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The Interviewing of a Writer

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<img width="310" height="285" align="right" src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1127641774/gallery_29805_1195_23289.jpg">by Andy Lynes

Author, journalist and broadcaster Michael Ruhlman was born in 1963 in Cleveland, Ohio. He graduated from Duke University in 1985 with a BA in English Literature and worked for the New York Times for two years as a newsroom copyboy. After a period of travel, writing, and odd jobs, he returned to Cleveland in 1991 to edit a local magazine covering the city's cultural scene. An article for the magazine about the headmaster of a local private boys' school grew into Ruhlman's first book, Boys Themselves (1996).

A devoted amateur cook since his youth, Ruhlman proposed to the Culinary Institute of America, the oldest and most influential professional cooking school in the country, that he be allowed into its kitchen classrooms in order to write a narrative of how the school trains professional chefs. The school agreed, and The Making of a Chef (1997) was the result.

Further books about chefs and cooking followed. The Soul of a Chef and The French Laundry Cookbook (with Thomas Keller) were both published in 2000, and A Return to Cooking, written with Eric Ripert, chef-owner of the Manhattan four-star restaurant Le Bernardin, appeared in 2002. Bouchon, also written with Keller, was published in 2004. Ruhlman has worked as a line cook and wrote a food column for the Los Angeles Times for two years.

Although arguably most famous for his food- and chef-related writing, Ruhlman's work is wide-ranging in its subject matter. In February 1999, Ruhlman moved his family to Martha's Vineyard in order to research and report on life at a yard making plank-on-frame boats for the book Wooden Boats (2001). In October 2000, he began work at the Cleveland Clinic's Children's Hospital for the book Walk on Water (2003). His most recently published book, House (2005), tells the story of how Ruhlman and his wife Donna renovated a century-old house in a suburb of Cleveland.

His book on charcuterie for the home cook, written with Brian Polcyn, will be published in November. In addition to presenting the PBS show Cooking Under Fire, Ruhlman is finishing a third book about the work of the professional chef.

The subject of food, chefs and restaurants is something you come back to time and again. What is the reason for that? What is it about the subject that attracts you?

The world of the professional kitchen is endlessly fascinating to me. There's an honesty to it that I find almost nowhere else. It’s a lot like the operating room, only people don’t die in the kitchen, which is quite nice, and an asset to the work as far as I'm concerned.

You can't lie in a kitchen -- that’s what I like most about it. You're either ready or you're not, you're either clean or you’re a mess. You're either good or you're bad. You can't lie. If you lie, it's obvious. If your food's not ready, then it's not ready. If you're in the weeds, its clear to everybody -- you can't say that you aren’t. So I love that aspect of it. I love the immediacy of it, the vitality of it.

I love the people that work in the professional kitchen, from knuckleheads to literary folk who just don't get along in a literary world and prefer the world of the kitchen. I love the camaraderie of a kitchen. I love working with my hands and the physicality of a kitchen. I love being around food and working with it and cooking it. I never get tired of those little mundane chores that you need to do. I love taking the germ out of garlic; I love to pick beans.

What I didn't like about being in the kitchen was when I was in the weeds personally. That sucked. That's one of the worst feelings in the world -- when you're getting your ass kicked and you're falling apart. That’s really humiliating, and something that I hated about working a line cook's position.

The immediacy, the honesty, the camaraderie the physicality, the sensuality of it - all of those things keep pulling me back to the kitchen.

The chefs you write about -- Keller, Ripert, Polcyn -- are all trying to achieve perfection. Is that what interests you about them?

It does interest me, because the work is so damn hard that even to do it with mediocrity is difficult. It's hard in a way that nobody really realizes until they actually do the work themselves. So those people are pushing to create excellence everyday, which is extraordinarily hard, and it's fascinating to watch someone working so hard. And you know, who wants to hang out with someone that just wants to be mediocre?

Is perfection something you aspire to with your writing?

No, I do not. I can always be better. I think I get close to absolute clarity sometimes -- every now and then -- with a little help from grace, but it's rare. And it's not always the goal -- in writing, the goal is clarity, not perfection. And a greater understanding. There can always be a deeper understanding of what you're writing about. Writing is really an attempt to understand the chaos of this life and what it all means. There's always a deeper level of understanding to go to so it can never be perfect.

This is probably an impossible question to answer, but of all the chefs you have worked with, is there one whose style you particularly favor or who you like working with?

