January 15, 2007

BOOKS: The Reach of a Chef, Michael Ruhlman (2006)

Third in Ruhlman's series exploring the world of the professional chef.

In 1997's The Making of a Chef, Ruhlman went to the Culinary Institute of America and took an abbreviated version of the school's chef-training curriculum. For 2000's The Soul of a Chef, he gave us in-depth looks at two chefs, rising star Michael Symon and Napa Valley's legendary Thomas Keller. The new book is a wide-ranging overview (featuring return visits to the CIA and Thomas Keller) of how the chef's world has changing in the era of celebrity chefs and the Food Network.

Keller is in New York, preparing to open his second restaurant, to be called Per Se, which represents one of the major trends of recent years: chef as brand name. The fact that a chef's name is associated with the restaurant is rapidly becoming more important than whether he's actually there cooking the food. Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Trotter -- all have created empires, and are now arguably more important as products than they are as chefs; one of Ruhlman's chapters examines the Food Network, focusing on Lagasse and Rachael Ray, who's managed to become a brand name/product without ever actually having been a professional chef.

There are still chefs who matter as chefs, of course. Across the hall in the same office tower as Per Se is Masa, run by Masayoshi Takayama; it's the exact opposite of Per Se and the brand name culture. Takayama is a sushi chef who hosts only a few customers a night and serves whatever he chooses to serve; his presence as chef is so important that if he takes sick, Masa does not open.

We also visit two rising chefs and follow their progress as they navigate the increasingly complicated career paths available to them. In Maine, Melissa Kelly's Primo focuses on basic cooking with fresh ingredients; the restaurant has its own 2-acre garden, and its menus change from week to week depending on what's available for harvest. Grant Achatz, at Chicago's Trio, is on the cutting edge of experimental cuisine, using unorthodox techniques and advanced science to create multi-course meals that are barely recognizable as traditional food.

One of Ruhlman's great strengths is his ability to describe food and its preparation so clearly that we can practically see and smell the plates. Here's his description of how Achatz prepares one of his garnishes:
Piles of fines herbes (a traditional four-herb combo of tarragon, chervil, parsley, and chives) are juiced. This liquid is then put in the bowl of a standing mixer and set in ice to keep it cold. A little of the juice is heated enough to melt a sheet of gelatin. This gelatin is then added to the mixing bowl, and it's whipped till the liquid froths to triple its volume; the foam is then put in a hotel pan and chilled. The gelatin sets before the bubbles pop, and so after it's completely chilled, you have what is like a foam pillow of fines herbes juice. At service a cone of it is carved out using a teaspoon and added to the asparagus plate as a garnish.

Ruhlman is a superb journalist, with an eye for just the detail that will bring his characters to life. The Reach of a Chef is a terrific book, and I'd actually recommend going back to read all three in the series.

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