The Reach of a Chef, paperback
Reach_of_a_chef
In November, 2004, middle of service at the restaurant per se in Manhattan, a "60 Minutes" film crew was making a chaos of the normally quiet and orderly kitchen…and there was Thomas Keller sliding around on the tile floor in stocking feet.  He’d lost his shoes, and was in danger of losing his balance.  I opened Reach of a Chef with this moment because it symbolized for me the precarious point the chef had reached in our culture.

And since the book came out a year ago, I don’t think much has changed.  Critics say that I idolize chefs.  That may have been true of Soul of a Chef, but in Reach of a Chef, which has just been released in paperback, I’m skeptical of the chef, or rather much of what we think about chefs. Reach of a Chef does address all the silliness of celebrity, the unpleasantness of branding and the need for it, but it does portray some chefs appreciatively, without glorifying them.  Two of my favorite chapters in the book are favorable portraits of two different chefs.  Masa Takayama, sushi taisho and performance artist, and Melissa Kelly, bare knuckled cook and garden siren of Primo in Maine.  (The latter was excerpted in Best Food Writing 2006 and her kitchen was my favorite of all the kitchens I spent time in.  I try to stay in touch with her.  She wrote last week in an email, and this is indicative of her personality generally, “The gardens are amazing, Emily has taken it to another level…studied soil management this winter and have added lots of amendments to make our land healthier. She is testing the Brix in the vegetables with a refractometer and getting the most flavor and nutrition out of our food. Very exciting!  I find this so much more exciting than liquid nitrogen and foam!!”  If you’re in Maine this summer, check out her restaurant.  It’s perfect.)

I have a deep affection for The Culinary Institute of America because it’s a place that changed the course of my life, but returning to see how changes there reflected or forecasted changes in the industry was uneasy not because but the school had changed but rather the students had—they wanted TV shows, they wanted fame, and seemed less willing to work hard or take the blows, and it’s our fault, the food-addled, chef-glorifying masses, I think, because of the way we’ve turned food into fashion and entertainment diminishing our appreciation of food as sustenance and a giving and visceral pleasure.

With the paperback of Reach just out, I’d love to discuss it or answer any chef-related questions here.  Like what’s Rachael Ray really like, why did the publisher change the cover and subtitle  of the book, is $350 for a seat at a bar selling raw fish, Masa, really worth it, and did Keller ever find his shoes?

The work of the chef and what our culture thinks about the chef’s role in society is changing.  There’s probably never been a more exciting time to be a chef in America, but it comes with more dangers than ever as well.

Share

96 Wonderful responses to “Professional Chefs: What will become of them?”

  • Stephenano

    Wait, intellectual rights to a recipe, menu? Oh now that’s too freaking hilarious!

  • ruhlman

    girlMD, thanks. walk on water is the book i’m most proud of. appreciate your taking the time to comment.

    best,
    m

  • Stephenano

    Sorry, Chefs come and go like most they’re easily replacable.

    I have dealt with a few chefs in my time, most over season their food and for some strange reason it all smells like spent garlic.

  • girlMD

    ruhlman,
    i just found your blog and wanted to say that i _loved_ walk on water. i read it in medical school. i’m now a 3rd year peds resident and have to say that your book really rang true. for all those reading this blog who have not read this book, check it out. it is riveting.
    (i haven’t yet read reach of a chef, but it’s on my list for this summer, along with heat. what can i say. if i weren’t a doctor, i think i’d be a chef!)
    i’m from maine and have eaten at primo’s many times with my family. amazing restaurant. i can’t recommend it enough. who knows, you might just see patrick dempsey in the parking lot!
    girlMD

  • Claudia

    Skawty, my fine lad, once again, you’re killing me with the Walrus – cryin’ into my cappuccino!

  • "Chef" Suzy

    SKAWT: I forwarded you walrus to Jamie’s best bud. I’m sure that if Jamie hadn’t seen it before, he surely has now %^)

    I have often wondered why: Did a relatively normal looking guy go “Mirror, mirror on the wall…” one day, and the mirror said “You must grow an enormous walrus-like mustache and always cover your bald head with a tam o’shanter”?

    It’s the same kind of mystery as, say, Donald Trump’s comb-over.

    Why?

  • ...you can call me "Chef" Suzy

    Claudia/Sorcha: Mythbuster groupies: Check this out!

    Shhh! Don’t tell anyone, but I am on Match.com, and (ohmiGAWD!) they shoot Myth Busters like, a 1000 yds from my houseboat near Oakland (I can hear them blowing stuff up)…

    …and so this guy emails me offa Match, and his profile says something about “pyrotechnics” and “Burning Man” and so I run that through the ol’ Wiki…
    …and sure enough, he’s the “Explosions Coordinator” for MB and Burning Man, and he is like, Jamie’s best guy friend…(pant, pant..)…

    …so they (him and JAMIE!!!) do these little private party “pyro events” to practice for the big blow-ups at BM and on MB, and so like now I am TOTALLY SOOO invited to the next one!!!!

    Ohmigawd! I am SOOO gonna get Jamie’s autograph, and like HANG with him and…%^O

  • Claudia

    No way did Fox’s TV KC come close to (a) Tony’s book or (b) any of Tony’s other material that someone like Chase could really have a field day with. Can you imagine the bland, yuppie-ish, uber-vanilla “Jack Bourdain” dealing with, say, a horse head in the pasta e fagioli (or cassoulet, if you prefer)?

