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The Reach of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman


ronnie_suburban
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(Lots of nice personal detail everywhere in the book: Masa loves Krispy Kremes.)

What a coincidence. I was just thinking about how wonderful it would be to go to a donut shop where you place yourself in the hands of the baker and he whips up whimsical concoctions of dough, icing and a carefully thought out flavoring regimen timed to hit each tastebud at the exact moment of maximum impact. Guess it won't be long now, maybe they'll be on the menu at Bar Masa between rounds of golf.

Reading this book feels like having a pousse-cafe with liqueurs handcrafted over a period of years by one person lovingly hand-poured before your eyes by this same artist, who watches intently and vicariously enjoys each layer as you drink it.

The lessons learned from Charcuterie in taking time to allow ingredients to reach their peak were not lost on Michael. In this case, the ingredients were details, and these details were arranged like a Bach or Beethoven symphony. Despite this mastery, some will not enjoy this book because his views are not in alignment with theirs. Some will nitpick and magnify the tiny flaws that are inevitable in a work of this magnitude, especially those with an ax to grind. If saying this makes me sound like a sycophant, it is a sycophancy well-deserved.

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I walked away from Reach thinking about an epic battle between media/corporate interest and the hopelessly sleep-deprived and underpaid chef/icons of our time. If you'll grant me a moment of idealism here: Every great meal I've ever eaten was cooked or overseen by its creator. And without any exceptions that I can remember, this has never been in a serialized restaurant. Call me crazy, but I think I can feel it when the King of the kingdon is ruling the kingdom from within the kingdom. And I like the way it feels. Keller had that at French Laundry, but while I found Per Se flawless it was also impersonal and a little cold, its identity diluted by the fact of its being a simulacrum. Achatz has that at Alinea. Masa has it in spades. What Ruhlman tells me is that the business is terribly demanding, high in risk and not financially rewarding. So when the Bellagio or some such comes calling with big money offers, who can blame a man (or woman) for saying yes to reward, recognition, and the delayed promise of relief (from clogs and a sore back maybe. . . ). I find it a little sad but totally understandable that this is happening and will continue to happen to our greats. We should all do our best to enjoy them at their peak just moments before the indomitable deep pockets of the American corporate/media juggernaught buy them off.

You shouldn't eat grouse and woodcock, venison, a quail and dove pate, abalone and oysters, caviar, calf sweetbreads, kidneys, liver, and ducks all during the same week with several cases of wine. That's a health tip.

Jim Harrison from "Off to the Side"

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I ordered this book several months ago in order to get a First Edition. Imagine my dismay when I take a look-see and Nope! Not a First Edition!

Well, I can barely read the damn thing, knowing that I'm not high enough on the Ruhl-chain to merit one. Sigh. At least Bourdain likes me well enough--the Nasty book is indeed a First.

Pretty much in agreement with what the others said about the book--and I hope all this reaching will eventually translate into better food for all of us all the time.

"I'm not looking at the panties, I'm looking at the vegetables!" --RJZ
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It was a great read for anyone who has no idea whats happening behind the minds of some of the greats in chefdom as well as media. It shows the internal struggle between a dream and a goal and the sacrifices or change of decisions people make as time and goals change.

It really hits home for any aspiring great chef to be.

Definatly worth the read.

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Another worthy companion in the series, Ruhlman is one of my favorite writers of ANY genre. The fact his subject matter is my chosen career and life is icing on the cake. I have a couple of questions about the book that maybe Michael or someone else in the know can answer:

Did Brian Polcyn take the CMC exam again? If so, was he successful?

In the CIA visit chapter, mention is made of Tony Bourdain writing some critical comments of Michael on a website. I'm assuming it was eGullet, but what was the gist of the thread, and does anyone have a link or summary?

I was saddened to read that Corky Clark lost his Fish Kitchen at CIA. Although at the time I considered him a complete bastard, the teeth scars I still have on my ass from his seven days back in 1990 teach me lessons every day.

Edited by Joisey (log)
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Did Brian Polcyn take the CMC exam again?  If so, was he successful?

I believe that Brian retook the last day of the exam, but was not successful. I think that you can only take the exam twice.

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It's a shame to come so close and fall short. When I was there, one of our chef-instructors took the exam. British guy by the name of David St. John-Grubb. He got bounced out of the running because of the shape of his toast points on a dish, if I remember correctly.