Keller has meant a lot to me. I learnt a lot from all of them, but Thomas was really instrumental in my understanding of great cooking and what it was all about, and so many little notions of finesse in cooking. But also, we were simpatico in terms of personality, and how I understood the world of cooking. I'm fascinated by the basics of cooking rather than extraordinary ingredients; he's a fanatic about basic ingredients. I'm fascinated by how to make a perfect stock; he loved the idea of perfecting those basic things. That made it very easy to work with him and talk to him and write about him and write from his point of view. It was very efficient. I've got to the point now where 75% of the time I know his answer to just about any question, food-wise. If I don’t, it only takes him a couple of minutes or a sentence or two for me to be able to elaborate on that in prose form for a book, so it's very efficient working with him. But I love all these chefs. I wouldn't work with them if I didn't like them, and I admire them all enormously.

You seem to prefer working with "haute cuisine" chefs. Why is that?

I'm fascinated by haute cuisine because there's complexity in it - its reliance on level after level of basics. But I'm just finishing writing about Masa Takayama for the sequel to Soul of a Chef, and he's a completely different kind of chef. He has a completely different sensibility. He's the antitheses of Thomas Keller, and that I find fascinating. Also in this book, I spent time at Primo with Melissa Kelly, who's very much a family style of chef. She cooks the kind of food you'd want to serve at home, only she does it beautifully, and with the very finest of ingredients. So I love all kinds of cooks. In fact, I felt most comfortable in Melissa's kitchen. It was a comfortable, wonderful kitchen she ran. So all kinds, but they've got to be doing it well, and they've got to be passionate about it, and they've got to really care about what they're doing.

Do you have a title and publication date for the book?

It's tentatively called The Reach of a Chef, and its going to be published in about a year. I'm just finishing it now.

Can you tell us more about which chefs and topics the book will cover?

I return to the CIA, where my life as a cook and a writer about food began. It will also follow up on Keller, and where he is and what's changed in his life and the new restaurant. I spent time with Grant Achatz at both Trio and Alinea. There's some television stuff, about Emeril and Rachael Ray.

I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on those two!

Well, I admire them and they're unusual and original in their own right. And they're pros at what they do, and I always admire that. So that’s where I stand on the Emeril and Rachael thing. I don't judge what they do or the American public for adoring them as thoroughly as they do. I'm just fascinated by it.

You’ve written a number of books with chefs. Will you ever fly solo? Will there be a Michael Ruhlman Cookery Book?

I'd like to do a book about ratios -- a sort of anti-recipe cookbook. I've always been fascinated by ratios. For instance, how many yolks per liter or quart of liquid will give you the perfect custard? If you always knew the ratio, it would make cooking that much easier: the consommé ratio, or the mayonnaise ratio -- one cup per one yolk of egg. Once you know these basic ratios, you have real freedom to cook well anything you want. So I'm fascinated about exploring that whole idea.

Your next book due to be published is Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, with chef Brian Polcyn. Who came up with the initial idea, Brian or yourself?

It was my idea. I've always been fascinated by this kind of cooking -- by the craft of terrines, confits and sausages. It really started with my fascination with confits; something that was so good, so delicious to eat was originally a utilitarian dish. That it was done to preserve the food and that we still did it because it tastes so good -- I was fascinated by that.

I wanted to explore the various parts of the charcutiers craft, and I needed somebody with more knowledge than I in the actual cooking of it to do that. So I called my friend Brian Polcyn, who's been teaching it for 10 years and is really good at it and loved it, and said, "Brian, do you want to do a book together?" and he said, "You bet." and that’s how the book came about!

I explore my own passions for the food in each of the chapters, which cover confit, salting , smoking, pates and terrines, sausages, dry-cured sausages, and condiment and sauces.

Did you do much of the cooking for the book yourself, or was it down to Brian to do that side of things?

Brian did most of the recipes, and I would test them, and then we'd talk about them if something went wrong or something was unclear. He'd send them to me in "chef-speak" and I would re-write them in the form they are now in the book, in a more user-friendly way.

Our aim was to make this stuff more accessible to the home cook. It’s the kind of cooking in America that’s rarely done anymore, and we wanted people at home to feel more comfortable with it. But our aim was also not dumb it down, either, so that it was valuable to working chefs. In the kitchens that I've been in, pate making and sausage making are not well-understood among chefs. There are ways to perfect the sausage, there are ways to perfect a terrine, and I wanted to explore those things, so that’s why we did the book.

I guess during the process of writing the book you ended up eating a lot of terrines and pates and sausages?

I ate a lot of pork fat for the past couple of years, a lot of sausage. I'm a sucker for confit pork belly and I'd eat deep-fried pork belly -- deep-fried confit pork belly -- and it's fantastic.