    The fact that Fox turned down The Sopranos script twice just proves they lack true vision. Tony’s kitchen/crime genre books would really need a big, outside-the-box story crafter of Chase’s caliber to do them justice.

    Oh, and NOT a dirty blond WASPy looking lead, this time. Please. Eric Bogosian, at least.

  • sorcha

    Well, no, it’s true it wasn’t perfect. But it was good. The ep where the low chef on the totem pole tries to get a leg up on it by messing with the dishwasher was a thing of beauty.

  • RI Swampyankee

    FOX is the network that turned down the Sopranos script not once, but twice.

  • chefwannab

    OMG, was just planning our Sunday “Sopranos” finale party and read your comments about a Bourdain/Chase combo, Swampyankee. Too funny! (I will dearly miss The Sopranos, *sigh*)

  • sorcha

    Tony cooking with a plotline was already done, but those bastards at Fox cancelled it early. *pets shiny Kitchen Confidential dvds*

  • sorcha

    And of course all I can think of now is the LOLrus. “Nooo, they be stealin’ my bucket!”

  • Claudia

    OMG, it’s Jamie from MythBusters! He really IS the Walrus! Quick – exhume John Lennon! LOL!

  • RI Swampyankee

    I have to respectfully disagree, chefwannabe. Tony could do a cooking show, but it would have to be on HBO. Can you imagine Tony and David Chase combining their evil geniuses?

  • Claudia

    Oh, great! Tony cooking with a plot line! Every week, someone gets rubbed out by a rival restaurant gang, recipes get stolen, turf gets poached, and chefs’ shipments of Wagyu gets hijacked – wait! Isn’t that at least one of Tony’s crime books? HBO should option one of those as a mini-series or TV movie, with the recipes/technique embedded in each episode. Osso Buco Della Morte. Vitello “Va Fangool’”. RIP Risotto. Wait – I need more cappuccino. Be right back.

    “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

  • Claudia

    Indeed, Fiat. Bourdain snarks Ruhlman and then Ruhlman torments Bourdain, and we’re all invited to watch two very funny, sharp guys riff off each other. They are their own 21st century Rat Pack.

    And nice, balanced comments there, Chefwannabe.

    Oh, and my bad, before I get jumped on – “passe”, not “pass”. (Typed under deadline.)

  • Claudia

    But you don’t get to have them in a bocket, though, Sorcha!

  • fiat lux

    Threads like this is why I love this blog. Ruhlman gets picked on by Bourdain, people crack jokes about pork buttholes, and it’s all good. :)

  • sorcha

    Ruhlman and Bourdain together in any context is always amusing. Especially when there’s video.

    Seriously, though, Tony has a point. When did I stop being such a picky eater? When I started becoming a chef fan. These guys convinced me to try things I wouldn’t have done before. Being a chef fangirl has only improved the quality of my life, except for the part where my husband implies that maybe I should actually cook now. ;)

  • Skawt

    sorcha:

    Well, if that’s the case, I have a bocket of pig entrails with your name on it.

  • Skawt

    Ruhlman humps chef legs and Tony eats hog asshole. You two were made for each other. Most likely in a crock pot.

  • chefwannab

    LOL. I live for Ruhlman vs. Bourdain.

    Both make excellent points. There’s nothing wrong with celebrity chefs in general; they have broadened the American palate and our dining and food culture has benefited as a result. But a rising number does seem to be putting their desire for celebrity before skill. Maybe, like Tony suggests, these types have always existed and will get weeded out anyway, but isn’t Food Network fueling the fame and fortune fire by airing mostly crap shows hosted by no-talent hacks? It’s no wonder that aspiring “celebrity chefs” feel they can cut corners in their education and careers, when someone like Sandra Lee puts Cool Whip on fruit, calls it a “semi-homemade” dessert, and gets her own TV show. Hell, they’re even adding to the waste of TV space with their own competition for the “Next Food TV Star” – What I would prefer is less of these “personalities” and more shows with people who really know what they are doing and can educate us on how to cook and eat better. When Mario’s show gets cancelled and his re-run air time cut back to make room for more Rachael Ray/Sandra Lee/Robin Miller dribble, I want to vomit.

    Having said that, I disagree with Natalie in that I don’t want to see Bourdain on TV showing me how to make demi glace or the perfect poulet roti. He’d probably never get a cooking show aired anyway because they’d have to bleep out too much. I much prefer living vicariously through Tony as he travels the world and shows us not only the food but also the people and culture of far-reaching corners of the globe. No Reservations is as insightful, clever, and witty as his writing, and better than most food/travel (or any TV!) programming out there. Just because his career started in the kitchen doesn’t mean it has to stay there, and I, for one, hope he keeps opening more doors of the world for us (and sparring with Ruhlman from time to time.)

  • Tags

    OK, you two, get a room! Thanks, Michael. Now that you let Tony know that Keller is your hot button, we can look forward to more hockey even after the last gasp of the Ottawa Senators.

    True, you never said anything nasty against the celebrity chefs themselves, just the star-crossed wannabes that don’t wanna work.

    At least Tony had the good sense to jump ship from that advertprop paradise and hook up with a more satisfying, if less lucrative niche. Is Cat Cora at the top now? The things you miss when you only watch FN for Alton, Natalie and Mario anymore.

