a few moments speaking with a person I sincerely admire. A writer and a lover of food. Someone I wouldn’t mind being like (You know… “When I grow up.”).
Michael Ruhlman has authored and co-authored a variety of books, with topics varying from food to non-fiction. My personal favorite, and one I would recommend to anyone interested in understanding what it takes to be a successful chef, is The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection. In it Ruhlman tells the story of professional Chefs Brian Polcyn, Michael Symon and Thomas Keller. If you haven’t read it, be sure to pick up a copy. You will not be disappointed!
Chef who writes, or a writer who cooks?
My first question to Michael was a simple one: Are you a chef who writes, or a writer who cooks? It seemed a reasonable question as he applied to (though did not graduate from) the Culinary Institute of America. But, he was clear in his reply. “I’m a writer who cooks,” he said. “I always liked to cook and my family always cooked together. But, you can’t really know what it means to be a chef without going through it.”
Despite not being a chef himself, he has had exposure to chefs that few writers can claim. Aside from having taken courses at the Culinary Institute of America, he also worked the line in a kitchen. Having the opportunity to see the profession up close and personal impacts the view one has of chefs and cooks. “It definitely makes you appreciate how hard the work is, but you get to see that it’s also a lot of fun. People who cook are a little off-center, but that just makes them fun to be around!”
In discussing chefs and cooks, it brought me back to The Soul of a Chef. In it there was commentary from Thomas Keller regarding “non-cooks”, or those in kitchens across the country who do little more than throw items in to a sauté pan. Ruhlman echoed the sentiment during our conversation, though he sees a brighter future: “Yeah, that’s not really cooking. Cooking involves really transforming the ingredients in to something. People who take those kinds of ‘shortcuts’ are really just heating up food, and food like that will be lacking. But, there is a change going on now. More and more people are really getting involved with their food, making their own yogurt, growing their own stuff. Things have changed.”
The foodie culture
Just as there has been change in the world of cooks, there is change in the world of the diner. There is food programming available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on our televisions. Countless cookbooks, magazines and other publications dedicated to the culinary arts. These days, you don’t need to have gone to culinary school to know what cooking sous vide or confit means, or what a gastrique is. So I wondered what Michael thought the impact was on chefs now that their clientele was so much more in the know:
“I think it gives professional chefs more room to experiment. They can be more savvy with their menus and are likely to try things. Now people are more aware of different foods, so they’re more likely to try things. They’ll see sardines served on Iron Chef, so next time they head in to a restaurant, if they see it on the menu, they’ll try it.”
Experience and memories in food
At the end of our conversation, I asked Michael the question that really is at the heart of food for me. What food experience or memory has really stuck with you? Like many of us, it involves family. He told me, “One thing that always sticks with me was watching my mom make a béarnaise sauce. She raised it to the level of being a sport. She liked to give the béarnaise sauce a chance to win by adding too much butter. At the time we didn’t necessarily know about emulsion or anything like that, so she would be whisking away like mad. It was real cooking, you know, transforming the ingredients. It would get to the point we’re we thought it would be perfect, and then she’d go and add more butter and we’d think, ‘Oh no!’ It was an adventure! But, when she’d nail it, it was magical.”
It was exciting to have a chance to speak with Michael today, and I want to thank him for letting me live my dream of at least playing at being a food writer for one more day. I hope it won’t be the last time we get a chance to chat. He’s a voice for all those that love food and who realize that it isn’t “just food.” It’s magic.
Michael’s “Ruhlman’s Twenty“, in which he distills all of cooking into 20 fundamental techniques, is now back in print and available for purchase. He will also be releasing a new cookbook (along with Brian Polcyn) called “Salume”, a follow up to their cookbook “Charcuterie”, in August 2012.