Friday, September 21, 2007

The Making of a Chef

The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America by Michael Ruhlman is so good that when I was half-way through the copy I checked out of the library, I realized we had to have a copy of our own for the family. So I bought it, along with two others by Ruhlman: The Soul of a Chef and The Reach of a Chef.

Michael Ruhlman attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) on a fast track schedule in order to research and write this book, but he also really wanted to be a chef. He loves cooking. That love is evident as he details the days spent learning how to cook good food - food that tastes good and looks good, and feels good on the tongue and in the mouth. Starting with sauces, moving through fish, bread baking, waiting tables, Ruhlman shows how the graduates of the CIA get the knowledge and skills they take with them to look for jobs as chefs in restaurants all over the world.

The memoir-like feel of the book is balanced by the science and business of food preparation to make a well-crafted story. Of course I liked some parts better than others, but it was always hard to put the book down and do other things needing my attention.

The chapter on bread baking may have been my favorite. Each day in the bakeshop a different team would make the "lean dough" which consisted of 36 lbs. of water, 18 oz. of yeast, 45 lbs. of high-gluten flour, 9 lbs. of organic wheat flour, and over 1 lb. of salt. This yielded over 92 lbs. of dough!

Ruhlman writes:
"One felt an ease in this bakeshop that did not exist in a kitchen. In a bakeshop, you only put things together; you did not break, tear, or cut things apart first. In a kitchen, everything was about speed, and you could regulate that speed by moving faster, cutting faster. Here everything was determined by flour and yeast, and you had to accept that. In America, a land of durable wheat, ingredients are measured in relation to flour (in France they are measured in relation to water). No matter how much lean dough we'd make, the starting formula was the same: 100 percent flour, 60 percent water, 3 percent yeast, and 2 percent salt. This was called the Baker's Percentage."

And later:
"As in all matters of food, there was an intellectual and spiritual correlative. I'd already discovered that I was a cook. I could know what cooking was, fully, in my bones. Cooks, I had learned, came to cooking not to fulfill a desire, but rather, by chance, to fulfill something already in their nature. The same, I believe, was true of bakers. They were different....
"Because I was a cook or, rather, had "the cook" in my nature (I did not presume to call myself a cook), I could not fully comprehend baking."

Even though he claims not to understand the true nature of bread or of bakers, he does a fine job trying to explain both, and I came away with a better understanding of what goes on when I, in my home kitchen, make bread.

But the entire book is that way - both entertaining and informative.



Blogger Donna Boucher said...

You write such good book reviews :o)
I enjoyed A place in France!
This sounds wonderful too.

10:06 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Donna - you're very kind. I didn't mention it, but his descriptions of the food make me go rummaging through the fridge for stuff I don't have - "Where's the goat cheese and poblanos?" We don't have such fare sitting around waiting to be spread on our non-existent (but I could try to bake it) artisan sourdough bread. I could have easily gained 10 lbs. while enjoying this book if I could have munched along as I read!

10:21 PM  
Blogger Carrie said...

This book looks like it'd just be a lot of fun! I had never heard of it before so I appreciated your review! Thanks! I'll keep this in mind for sure.

11:54 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Carrie, not just this book, but anything by Michael Ruhlman is bound to be good - so if you run across another title by him, grab it and read it - I doubt you'll be disappointed.

12:21 AM  
Blogger Dana said...

While I dont think I need another cookbook, I do stop by purposefully to see what you're reading.

Based on your reviews I have added several to my Christmas gift-giving list.

Thanks for helping me with my shopping :)

Dana in GA

1:05 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I wasn't clear in my review, Dana - this is NOT a cookbook. There are no recipes, rather a tale of how chefs are educated and trained.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Darla D said...

I love this book! But I didn't realize there was a third one out - thanks for mentioning that wonderful little fact. This is definitely among my top 5 food books. It isn't a cookbook, as you mention, but you learn a whole lot about cooking theory, which applies to everything.

4:11 PM  

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