  • Claudia

    Yes, Tony has a kid, yes, Tony is graying and, hell, I was going to jump right back in there, but I think Tags covered it already. The irony of Tony-as-brand is that he didn’t “create” his public persona so much as he wrote HIMSELF – into a book he never thought would get published, as a personality so un-vanilla, so antithetical, you’d think, to the image of starched-white chefly perfection – that, quite truthfully, I never thought anyone outside of New York would “get” it, when it first came out. And everything else he’s done from there is pretty much the same guy. He is still snarky. He still smokes. He still chugs a few. He still swears. Under most circumstances, what network would touch him —–
    except, of course, the non-vanilla, quirky and slightly off-center Travel Channel!!!!

    Natalie, your initial point was what had Tony contributed to the food industry (and/or food TV), and then your criticism of his use of profanity and occasional crudeness, both of which have been addressed – now your issue is TV stardom, money and image/branding. What is inherently wrong for you about Bourdain (a) being famous, (b) earning a living at it, and (c)having an image – regardless of what that might be? His image is, after all, part of him, although not all of him, naturally. And at least he isn’t shilling for Lincoln.

    And, OK, I shouldn’t speak for Tony, so maybe HE’D like to address the question if, at this point, chucking the TV career and either (i) going back behind the pass at Les Halles, (ii) or teaching, or (iii) doing just a TV COOKING show is too limiting for him, at this point. But I’m not taking any bets.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Look at these past few posts and tell me this man hasn’t created a persona just as much as rachel ray.
    Anthony Bourdain is man-made with a purpose – it’s called dollars and cents. and cashing in with what works

  • t-scape

    It’s a great end-result of our always wanting to look cool that sushi is now all over the place. Sometimes, though, the routine of people suddenly jumping on a bandwagon just for appearance’s sake gets old.

    “…I think he could get all this across in a more intellectually stimulating way considering what I have read about his background and studies.”

    But, natalie, what is “intellectually stimulating”? Is it the same for everyone? I’ll tell you one thing – Bourdain’s approach to different cultures is something I, personally, find intellectually stimulating. Do some people watch his show or read his books just for the shock value? Probably – but that doesn’t mean that shock value is all there is. The NR episode on Malaysia was one of the most moving travel shows I’ve ever seen, and made me think a lot about my own travels. The fact that he (or anyone you may wish to discuss) speaks to some but not others is pretty much the truth for any author/musician/artist/whatever. It’s not possible to be to everyone’s liking all the time. In fact, even though I enjoy Bourdain’s work, the show he did about Puerto Rico (where I’m from) left me mostly dissapointed. But it did remind me that I’ve gone too long without mofongo.

  • ruhlman

    Tony, you have a point. And your thinning gray hair scarcely covers it anymore. I too love that America embraces sushi and that largely thanks to Mario, I can order pigs ears at a restaurant in Cleveland. What I hate is that this ridiculous chef fetish has created unnatural expectations among the poor saps who get into cooking thinking FAME is what food and cooking is all about, that that’s the end. I know what you’re doing—you’re trying to assuage your guilt, because you’re part of the reason for it. You, you of all people, unwittingly, perhaps, certainly without meaning to, made line cooking in subterranean new york restaurants glamorous. You were a schmuck cook with a big mouth and an appetite for the illegal and now look at you. You’re all over the TV, and in full page ads in the Times, best-selling author, motivational speaker at business conferences in St. Barts, fan clubs world wide, you wear satin robes in enormous suites at the Ritz and Four Seasons across the globe. You open the French doors and step out into the morning sun, light up, and say to the crowd below, “Young line cooks, follow me! This is what awaits!” …And what’s with these repeated references to humping legs. You’re a sexual deviant, Bourdain. Admit it. You need to get some help for your bestiality issues. You have a kid now. Jesus, Tony, reflect on your life.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Claudia there are aspects of ur discussion i agree with…in fact Burt Wolfe did just what B does in a show way-back-when which was travel and food history. Very interesting too. My argument with B is the context in which he does it, maybe it’s my generation, but I think he could get all this across in a more intellectually stimulating way considering what I have read about his background and studies. As for making him a demigod by suggesting he would be limiting himself by actually cooking is what he seems NOT to be about. Would he agree that cooking again would be limiting himself? Isn’t that what he argues about-this high platform of star chef?
    I don’t disagree with his show’s content, but i do take aim at the art of how his show is produced, which is why I don’t watch it. That is me and my choice. I do not condone his methods and would not want my kid to emulate him, I would rather he emulate Ming Tsai. I believe his niche is exactly what he has made it – an antithesis of all things common.

  • Claudia

    Well, Natalie, if nothing else, Bourdain warned us about fish on Monday and Sunday “brunch” (a lot of leftovers from the walk-ins), and other such abominations fowe which we, the clueless dining public, were only so happy to shell out. That was KC. Between Cook’s Tour and NR, Bourdain has broadened the horizons, culturally and culinarily, of both Americans and overseas fans – we see, quite clearly, that what might be vermin to a New Yorker is protein to an African bush man. To say that NR is just about “shock value” or bizarre food is seeing the show at its most superficial level ( a la Andrew Zimmern. No context there. Just bizarre food.) It’s not. It’s as much about culture and people and how their environment shapes their cuisine.

    No, I’m not about to eat warthog ass myself, but I DO understand that, for the Namibia tribal peoples, it is their sustenance; and I could probably forego fermented shark for the rest of my life and not miss it – but it’s part of Iceland’s food culture. And, as Bourdain himself points out, ten years ago, no one in New York would touch raw fish. Now, sushi is ubiquitous as a bagel with a “schmear”.

