I tore though my copy of The Elements of Cooking
this weekend, and Ruhlman is preaching to the choir here. Elements
is a distillation of the classical asskicking dished out at the CIA and and lesser schools, formatted for easy reference by the home cook. He's getting flack for not producing a universal text, and it's true, he hasn't. He states right on the cover that he is translating the chef's
craft, not the cook's craft, and his use of the French term is deliberate. Those bemoaning the lack of soy sauce and barbecue are wasting their time. If you want the ur-text for Sichuan cooking, this ain't it, and it wasn't meant to be. If you want to cook as if you have a passing familiarity with the brigade
system, then pick it up. His emphasis on veal stock is a touch overblown (I completely agree that it enhances everything it touches, but the home cook can get away with using other stocks) but the essays on proper salting and the role of eggs in the kitchen are worth the cost of the book, and any home cook who wants a deeper understanding of those topics should start right here before putting on the scuba gear and diving into McGee's On Food And Cooking
A quibble. He writes:
Recipes are not assembly manuals. You can’t use them the way you use instructions to put together your grill or the rec room Ping-Pong table. Recipes are guides and suggestions for a process that is infinitely nuanced.
Well, yes. But learning to follow a recipe is essential for the beginning cook. It's the grounding in the basics at culinary school (I survived a local institution here in Washington DC) that gives a cook the basis to experiment, and an instinctive proficiency that serves well when applied to other cuisines. For instance, learning to do a proper mise en place
makes Thai cuisine, with its long lists of ingredients, much less daunting.
If his mantra “How to perfect a good recipe: Do it over again. And again. Pay attention. Do it again.” strikes you as affected machismo, then the real world instruction "This is bullshit. Do it again." is going to hurt your feelings.
Far from being put off, I found the finger-wagging in Elements
crucial in these days of Rachael Ray, Food TV's paragon of the soft bigotry of low expectations. Book store shelves are groaning with books advocating half-assed technique, but finesse is vital and that essay may be the most important bit of information in the book. Finesse can be tasted in fine food and seen in the presentation, it's what makes places like The French Laundry worth the expense, and it makes Thomas Keller's cookbooks worth the hair pulling. The results are superior. It's worth the care and attention to detail. If you want a meal in thirty minutes, you know where to go and you might as well put the book down now. It's not going to tell you to open a few bags and call it dinner.
Do it. Do it again. Practice. Pay attention. Don't take short cuts.
Hallelujah! Preach it, brother Ruhlman. Can I get an amen?
Edited by hjshorter, 27 November 2007 - 07:34 AM.