by Kyra Martin
When I was in culinary school I expressed to my chefs that I was interested in becoming a food critic. They all told me similar things: learn the basics, work in a kitchen for several years to develop your knowledge and skills and then try writing about it. But they forgot a basic element, writing ability. “In my opinion you have to be able to write first–about anything.” You can’t be a writer without knowing how to write, as pointed out by food writer Michael Ruhlman.
I recently had a chance to interview Mr. Ruhlman about his career. “I wanted to be a novelist and a journalist. When I turned to the topic of food and cooking …the work suddenly flourished.”
Originally intending to write non-fiction narratives, Ruhlman had proposed an idea for a book to his publishers. He wanted to infiltrate the Culinary Institute of America, one of the most prestigious culinary schools in the country if not the world, and write about what they taught the next generation of chefs. What did it really take to become a culinary titan? After several months of waiting with little back and forth, the green light was given and in 1997, his book The Making of a Chef was published. From there one thing led to another and soon enough, Ruhlman had established a known and respected name in the food world.
One of the first big breaks Ruhlman had was when he was hired to help Chef Thomas Keller write The French Laundry Cookbook. Already an established icon in the culinary world, Keller was doing things in California’s Napa Valley that were gathering worldwide attention. It was an incredible opportunity that lead to a long, and continuing, relationship with Chef Keller. After successfully completing the French Laundry book, other chefs began to take notice and soon, some of the biggest names in the culinary circle were seeking the Cleveland native to assist in writing their cookbooks.
Though he may not officially be a chef, Ruhlman certainly counts as a culinary authority and has developed his own culinary style. “My style is casual and easy with strong flavors and very little visual design in terms of plating…” Something his wife, Donna, the food photographer, has had to learn to overcome when snapping pictures of his food. “I’ve adopted a variety of techniques taken from other chefs and put them to use in my own cooking.” Ruhlman also has the rare experience that many food writers don’t have: working the hot line at a busy restaurant. “It was 150 degrees at my grill station, literally. As soon as I got the French Laundry gig and Making of a Chef was about to come out I gave my two weeks. I wouldn’t last 2 consecutive nights on the line at my age.” It’s an intense and humbling experience to work the line.
Overtime, Ruhlman began to compile his own recipes despite it all. “I hate recipes,” he admitted to me in our interview. Soon enough his first cookbook was published and several more have followed. His most recent book, due out in August, is an ode to that most loved of cooking ingredients- Fat. The Book of Schmaltz: Love Song to a Forgotten Fat is all about the love of rendered chicken fat and how it can impart flavor to so many things in so many ways. “This country loves fat. Eating fat is not what makes us fat. …The idea that fat is in fact good for you in small doses has called attention to [the] fact that if you avoid processed food and cook your own food you get skinnier and healthier.” Ruhlman also writes about his love of cured meats in Charcuterie, a book dedicated to fat and salt, and with an updated version soon to published. A love shared with close Cleveland friend, Chef Michael Symon, well known for his love of the stuff.
So what does a prominent food writer keep in his fridge, something we all can relate too. “My fridge is a nightmare I have clean out when I get home, packed with food … cooked for photography for [the] new book. But I would be seriously bummed if there weren’t some good parmigiano reggiano in it. Fave not in the fridge…red boat fish sauce.” Having myself worked in kitchens for a few years, there is an unspoken love between all culinarians and their fish sauce. They put it in everything. Chances are you love fish sauce and just don’t know it yet.
And what books would an award winning cookbook author recommend: “New Pro Chef 5th Ed, my CIA text book. That and Pepin’s La Technique. What it all comes down to.” When I was in school this was something my chefs couldn’t reiterate enough to us. You have to know the basics before you can embellish. And if you really look at your recipes, you will start to find that they all have the same basic qualities. Do those right, and you’re well on your way to becoming an excellent cook.
As a final farewell, I concluded by asking what advice he would give to people thinking of becoming food writers or chefs. He said, “Don’t do anything for money until you know what the fuck you’re talking about. Second, know what the fuck you’re talking about. Which is very rare.”
I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to speak with someone who has worked with so many people I look up to. Someone who has done so much in their career and looks to be only climbing higher. I highly recommend looking into Mr. Ruhlman’s writings, especially Main Dish; a short and heartwarming essay about how it all started. Ruhlman’s books can be found on Amazon or on his website www.ruhlman.com.
Despite his disdain for recipes, Mr. Ruhlman was kind enough to let me re-publish one here. The original can be found here: http://ruhlman.com/2010/01/america-too-stupid-to-cook/
The World’s Most Difficult Roasted Chicken Recipe
Turn your oven on high (450 if you have ventilation, 425 if not). Coat a 3- or 4-pound chicken with coarse kosher salt so that you have an appealing crust of salt (a tablespoon or so). Put the chicken in a pan, stick a lemon or some onion or any fruit or vegetable you have on hand into the cavity. Put the chicken in the oven. Go away for an hour. Watch some TV, play with the kids, read, have a cocktail, have sex. When an hour has passed, take the chicken out of the oven and put it on the stove top or on a trivet for 15 more minutes. Finito.
About the Author: Kyra was trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Seattle and graduated highest honors with her diploma in Patisserie and Baking. She is currently working as a personal chef and is also the Community Manager for CookEatShare.com.