    As someone who grew up in Asia, I applaud the fact that chefs like Bourdain, although not actually cooking or teaching, have nonetheless made great inroads into exposing American-bred Americans to not only a lot of wonderful food and culture, but the context in which that food evolved and is created. He has also got through to a lot of people that to refuse food, humbly offered, from Asian (or any other) people is the biggest loss of face possible, and just wrong. Hopefully, they’ll be fewer “ugly Americans” (or Germans or Brits, or fill in the blank) stomping around other countries because of him, because of his innate sense of “face” and manners and food. (He never makes faces, goes “Eeeeeeewww!” or makes fun of people’s food in front of them like so many other puerile and ignoramus food TV show hosts.)

    For Bourdain to go back behind the pass at Les Halles or start teaching at the CIA I think would actually be limiting both him and what, I think, he’s been able to do with NR. Besides, why would you think Bourdain is REQUIRED to bring anything to the food industry beyond his own kind of food/travel TV show, any more than Ruhlman should be? Both of these men do what they do, from different approaches, but their love and knowledge of food – and the food industry – is quite apparent; but why would anyone think their sole destiny from birth – or as a requirement for having attended the CIA – is to add vast storehouses of knowledge to the food industry?

    I am always preplexed as to why people who hate Bourdain (or his show) still keep watching it. There are TV food personalities I get the heaves just thinking about, so I deliberately avoid watching their shows. That simple, really.

    PS: Not that I can persuade you otherwise, but you might want to go back to the Bourdain Deconstructed page (now archived) and read the sections Bob DelGrosso excerpted from Dr. K’s dissetation on the impact of TV chefs on American thinking and eating.

  • Natalie Sztern

    further, doth protest too much. it is unfortunate for me, perhaps for u, but surely for your sponsors that anything I have ever seen of you involves distateful images-whether it be the food or the vocabulary. I am an avid reader and watcher of all things food, yet I cannot bring myself to watch you. One episode of some show of yours and that is it. I watch nothing “Bourdain” because you cater to a clientele so specific that I am surprised to see you on the boob tube at all. Why have u ventured down the path u have chosen? and fans please don’t respond with “he is as honest as they come and doesn’t inflate egos of superstar chefs” that is crap. You choose the image u desire.

  • Kevin

    What I find interesting about the need to pursue celebrity chef status is the difference in the two words themselves. “Chef” is the main ingredient, “celebrity” is the garnish. It seems the new rising young talent is reversing the two. To yearn to be famous first will always leave one chasing an elusive goal. The public is fickle. We have many one-hit wonders out there to prove it. The chefs I admire seem to be the ones who find pleasure in the act of making food, regardless of how many eyes are watching.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Bourdain, I am not a chef nor ever have i worked in this industry, no i sit on the other side of the table-i am the consumer..the eater. what have u done for the industry given ur television time? eat the balls of some animal somewhere in vietnam? i agree for instance the road the food network is now travelling down the road of reality which is really not reality (I once was an episode of a reality show that 4 years later they are still running). when food network began, it began as a teaching tool which inspireed me, a non industry person, to become a “foodie” and isn’t that what it’s all about. Have u ever had a show where u taught or cooked, no instead u trail into lands eating…I would love to see the chef inside you…instead of the bad boy image a grown man should have grown out of.
    Cook damnit cook, then stand on ur pulpit and spew all u want…that fat read-head mario has taught me much about food and i am older than he.

  • bourdain

    You are exactly wrong–as usual, Ruhlman. Feeling crochety after comparing Amazon numbers with Paula Deen’s cousin’s gardner’s latest cookbook, you turn and nip at the teat that feeds you. What’s inherently wrong with celebrity chefdom? Who deserves a little cash and recognition more than people who’ve stood on their feet for years, making useful things with their hands? Alright…I grant you–it can be an excrutiatingly annoying phenomenon to observe–and some of its manifestations would drive anyone (even a mild mannered mid-list Clevelander) to fits of bilious rage; but the young knucklehads at CIA you speak of–the ones who are getting in the business with stars in their eyes, looking for nothing more than celebrity, a TV show, or are not willing to put in the work…. These types have been with us always in the business. And they will surely wash out with the first tide, the first busy holiday season, the first major career disappointment–as they have always done. The ocasional Cat Cora will inexplicably float to the top of the bowl now and again–but that happens in any business. My argument FOR eating in restaurants as “fashion statement” or “entertainment” is that that is EXACTLY why we in America are now eating sushi. Who CARES why Americans suddenly overcame an instinctive revulsion for raw fish and decided that sushi was desirable? It looked cool in a movie. Morimoto had a nice face. Sara Jessica ate a lot of it on Sex In The City. It was pretty. Bobby Flay said to try it. Who CARES? At the end of the day, people were eating sushi, the market changed, aspirations and expectations were raised and things got better for all who sold or ate seafood. Who CARES why people are beginning to try the occasional gut or tripe or kidney or cheek? Cause adorable Mario told them they should? Cause that boyishly tousled Ruhlman–from such shows as Cooking Under Fire is always going on about them on his web site? Fact is–dining in America has only improved post-Emeril. There. I said it.
    The threshold for me is “What Do They Do With Their Strange and Terrible Powers?” Do they–like Mario–use the bully pulpit to get people to eat what they genuinely love or believe in? Or do they see only a platform to close the Dunkin Donuts deal?
    That one line crack–on some blog or in some review or wherever it was you read it–about you being too cuddly with chefs really got to you Ruhlman. You protest too much. You long ago crossed over. You are no outsider–and (like me)any notion of being a dispassionate observer of chefs is a silly conceit.You long ago became too deeply mobbed up to get out now. Embrace the Beast. Come back to the Dark Side. And get back to the serious business of humping Keller’s leg. It’s what we al love you for.