Is there the same tradition of preserving meats in America as there is in France and Germany, for example?

Not in the same way as in Europe, but we do have frontier cooking, and that's where our so-called charcuterie techniques come from -- salting and smoking mainly. The key here is that America's food traditions, for the most part, happened after all the technology that allows us to preserve food had taken hold. Our food happened after refrigeration; we didn't need to preserve this stuff in the way they did for centuries in Europe, so that’s why we have less of a charcuterie tradition here in the United states.

There are some frontier recipes in the book. Beef jerky is a great one from America, but its also done in many cultures. Just the idea of salting food to preserve it, salting a duck breast or salting a venison loin, that was done as a matter of course by American pioneers or they didn't survive. They just didn't last. So people had to know how to smoke and salt food. It was critical to their survival.

Once you started writing the book, were you surprised by how much there was to write about the subject, or had you anticipated that it would fill 400 pages?

It turned out to be incredibly hard. I had no idea what I was getting into. So much harder than either Brian or I had anticipated. And then it became even harder once our editor asked us to include metric measurements as well, because they don't translate directly, and it's a real pain in the ass. Plus, salt is a critical component in so much of this cooking, and different types of salt weigh differently. Brian was using Diamond Crystal and that weighed five ounces per cup, and I was using Morton's kosher, and that weighed eight ounces per cup, so it was a big headache. There's so much more nuance to this cooking than I ever had imagined.

There aren't many books on charcuterie. Could this one become the standard text on the subject?

I hope so. We're getting some nice blurbs from folks like Judy Rogers at Zuni Café who are thrilled that there is a book on charcuterie out there now like this. There is really very little out there. There's stuff for the professional cook. The CIA has a nice book on charcuterie, and there's Jane Grigson's well-known book from the 1970's, I believe, but there's nothing modern and there's nothing for the home cook. That’s why we were able to sell the idea of a book that is essentially a love song to pork fat and salt, which is not exactly a love of most Americans, no matter how much they devour their McDonalds.

You mentioned during your eGullet Society Q&A of 2003 that you were working on the screenplay for Making of a Chef. Is the film out soon?

The screenplay is a finished product and there's a director who's interested in it, and as soon as he finishes his movie with Hilary Swank that he's doing, he'd like to do Making of a Chef next. We have to get it set up with Paramount or someone like that for it to be viable, but there is a script out there and good producers who are excited about it.

How faithful is the script to the book?

It uses cooking school and the basic opening premise of Making of a Chef as a launching point for a story of a man in crisis, who finds himself through cooking and actually turns his life around by becoming a cook.

You're taking part in an eGullet Society Roundtable event on the future of dining. What is the restaurant scene like where you live in Cleveland?

It's fair. There a few really talented cooks, but it's nothing like the restaurant scene in New York or Chicago or SF or the Napa Valley. I wish that it were, but it's just too hard to lure talented cooks here, and the dining scene is rather unsophisticated, so you tend to get a lot of chefs complaining that they can only serve a certain type of food and that they have to serve heaping piles of it because midwestern America just wants quantity rather than quality. So it's a frustrating place for chefs. Someone like Michael Symon helps to educate people -- turn people around -- and there's a handful of chefs in Cleveland that are of that caliber.

I've just finished reading your most recent book House, where you examine your reasons for wanting to settle in Cleveland. Was there ever a time when you thought that you would have to move simply because there weren't enough good restaurants in the city?

No, certainly not because of the restaurant scene. I do enough traveling to get to the restaurants I want to get to. We don't go out much when I'm here because when I'm home, I'm home, and I want to be with my family.

You spent some time working as a line cook. Did it ever cross your mind to open your own restaurant?

In moments of gross desperation and financial panic, yeah, but ultimately I'm not a business man. I'm a terrible business person, and ultimately it’s a business you're running. I was trying to figure out some way to be in the business -- somehow part-time in a business sense that would also allow me to continue writing and reporting. But I haven’t quite found that niche that would allow me to actually work in the industry.

I'm too old to be a cook. It's too hard for me now to do it physically. I'm 42 years old, just, and you know, I couldn't do it anymore. It's too fuckin' hard.

With Cooking Under Fire, you've broken into TV. Is that something you'd like to do more of?

I'd love to more of it because it's physically very easy and fun to do. It could pay me something in addition to what I make writing and I always need that. And I see that there's an actual audience for it. I love the idea of TV and reaching more people through it, but I'd be more of an educational person than an entertainer, because I'm not that really entertaining on screen -- and to do TV, you've got to be entertaining.