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Hi

I've been debating holding my tongue on this one out of respect for Michael, who did an absolutely brilliant job with Soul...but I feel like I have to say-- I was incredibly disappointed with Reach of a Chef. I've read all three books within the space of about 4 months. Reach strikes me as first or second draft quality writing--it is repetitive, awestruck, sometimes trite, and occasionally dull. My sense is that having written Soul, Michael got a bit too confident-- he doesn't seem to have put nearly as much energy into the quality of his writing on this one. Moreover, I don't find the book terribly insightful. I disagree with those of you who think he's less star-struck in this book compared to the others. There are moments where he ought to be more revealing about his role, his bias--not the least of which is when remarking for example on the incredible sales of Keller's cookbook he ought to remind us again of his role in it. He needs to be at least a bit farther outside of his friendship with Keller in order to gain some perspective. This book feels unfortunately like it's written by an insider--but not the good kind, but rather the kind that lacks the ability to critique, or reconsider...One wonders if Ruhlman has eaten a dish in the last year by Keller, Achatz etc that he didn't like, or at least didn't LUV?

One other thing-immediately after finishing Reach, I started Bourdain's new book. I recommend that trajectory--moving into Bourdain's writing makes you confront some incredibly interesting contrasts between their writing styles and levels of critique. They cover some of the same territory--for example, witness Bourdain's discussion of the lack of character-building that happens at the CIA (hmm, what would Ruhlman say about that?), and the discussion of which Aussie chefs could be chef-personalities. In each case, Bourdain's take is far more insightful, witty, and well-written. He's entirely unafraid to say exactly what he thinks--I think that makes all the difference in these two books.

Some of the stuff these guys say about each other strikes me as odd though, and annoyingly self-aggrandizing...too much like 'look at me, I know Bourdain" or "look at me, I'm cooler than Ruhlman." The sociologist in me enjoys this as a study of egos..which I suppose is related to food--but I'd much rather they stop gazing at each other and focus on their plates.

That said, I'm surprised by my reactions, didn't anticipate them, because on the whole I feel more 'comfortable' with Ruhlman than Bourdain; I'm an academic, love the food...uncle builds wooden boats, more the married/writing as a career type--plus Bourdain scares me a bit (has ever since we met when as a grad student I interviewed him for a few hours about sexism in restaurant hiring; my god is my audio tape full of yelling and cursing!). But the best food books put you right there--in front of the food, the people, and it's important you feel the veil has been lifted. When Ruhlman talks about Keller I feel now like he's processing too much of himself in his view. When Bourdain talks about Gabrielle Hamilton it's like an unvarnished Hamilton appears in front of me--much more interesting, much more real.

Edited by sara (log)

Food is a convenient way for ordinary people to experience extraordinary pleasure, to live it up a bit.

-- William Grimes

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There was an interesting, related piece by Michael Ruhlman -- about Adam Block -- in today's New York Times:

"Everyone has a gift," Block told me. "And my gift is my ability to be able to read how people think on both sides of the table." His clients are sometimes hotel operators who want chefs and sometimes chefs who want restaurant deals. "I'm not speculating, I'm telling you the way it is," he says, adding, "I know how far I can push each side when I'm negotiating."

But it's exactly this advantage that has compromised the confidence of some of his clients — most important, Keller. (Full disclosure: I worked closely with Keller on his two cookbooks.) In 2005, after six years as a member of Keller's inner circle of advisers and as a personal friend, Block was out. Questions had been raised about how well he represented Keller's interests in Bouchon Las Vegas and in Per Se. Block remains bitter about the divorce.

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A previous book from the "Chef" series will be getting a few more readers. From a press release on the Case Western Reserve University web site:

Case Western Reserve University's 2006-2007 incoming class already has its first assignment of the academic year: they're planning to read The Soul of Chef by Cleveland-based, New York Times bestselling author Michael Ruhlman.

The Soul of a Chef was selected from over 75 recommendations, and it will be distributed to approximately 1,200 undergraduate students during the summer. The book will serve as a basis for programs and discussions beginning at orientation and continuing through the fall semester.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I had a whole nother feeling about the book. Completely different than many of the readers here. That's what I like about this place. It's what I've always liked about it.

OK, so I read the first two and enjoyed them immensely. I reccomended them to people and bought a couple of copies to give to people who I knew were entirely too cheap, too lazy, or too tired of taking my reccomendations. They were good books-fun reads and, in places, really brilliant.

This book, The Reach of a Chef, is an entirely different thing. A great book. Fascinating, inspiring, and as a whole, crazily informative and entertaining at the same time. This is no small achievement and Ruhlman deserves all kinds of kudos for the thing. I am certain that he had fun writing it and that shines through on almost every page. I read it, cover to cover, in two sittings on my back patio swatting mosquitoes, drinking coffee and fending off phone calls from clients and creditors (thank God for the first group because the second group is much smaller than it would be otherwise), just kind of in a trance of enjoyment. I felt sad when I turned the last page. Really. I could have gone another couple of coffee pot's worth.

Also, just for the description of his feelings on the whole "foam thing", it's worth a go. I might not like it much, but, on the other hand, at least I have some new tools with which to give it some thought.

Go buy the book. I can't afford to give you one.

