I don’t often fawn over a celebrity. My days as a musician and a cook did a lot to bring the famous down to earth. When you see the people you admire for who they really are, it can sometimes be disappointing. The musician who, while inspiring and brilliant, whose approach to their instrument reaches you in a way you didn’t think possible, turns out to be a womanizing junkie. The chef you’ve admired from a seat in the dining room and the pages of a book turns out to be not that good of a cook and a raging egomaniac who spends little time in his restaurant. It’s a let down. These people shape you fundamentally, and while I don’t think it is their responsibility to be role models, you have an idea of who you want them to be, and anything short of that ruins the fantasy. I’m sure plenty of you have pored over the pages of the newest cookbook from the hottest chef all the while thinking about how cool it would be to meet up for a beer and talk about food, cooking, life…
In 1997 I entered my first professional kitchen. I most certainly did not want to spend my time washing dishes, but I was in college and needed the money. At the same time my interest in cooking took hold, a new book came out titled, The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America, by Michael Ruhlman. I read this book over and over, and while I had no real interest in actually meeting Mr. Ruhlman, I really wanted to go to that school and meet the people he wrote about. I wanted to experience the intense and strict professional environment he wrote about. I read the famous “we get here” passage over and over and was star struck at the thought of meeting the infamous, hard-nosed Chef Pardus. This book came to me at a crucial point in my life and it strongly influenced the direction my life would take. My time at the CIA had its ups and downs, but the ups were way up (like, say, meeting Allie…). Around the time I started school, there was buzz about a book coming out by the venerable Thomas Keller and his storied restaurant, The French Laundry. Like most, I was chomping at the bit to get my hands on this book, and the day it came out, it was mine. The binding on that copy is worn out, the pages are a bit worse for wear and it slumps a bit on the shelf; all the signs of a well-loved book. Mr. Ruhlman penned The French Laundry book along with Chef Keller, and his prose, his interpretation of Thomas Keller’s philosophy and style was as important to me as the recipes themselves. I kept reading that book over and over. I practically had it memorized.
To say I’m a fan of Michael Ruhlman’s writing is an understatement. When I need to buy a gift for a cook it is often one of his books. When a new book comes out I go out of my way to buy a copy. While I have never made any real effort to meet the man, I do follow him on twitter and am a fan on the Facebook. His writing style appeals to me in a way that makes me want to read and re-read everything he has to say, but there is more to it than that. Reading the way he writes about food is like listening to a great song. Sometimes it just grabs ahold of you. But it is the way he writes about being a cook that really speaks to me. And that too has evolved in parallel to my career. Learning how to cook, but more importantly, how to be a cook is something that is rarely written about, but Mr. Ruhlman has made it his mission. Reading his books about the CIA or about the careers of Grant Achatz or Michael Symon you get insight into what it is really like to work in this business. A book like Charcuterie showed us all how to make sausages, paté and salami. No one prior had given cooks, professional or otherwise, as detailed a look at how this stuff we all loved was made while taking the mystery out of making it ourselves. I doubt there is a chef worth his pink salt that doesn’t have a copy or two in his collection.
But what really makes me admire Ruhlman the most is his effort to bridge the gap between restaurant cooking and home cooking. Books like Ratio and now Ruhlman’s Twenty attempt to teach people to move beyond the recipe and learn how to really cook. To be able to go to a market and buy whatever looks good and know how to approach it without the confines of a recipe is such an amazing tool. To come to a shop like mine and not be restricted by the “obvious cuts” can open up a world of possibilities, especially when cooking for a large group. For years, people have been asking me for recipes and especially here at the shop folks come in interested in a cut I may have posted about on my blog, facebook or twitter. They are looking for recipes down to the teaspoon and I always respond with a ratio or technique. I always end by saying, “Trust me…” and they come back raving about how easy it was to braise a beef shank or how indirectly grilling a pork chop was so much better than they way they used to do it.
Admittedly, when approached with the idea of hosting a book signing for Michael and his new book, Ruhlman’s Twenty, I was rather excited. I know this is business for him, but for me it is a chance to not only meet, but also interact with someone who I admire and has been a part of my career since the earliest days. While I know better than to think we will become the best of friends, I hope he walks away from our little shop feeling like his efforts have made an impact. Because they have.
In his new book, Ruhlman’s Twenty, Michael Ruhlman talks in the ‘Acid’ chapter about having an “a-ha” moment while at the Culinary Institue of America.
“The power of acid was the first of many ‘a-ha’ moments I experienced at culinary school….”
Upon offering up a bowl of cream of broccoli soup for evaluation, he was told by the Chef-Instructor, “I want you to take this back to your station…take a spoonful and add a drop of white vinegar. Taste it and tell me what you think.”
“The spoonful with the vinegar was markedly better, more complex, more interesting- brighter…”
Relate to me in a tweet (@butcherlarder) an ‘a-ha’ moment involving a cooking technique or ingredient. 20 winners will be selected to hang out at The Butcher & Larder with Rob and Michael Ruhlman while they make sausage and put together a version of the sausage and escarole soup from Twenty. This will be a great opportunity for fans to talk about the new book and his amazing career from The Making of a Chef to co-writing The French Laundry and Charcuterie.
The “sausage-making party with Ruhlman” will take place from 6-8 PM on Tuesday, October 11th, and if you are not selected for the party, there will be an open book signing for anyone and everyone from 8-9 PM.