Is there a US food culture besides burgers and donuts? We know the clichés, like super-sized packages of convenience food and outright frightening abominations like spray-on cheese or pancake-wrapped sausages on a stick. But there is more! Unbeknownst to many Europeans, Americans have taken not only junk food but also the art of cooking to its furthest possible extremes. High-class restaurants, celebrity chefs, food and drink galore. An intriguing and glamourous, yet mysterious world. But who are these people who work while everybody else enjoys the fruits of their labour?
To find out – and to learn how to prepare the perfect potato – journalist Michael Ruhlman enrolled for one year at the Culinary Institute of America, which has established itself, despite the bad pun of its acronym, as one of the most famous culinary schools worldwide. Ruhlman explores the inner workings of this huge educational institution, which is fascinating enough by itself. The best parts of his book The Making of a Chef, however, are his insightful portraits of the characters he encounters as well as the lasting impact the school has on him at a very personal level.
He starts as an outside observer, but is inevitably drawn into the world of cooking. Thus, he doesn’t manage to keep up his journalistic stance all too long – but this, in fact, is what makes this book so good! The affection he develops for his teachers, his fellow students and their passion is vibrant. Despite it being a non-fiction book, thanks to Ruhlman's vivid and personal writing it's hard not to share the excitement as he progresses through the different stages of the curriculum. He does a terrific job at capturing the atmosphere of the school; the buzzing kitchen becomes almost tangible. The book is difficult to put down, as you keep wondering whether he will finally give up his career as a journalist to become a cook.
Some descriptions are a bit technical and detailed, which might be too much for some, but you easily get past this and might even enjoy picking up some tricks along the way. The fascination of the book comes from the insights it provides into the minds and attitudes of great chefs and their students. If you have the slightest interest in food, I highly recommend this book. If you have serious interest, it's a must read. Be warned though: you might find yourself fantasising about abandoning your current studies and leaving for New York as soon as possible.
In this series, three reviewers write about their favourite books, recent or not so recent