  • t-scape

    The traits that some may have acribed to the young – impatience, entitlement – are not limited to that age group anymore, in my opinion. To stay within topic of the obsession over TV-chefdom, you see a lot of people competing to be the next FN star and declaring their lifeling ambition to cook on TV who can’t be classified as youngsters. You see people of all ages and walks of life developing a petulant, I-want-it-now mentality, and in general we’re becoming a society where knowledge through experience isn’t sexy. And it it’s not sexy, by George, then it might as well not exist.

  • Chris Hennes

    I think that everyone, in every profession, at one point or another starts to look down on the newcomers. We forget what it was really like, we glamorize our own past, and shake our heads in relief that we were never like that :). Sure, tons of kids are going to culinary school now so that they can become the “next food network star” — and they will fail, and fall off the map. But a few of them will truly take to cooking, to being a chef, and will eventually wind up producing the next generation of cuisine. Heck, maybe a couple will even get to be on TV!

  • ruhlman

    spoken like a genuine cook.

    thanks for giving some perspective here. easy to generalize.

    i’d say keep on cookin’ but obviously, you don’t have a choice, which is usually the case among the best cooks.

  • Ed

    James Mark,
    You’ll talk shit about the young too, just watch…If what you like about this biz is part of that, embrace that your balls are going to get broken for a few more years.

    Even being a young guy, you must see what we are talking about to some extent. Especially in Providence, were there are possibly more culinary school trained people concentrated than anywhere else on Earth. How many half asses do you run across who think they are ready to be chef at your age, do you not scoff at them? I know there were a great many when I lived there…maybe that has changed.

    Kudos to you for putting in the work…and I feel very strongly that cooks are not properly compensated in the current economic model restaurants utilize. I’m not sure there is another model, perhaps that is a valid subject unto itself?

    I have no problem with cooks bitching about pay, good ones do deserve more, hell even shitty ones for that manner. My problem is with the attitude that somehow I didn’t go through the same thing, with the cooks who think I am trying to scam them or something. We all knew going in that this life is hard, every instructor at every school preaches this. Some just allowed themselves to ignore the reality and believe they were an exception. Of course a handful out of a hundred may be…and if they can execute their belief in themself and can foster that belief in others then they deserve it as much as anyone, young or old.

  • James Mark

    I’m a bit sick of people mocking the young. Sure I’m only twenty and still in school but I’ve apprenticed in Europe and worked up and down the east coast. I can hold my own whether it is banging out six hundred covers at McCormick or fifty covers at the 4 diamond joint I’m at now. I only make ten bones an hour and sure I bitch about it at the pub – but I still show up for work everyday ontime and put out beautiful food. Every hanger is perfectly cooked, the torchon is vein free and everything is seasoned properly. And you know what, there are dozens of kids like me in Providence, and I could guess there are plenty in other cities too. Brilliant cooks who keep their heads down and learn from the best. But people ignore these kids and just narrow their focus to the couple of troublemakers. This industry weeds the ones who can’t cut it out, and often they end up being your purveyor reps, R&D workers, or front of house managers (hell, we need them too). I’m not asking for glory here, just stop hurling the generalizations of laziness around.

    Whats behind the scenes of a restaurant? I’ve know and have worked with guys who did work out at The French Laundry, Tru, Alinea, Per Se…and come to the conclusion that no matter how high end the kitchen is, no matter if you are working a panini press or an anti-griddle, that there is almost always an air of trash talking machismo. And for a lot of kitchen workers, this is why we got into the industry in the first place. Sure, I take pride in my work, but the kitchen is a place where I can talk sh-t and know no one is going to take it personally. It is a place where I can work my bollocks off all day long, make some people happy in the dining room, then clean up and drink all night at the pub. Sure, the pay is terrible and the hours suck, but I can’t imagine working 9-5. What would I do with all that free time?

  • Jeff

    I was watching the Next food Network Star on Sunday while trying to fall asleep. I was astonished by the comments of the contestants. Almost all of them talked about how they have always wanted to be a TV chef. None of them really talked about their desire to just be a chef. The fact that the CIA and many other cooking schools seem to be nourishing this belief that all you need to do is take a class on media and graduate and you will have people lining up to give you a TV deal is very troubling. How many true celebrity chefs are there 75? 100? With tens of thousands of students in culinary school each year the odds of someone becoming a celebrity chef are not very good.

  • Ed

    Jenny / Tikka,
    Sorry if you flet like I (can’t speak for Bob) lorded culinary instructor-ness over you. When people make statements I feel are inaccurate or misleading, I say so. When they make a good point I also acknowledge it, your point about the brutality of this life may be true to your experience…it has some resonance with mine as well, but it it not the whole truth.

    There are plenty of assholes in the world, and while it may be true that this field attracts a good percentage of them, there is no monopoly. Its good that the fire chiefs and EMT’s etc you encounter give credit where it is due and unfortunate that the chefs you have encountered do not.

