March 16, 2005

Soul of a Chef

by Michaerl Ruhlman

Three fine, extended essays about cooks and cooking. The first describes the Certified Master Chef exam, a grueling ten-day marathon that's a cross between medical residency and Iron Chef. In some hands, this could be a routine Hero Overcomes Adversity saga, but Ruhlman has the skill and judgment to play quietly and cleverly with point-of-view, changing what could have become a sports story into something more interesting.

The other two essays are even stronger. In one, Ruhlman looks at Michael Symon, a successful restauranteur, and tries to get a handle on why his food works and why his restaurants are fun.

The final essay is, in essence, that story of "how I got to write the French Laundry Cookbook". It's fun and funny; Ruhlman's core argument, I think, is that the legendary Thomas Keller succeeds because his food makes you laugh. Ruhlman is refreshingly skeptical about the idea that serious cooking is anything more than a craft -- he refuses to take claims of the chef as artist and auteur very seriously -- and he does a lovely job of avoiding CEO porn while remembering that this is, after all, an interesting (and famously difficult) business.