Does your TV work distract from your writing, or is it complementary?

If it doesn't take up too much time, it's wonderful. This recent series took a total of three weeks out of my life. I learned a lot, I met a lot of great chefs, saw some cities and restaurants I hadn't seen before. So I got a lot out of it. It was very quick and paid me decent money and I had a ball, so it was awesome.

Finally, I'd like to ask you what you think about the eGullet Society, and how you use and contribute to it.

It’s a hell of a way to procrastinate when I'm at home working, and that’s a really regrettable feature of it. I find it very hard not to, every now-and-then throughout the day just sort of check out who's on and what's being said. But seriously, I enjoy it. I enjoy the intelligence of the people on it and their candor and their thoughtfulness. I really like the media section that often alerts me to articles I never would have seen otherwise, or known about, and that’s a really valuable part of it for me. It's fun and it's nice to be a part of this community that loves food and cooking. I really like and admire the Society.

Michael Ruhlman will be a panelist on the upcoming eG Spotlight Round Table on The Future of Dining, 26 to 30 September 2005

<i>Andy Lynes is a freelance food writer based in Brighton, England. His work appears in </i>Restaurant<i> magazine, </i>Caterer and Hotelkeeper<i>, </i>olive<i> magazine, </i>Square Meal Trade Brief<i>, </i>The Guardian<i> and other publications.

Andy sits on the committee of the UK's Guild of Food Writers and edits its newsletter. Andy was a founding affiliate of eGullet.org and is a former Dean of the eGCI. He is currently the UK forum host and sits on the editorial board of the Daily Gullet.

Andy lives in Brighton with his wife Gill, children George (12) and Alice (7) and Lulu the German Shorthaired Pointer.</i>

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The immediacy, the honesty, the camaraderie the physicality, the sensuality of it - all of those things keep pulling me back to the kitchen.

I just have to say "Amen, brother" to that. It's kinda like the Mafia. :biggrin:

But did you have to announce The Reach of a Chef a year ahead of time? That's *mildly* torturous.

Thanks to both of you for this great interview.

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This makes me like Ruhlman a lot. So much so that I want him to have a better title for his "Reach of a Chef" book. I'm thinking.

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You’ve written a number of books with chefs. Will you ever fly solo? Will there be a Michael Ruhlman Cookery Book?   

I'd like to do a book about ratios -- a sort of anti-recipe cookbook. I've always been fascinated by ratios. For instance, how many yolks per liter or quart of liquid will give you the perfect custard? If you always knew the ratio, it would make cooking that much easier: the consommé ratio, or the mayonnaise ratio -- one cup per one yolk of egg. Once you know these basic ratios, you have real freedom to cook well anything you want. So I'm fascinated about exploring that whole idea.

hi

Recipes `R` Ratios.

The three R`s !.

Number of yolks to an amount of cream.

But i get what you mean.

All those years ago, when i was in college, we had a bakery class. Which was a cool thing to do, and the bakers instructed us on a method of recipe writing called ' Parts by Weight '.

This method takes the main ingredient as 100 ( ie, flour ), and then everything else in the recipe is then a percentage of the main ingredient .

The 100 flour ( for examlple) and subsquent percentages of the other ingredients isn`t related to a weight ( kilogram, gram, ounce, pound ) , untill you equate your desired yeild.

Then your do the maths to see how much is 100% flour and then the rest of the ingredients.

So you can make an exact quantity of the product to match order requirements.

The product`s integrity doesn`t change if your doing, 2, 22 or 202.

Maybe there`s a baker in the house that can clarify this, as my bakery class was in the `80s.

Cool idea for a book tho`.

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Finally, I'd like to ask you what you think about the eGullet Society, and how you use and contribute to it.

It’s a hell of a way to procrastinate when I'm at home working, and that’s a really regrettable feature of it. I find it very hard not to, every now-and-then throughout the day just sort of check out who's on and what's being said. But seriously, I enjoy it.

I have discovered your work after reading some of your posts in eGullet. I have read The Making of a Chef and The Soul of a Chef. I truly enjoyed both. Currently, I should received The French Laundry Cookbook any day now. So posting in eGullet might be a good thing for you after all.

Thanks for your contributions, and great work.

Alex

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Great interview.

just fyi, it's Chef Melissa Kelly, not Keller.  :smile:

Thanks for the kind words and the correction and my apologies to Melissa!!

Having the opportunity to speak to Michael Ruhlman was a real honour, his work serves as an inspiration and a benchmark for me and I'm sure many other writers.