    I will be honest and admit that I fall into the asshole chef category on occasion…and I go too far with some frequency. This does not mean I don’t tell people when they do a good job, but that I am not afraid to tell them when there work does not measure up. Unfortunately, there are characters in this world who do not respond to being pulled aside, coached, corrected gently and so on…there are people who need to have their noses rubbed in it, there are people who are motivated by fear. I always say the only two creatures I am certain respond to negative re-inforcement are dogs and line cooks. Not ALL line cooks, but SOME. While I am reticent to bring up the issue of gender, I will go out on a limb and say that this approach almost never works with women. I really prefer to not go down this road, I am acctually a very mellow person…and the vast majority of people I work with know that I care deeply about them as people and as professionals…if I didn’t care I wouldn’t waste OUR time.

    In my early years of this life I certainly had my moments of doubt about the industry…being kicked off the line, being told I sucked on a regular basis, and in general being humiliated that I was working so hard for so little respect or reward. Some of my mentors went too far and failed to recognize when they did, I tried to learn from that…but sometimes shit DOES need to be labeled as what it is, when standards are grossly violated examples do need to be made.

    Cooking in tornados is definately hard, so is trying to move that no star to a one and beyond. Both endeavors are pushing pretty heavy rocks up a hill…one has more immediate neccessity to be sure and on that level I can see what you mean by nobility. I can only speak for myself, but despite the myriad flaws of this industry, I do find nobility in my work. When I look out into the dining room and see a guest relax and truely immerse themselves in an experience they are enjoying…I (we) are helping them leave a little of their burden at the door, this life is heavy enough regardless of profession…is it not noble to relieve a little of that weight, even if only for a fleeting moment?

  • ruhlman

    and i’m very appreciative of what scotty said about our needing to know more about the biz, and i think we are and do, from reading books like mine and tony’s and bufords. and yes, it wreaks havoc on families. there are a lot of divorced chefs out there. for a chef, the restaurant is your family. it’s hard. my friend and colleague brian polcyn has an awesome wife and five kids, runs a restaurant, teaches, coaches soccer, got his pilots license, wrote a book with me, etc. that’s unusual. he oughta give classes to chefs on that as well as on hog breakdown.

  • ruhlman

    a 60 y.o. line cook! now that i admire. all best wishes to you. and yes, you should be able to focus on getting the specific pieces of the education you want and need.

    natalie, they’re both accurate. tony is describing a very particular world, the new york city line cook’s world, and mainly in the two star and below level. part of the reason it’s so valuable is because he was really the first to deglamorize the work. OTH, there are really fine kitchens–such as ones you could actually walk around in comfortably in stocking feet.

    re the cover: that’s funny some see a sexual subtext! i suppose. I wasn’t privy to the publisher’s reasoning, but i didn’t like the initial cover, which was kind of a nothing as far i could see, so this new one was welcome. that there is a sexual subtext makes it all the more appealling, now, thank you!

    re: clogs–don’t know the brand but they do have a pale wood sole and are very elegant.

    re: double down. i don’t know if it is THE happiest place on earth, but it is certainly one of them. provided you drink enough ass juice.

    carolina: i think the tv stars did pay their dues. emeril certainly did. and rachael did–hawking her books in buffalo grocery stores. doing 30 minute meal and 40 dollars a day segments on local news for a hundred bucks a pop. what did tyler florence do? I have no idea. How did that happen? Anyone know?

    the problem is, it makes every cook, or a huge number of them want it, or think its accessible. flay of course gets that all the time; used to be culinary students would ask him how to get the foot in the door of the best restaurants, now they ask him how to get a show. drives him fuckin nuts, he said.

    “I don’t even answer the question,” he told me. “Look, you’re in the wrong class—this is cooking school, learn to cook first. Before the Food Network, Emeril was just a great chef in New Orleans. He worked his ass off to get there, OK? He didn’t just happen one day. … He spent a long time cooking a lot of Cajun food and using a lot of cayenne pepper, and he understands it like the back of his hand. I said, ‘You guys think you’re gonna go to culinary school, then get an interview with the Food Network and get your own cooking show? First of all, nobody will believe you because when you pick up a lemon, you’re not going to pick it up with confidence, because you don’t know what the fuckin’ lemon is. You just know it’s a lemon. And second of all, you need to learn how to cook first. This is a cooking class, this is a cooking school, it’s about being a chef, not being a television star.”

    Rachael said if they want to be in television so bad, what are they doing in cooking school? they should be working in television. idiot.

    So this whole television business is dangerous to people who shouldn’t be cooking because it makes them think they should.

  • Jerry

    First to stroke the author… Michael, your Chef’s books got me to consider going back to school at the age of 60. I’ve read all three and am working my way through “Walk on Water” — a beautiful book, by the way..

    Reality set in a few months later, though. I’m currently a line cook and shift lead at a little pizza restaurant, making pretty good money for the situation. I love the job, enjoy the responsibilities of shift lead, but am just about at the limits my old body can endure. Oregon Culinary Institute would provide me with a certificate in exchange for $15,000 and 10 months of my time and maybe get me another $0.50/hour. Final nail in the coffin was the New York Times article on the crush of debt of new chefs. I *know* I’ll never be anything other than a ‘back-of-the-house’ employee and I’ve decided I’ll just continue to pick up Consumer classes from OCI in areas that interest me.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Michael u say u want to discuss the role of a chef in this blog which allows me to query (I know u are friends), the dichotomy of the book Kitchen Confidential vs the Reach of a Chef. I found bourdain’s book denigrating to the profession, in fact while reading it, I thought it disgusting and really concerning because not knowing the insides of a professional kitchen, as a consumer, i was left with disillusion as to what may be the reality of behind the scenes in the restaurants I adore and spend my money at. Or is it this bad? The other end of the spectrum sits ur book which i thoroughly enjoyed and it allowed me to understand the mindset of those chefs who take proud of what they do.