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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I'm going to go get it when it's out in paperback, but meanwhile I read a few chapters in Borders yesterday while waiting for my daughter and her friend to finish watching "Over the Hedge." Specifically, I focused in on the Ray-Ray and Emeril chapter, because I was hoping that Ruhlman wouldn't beat up those two in the same no-longer-entertaining way. Hell, even Bourdain is having second thoughts about that.

In that chapter, Ruhlman makes a distinction between restaurant chefs and television chefs, and expresses what I'd call his admiration for those two as TV chefs. It's clear that he has a great deal of respect for Lagasse and Ray (perhaps increased by his own tenure on PBS?) as hard-working, intelligent people. He also wants the reader to know that Emeril did great work in his restaurants and that Ray never has claimed to be a chef.

All in all, it's hard to slam either of them after reading this stuff, which forces me, I think, to have a more considered understanding of E&R's, and Food TV's, impact on cooking, eating, and food in the U.S.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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all-

i'm now about 3/4 through the book. i find the branding discussion very ineresting since this has come up in other media- tv(just remembered there was some discussion of this on "On the Money"), books ("Nasty Bits" has something on branding i believe) and magazines come to mind.

BUT if you don't have the money or want to own a book PLEASE borrow the title from your local library or ask them to InterLibary Loan(ILL) the item for you. many libraries will buy the item if there is local interest ( emeril - providence- j & w) or try to borrow it for you - though there may be a temporal delay(6 months for where i work). yes, you do have to keep an eye on when the item is due back but many times you can renew for more time or pay a small fine.

back to finish the book(i hope) since i read from the back to the front i am looking forward to some interesting things - especially the bibimbapp chaper (ok - i check the chapter titles and the index- if there is one- out first)

Edited by suzilightning (log)

Nothing is better than frying in lard.

Nothing.  Do not quote me on this.

 

Linda Ellerbee

Take Big Bites

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  • 4 weeks later...

Not being "in the business" but just a real foodie, I loved Reach of a Chef, I actually thought it was his best of the three. I particularly liked his in-depth profile of Chefs Kelly and Achatz. Having read this book, when dining in wonderful restaurants now, instead of just appreciating the skill and the art and flavors that the dishes embody, I can also truly understand all the efforts required in creating and maintaining a restaurant with this level of expertise. :biggrin:

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  • 1 year later...

OMG, just finished Soul of a Chef, my first Ruhlman book (have read his blog, and know Bourdain's connection). OMG. So brilliant.

I'll never make homemade stock again. Mine is so not clear, and I'll never have the patience to strain it 20 times.

OMG.

Philly Francophiles

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I found something very interesting about Ruhlmann's take on the "new" CIA.

He mentions that the influx of middle-aged women as students have caused the change in the atmosphere at the CIA. That such students don't put up with the stuff that the old-guard Chefs do. In my experience, not quite.

Young women are the ones who are schooled in the belief that just talking about boobs creates a hostile work environment. If a chef refers to proof-ready bread dough as feeling just a bouncy butt, I can tell you that the 40ish woman is not the student who will run screaming "sexual harrassment" to the nearest dean.

Because they knew I wasn't a wussy, I heard lots of hysterical stories from the chefs, and it's a shame that the younger students will miss out. Things weren't always so litigious and correct. Sigh.

Other than that, man, the guy does seem to have quite a happy for Rachel Ray. :wink:

"Oh, tuna. Tuna, tuna, tuna." -Andy Bernard, The Office
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  • 2 weeks later...
I'm going to go get it when it's out in paperback, but meanwhile I read a few chapters in Borders yesterday while waiting for my daughter and her friend to finish watching "Over the Hedge." Specifically, I focused in on the Ray-Ray and Emeril chapter, because I was hoping that Ruhlman wouldn't beat up those two in the same no-longer-entertaining way. Hell, even Bourdain is having second thoughts about that.

In that chapter, Ruhlman makes a distinction between restaurant chefs and television chefs, and expresses what I'd call his admiration for those two as TV chefs. It's clear that he has a great deal of respect for Lagasse and Ray (perhaps increased by his own tenure on  PBS?) as hard-working, intelligent people. He also wants the reader to know that Emeril did great work in his restaurants and that Ray never has claimed to be a chef.

All in all, it's hard to slam either of them after reading this stuff, which forces me, I think, to have a more considered understanding of E&R's, and Food TV's, impact on cooking, eating, and food in the U.S.

I tried to post on this subject once before and the runner of this forum deleted me saying that I was off topic. Still not sure why - but I was in the group that Michael followed at the CIA in Chef Roes class. He knows how to cook and cook well and his opinions are not one of some weekend grill in the back yard guy. His opinions with us were the same and he got into our heads to comment in his book about what is making up the CIA. He still drops me a line once and a while as I give him an update peridically about our class of "non traditional" students. His book about the classes are very accurate - no matter what some people seem to think of his writing style or abilities.

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