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Andy, public thanks to you. You know what i like best about your work here is that i actually sound like myself. you'd be amazed how rarely that happens, even in recorded conversations. So thank you for that, for your fun questions, and good work.

I can't respond to everyone individually, but thanks for all the comments. They make me feel like less of a schmo.

And a kind word from Fat Guy, how about that! Title can be changed if you think of something better!

Current title with subtitle is The Reach of a Chef: Beyond Perfection. But please, nobody get your hopes up. I think I said everything best in Soul, and have since descended into something of an indulgent blow hard.

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Mr. Lynes,

I love Michael Ruhlman's work and it was a pleasure to read your interview with him. I was so happy to see his comments about Chef Kelly. I don't know her personally, but I've been to Primo, in Rockland, Maine, a couple of times while traveling, and it's one of my favorite restaurants. (She seems truly dedicated to using local, seasonal ingredients as much as possible, she makes some of the best fresh pasta I've ever had and even her simplest salads are amazing.) The fact that she runs "a comfortable, wonderful kitchen", as Mr. Ruhlman said, comes through in the front of the house too - good karma all around at Primo.

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You know what i like best about your work here is that i actually sound like myself.  you'd be amazed how rarely that happens, even in recorded conversations.

I'm very pleased I managed to preserve your syntax, which is quite particular, and not write up your answers in "my" voice or paraphrase them which, being the easier option, is always a temptation.

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Michael and Andy, thank you both for a wonderful read....look forward to the round table.

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I'd like to do a book about ratios -- a sort of anti-recipe cookbook. I've always been fascinated by ratios. For instance, how many yolks per liter or quart of liquid will give you the perfect custard? If you always knew the ratio, it would make cooking that much easier: the consommé ratio, or the mayonnaise ratio -- one cup per one yolk of egg. Once you know these basic ratios, you have real freedom to cook well anything you want. So I'm fascinated about exploring that whole idea.

I would love a book about ratios, a ready reckoner for cooking enthusiasts. Many thanks to you and Andy for this enlightening and honest interview.

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I met Michael Ruhlman as he was writing his book "reach" and let me tell you he is one all around nice guy. He used our class for the segment on Chef Roe who was our Chef for skills. Since then, I have been in touch with him all the way through CIA and beyond. He is a great writer and even though some people picked on his Charcuterie book on Amazon - I enjoyed it very much as I have all of his books. Making of a Chef was one of the books I read on my start of the journey to career executive changer to culinary. He has a great website too ----

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I somehow missed this thread in its 'youth' but will have to work my way back through it, as I have thoroughly enjoyed all of the books.

I was a little disenchanted to learn of Michael's Duke education. A bitter pill for a Kansas basketball fan but I will try to focus on his writing and overlook this minor character flaw.

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For

<blockquote>

I'd like to do a book about ratios -- a sort of anti-recipe

cookbook.

</blockquote>

A <i>ratio</i> may not be fully meaningful because, say, the

number of egg yolks per quart of cream might be a little

different for one cup of cream and one gallon of cream.

But, when a ratio is meaningful, then presumably any good

recipe really does provide the data needed for the ratios.

<br><br>

For

<blockquote>

And then it became even harder once our editor asked us to

include metric measurements as well, because they don't

translate directly, and it's a real pain in the ass.

</blockquote>

tell your editor that of <b>course</b> they "translate

directly".

Let's see:

16 ounces of weight is one pound is 1/2.2 kilograms is

1000/2.2 grams so that one ounce is

<blockquote>

1000/(2.2*16) = 28.41

</blockquote>

grams. So, if a recipe calls for a weight of one ounce, then

in metric the recipe calls for 28.41 grams. That's all there

is to it. It's just fine. Give something else, then must be

at least a little wrong. No sense in being wrong.

<br><br>

For

<blockquote>

Plus, salt is a critical component in so much of this cooking,

and different types of salt weigh differently.

</blockquote>

Of course not; all "types" of salt "weigh" just the same.

If in freshman chemistry or physics I had been willing to

believe that one gram of NaCl as rock salt had a different

amount of NaCl than one gram of NaCl as finely crushed salt,

then I would not have made the As I did.

<br><br>

Clearly, since the size of salt grains can vary, in recipes

salt should be measured by weight. Not complicated. To find

the density of some particular "type" of salt, just weigh,

say, one quart of it. Then that is 64 tablespoons. Divide by

64 and get the weight of a tablespoon of that "type" of salt.

Simple enough.

<br><br>

This is fifth grade stuff and one reason we spend so much

money on education.

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