    Bourdain’s book was like a neurosurgeon inside the mind and mindset whereas your book was more the cosmetic surgeon who is making beauty – what’s the real story of what happens behind those closed doors assuming both these books hope to reach a market much bigger than ‘restaurant people’ Is it as ugly and denigrating as the impression left on me by Kitchen confidential or a world of professionals taking pride in what they do?

  • French Laundry at Home

    I think a lot of this has to do with the self-esteem movement of the past 20 years — you know the one… where educators and parents tell kids they are so great and so special and they can be anything they want to be? All you have to do is dream and work hard and you can achieve anything! (Gag me) It’s been even further compounded by the Oprahfication of adults, and it just sets up these expectations that people end up not being able to meet. No wonder this nation’s consumption rate of anti-depressants is at an all-time high. If we’d just stop micromanaging and overscheduling, and tell our kids (and ourselves) to figure out what they’re good at through trial and error and making mistakes, we’d be so much better off. It all goes back to that notion of an earlier Ruhlman post re: mediocrity in America. No one gets a chance to be good at what they’re really supposed to be good at because they’re too busy singing off-key for their repeated “Idol” auditions, or flailing around on a stage on “So You Think You Can Dance”… all because no one had the balls to say, “you know what? You’re not good at this. Try something else.” Instead, we say, “you have a dream, and no one should squash it because you are so special!”

  • Claudia

    You know, I have to agree with “Swampy” – the cover is quite striking, et quite in keeping with the design/format of all of the books in the series. But I saw the apron only on its most obvious level – as part of the uniform, the koit, the equipment of the professional chef. (Yankee’s tart observation, however, is an amusing and not too off-the-mark one: that the waist-level shot is a harbinger of things to come, Professional Chef as Chippendale’s Dancer (!)) A very wry comment on the shilling/branding and marketing that is ongoing for a lot of superstar chefs.

    However, there are still thousands of really terrific (but maybe not superstar) chefs who continue to ply their craft anonymously and diligently – I like to see the apron as emblematic of all those chefs who, once again, get up at dawn and into their kitchens to begin the grueling, nerve-wracking task of producing food crafted with care and passion. I thought more so of some European chef, heading his own quiet but well-respected 2-star restuarant somewhere in, say, Galicia, rather than a superstar or a talking head with a Food Network contract to fulfill.

    The cover shot seems quiet, diligent, serious to me – just a man about to begin plying his craft during one more long, intense, back-breaking day. I like it. It’s almost Shaker-like in its simplicity, and says a lot of the same things to me about craftsmanship and . . . . dignity, I feel.

  • Michelle

    I am not surprised that Jaques Pepin is your most admired chef as he is the most European from a time and place where chefs are revered craftsmen, a person of your intelligence can appreciate that. American chefs are well-trained pop stars, idolized in a crazy, capitalistic sort of way, there is a huge difference. Concerning kids that don’t want to work … I think it is a zeitgeist of the times. Todays youth are raised on computers, remote controls, and video games, button-pushers all the way. Let’s face it, they don’t really want to have to work. When’s the last time you hired a teenager to do something? (And I’m the mother of 2 of them.)Thank goodness for Mexicans, if it weren’t for them there wouldn’t be a single lawn mowed, dish washed, or grape picked. And you are right, what our culture thinks about the chefs role in society is changing. We thrive on MASH-like, adrenalin rushing, tough-guy, stars of the kitchen. And even more disturbing to me, the way female chefs are portrayed: sexy cleavage-cam, or, obsequious home cook. The role of the chef changed when good ol’ American capitalism caught up with ‘em. Before cable and satellite TV there just wasn’t a way to market their celebrity. But Food Network changed all that. What do you think of Alice Waters and Rick Bayless? I am a fan of both, but understand they have had their differences. One thing I know for sure, I haven’t seen a recipe for foam in their books.

  • Joseph Bayot

    Hello, Mr. Ruhlman, just a simple question for you:

    What kind of clogs does Chef Keller use? When I did my stage at per se a few weeks ago, he was wearing these black clogs with wooden or wood-looking soles. Does he always uses the same ones?

  • RI Swampyankee

    Michael, no has run with this question from your original post so I will.

    The cover and subtitle changes are quite striking. I loved the original photo, probably for all the right reasons. The new photo was clearly chosen for it’s not-so-thinly veiled sexual subtext. Chef as Chippendale is probably the next logical step for the folks who package celebrity for the masses. I’m thinking ahead to the very near future when Emeril has to do a bump-and-grind and Paula Dean’s rehab is a Food Network mini-series.

    Oh man. Wow. Was that a bad trip. Back to the present. I’m going to assume that it would be imprudent for you slam your publisher’s marketing folks even here, among friends. What say you, colleagues and fellow travellers, about the cover changes?

  • Jennie/Tikka

    Quoting Ed, “As far as I can tell, all professions contain some component of pain=greatness. Are there not fire fighters who bristle at the green horns as well? Lawyers, doctors, and on and on…we all do it…not just chefs and black belts.”

    I agree with Bob and Scott – the camaraderie in kitchens IS great. Its because I like being on teams that I got into professional cooking, hockey, and disaster work. Working as a tight team with great leadership in a challenging situation is the greatest feeling in the world – I’ll grant you that. But it is so often spoiled by the one guy or gal in a restaurant who feels they need to be the bully. That could be the Chef or that could be the GM or Owner.

    While being a bully will get you your ass handed back to you (along with your teeth) in Hubby’s karate studio, its so very often considered “just part of restaurant life” when it happens on the job.

    I have no problem paying my respects to a Fire Chief all the way down to a Proby firefighter because they aren’t standing there asking me to tell them how great they are. It just spontaneously comes out. I’d compliment chefs more often if they’d be quiet long enough for me to get a compliment in there that they haven’t already given themselves (and isn’t that what chefs are doing when they critique other cook’s efforts?)

    Its only this industry, the culinary industry, that I run into all this public haggling. For those of you who have read what happened to me during my externship – I can honestly say no firefighter has ever treated me like that, no Sheriff, no Blackbelt would dare be so disrespectful of someone in their very own field.

    Pain is an important character-builder. But so is having a sense of honor. I don’t see much of a sense of honor in this field. I’m just being honest. I’d like to feel better about this field.

    You asked me, Ed, why I was here – and this is it: I’m looking for reasons to feel good about the culinary industry again.

    Thought I had found that when I discovered Bourdain. He made me feel good about it all again. Then he ranted about culinary grads and shot that to hell for me.

    Felt better having discovered Ruhlman’s blog – but that Ed and Bob horked culinary instructor-ness all over me.

    I get the chance to do plenty to flesh out my resume – but all that still hasn’t earned me much of any respect in the eyes of fellow chefs and restaurant people. A Batallion Chief can shake my hand and tell me I’m doing good work, but a Chef has yet to do that.

    And I apparently have a 15 year wait, as I understand it, for that to happen.

    Now, you tell me which is harder: Cooking for 300 in the midst of a series of active tornadoes, with spotty power and water, a gymnasium filled with freaked out people, with a cot to sleep on for 3 weeks straight and a shower every 5 days (typically cold), on the other side of the country or, dinner service on a Tuesday night at a Michelin no-star.

    This field really needs to make the transition from misfits to masters. I side much more with Bourdain on this one – this industry is really heavily populated with the fringe elements of society, not the cream of the crop. Hell, most of them haven’t even been through culinary school.

    And now, I’m tired. Anaheim beat Ottawa again tonight (which is good). Criss Angel has a cement box to get out of before 7 a.m. And I need some rest.

  • TheFoodist

    I couldnt agree with you more about the CIA. Since my leave of absence from the school 1 and.. wait.. *Cry* two years ago and since my return the change in the student body is.. shall I say astonishing. The students spend more time talking about Top Chef and Das Food Network then anything really food related.

    I wish I could do a before and after thing in regards to the student body, it kinda scares me a little.

  • Swicks

    “The work of the chef and what our culture thinks about the chef’s role in society is changing. There’s probably never been a more exciting time to be a chef in America, but it comes with more dangers than ever as well.”

    This final statement in the blog posting really got me thinking about an article I recently read in the current issue of GQ magazine. The article was a profile on Jim Denevan, the founder of a program called Outstanding in the Field, wherein he travels around via bus and cooks for groups of people on local farms and natural settings. The goal as he puts it is to eliminate the middle man and cook and present fresh, local ingredients directly from their sources. Additionally, the farmers present offer education on aspects of their profession both good, bad and otherwise.

    I found this to be quite timely in today’s environment of the “superstar chef”. The founder mentions something about how the chefs are being highly emphasized and focused on these days while at the expense of the purveyors of their ingredients. He believes it should be the opposite and the farmers, producers, and purveyors should be showcased more than the Emeril’s, Bobby’s, and Rachel’s of the world.

    A really interesting and excellent read.

  • Ed

    Brix is a measurement of sugar content and can be extrapolated into a measure of ripeness. It is used in making sorbets and many other pastry applications, besides its use in wine making.

    I had never heard of measuring vegetables, but on some level it makes sense. If the green beans look ready, but one more day of hang time improves the sugar content it might be useful to monitor it.

    As far as I can tell, all professions contain some component of pain=greatness. Are there not fire fighters who bristle at the green horns as well? Lawyers, doctors, and on and on…we all do it…not just chefs and black belts.

  • Kevin

    I hope I didn’t give the impression, by a failure to deny it, that I thought Michael was given to idolatry. I have no idea whether he is or not, but I suspect not. My impression from his writing is he appreciates talent, skill, knowledge, and genius. He might even be inclined to a certain reverence for these attributes (as I am) but that is far different from idolizing another person. Only Michael can answer such questions about himself.

    On another tack, and drifting further from the point of this blog post…

    “It’s all gimmee, gimmee, gimmee with no understanding of the fact that it takes time and that you grow along the way.”

    “You paid your instructor $100 to beat you up – and you like it? What does that say about you?”

    The two comments above are clearly related. Knowledge is easy to acquire and understanding isn’t. Understanding exists below the conscious mind but permeates it. Understanding is what links my knowledge of how to polish a piece of maple for a cabinet, debug a SQL algorithm, and create a mandolin riff to deciding how to finish a sauce.

    But acquiring understanding is an often-painful process because it means learning what hurts as well as what helps. We all have sense enough to learn some lessons without the hurt, but are all stupid enough to find our own pains. And when we acquire understanding, however painful it may have been, we _should_ be proud.

    OTH, paying someone to beat you up without getting something more valuable back is just plain dumb.

  • Scotty

    “Sometimes I get yen to go back. I really miss the camaraderie, the rush to service, breaking down the kitchen with my crew, schmoozing with the customers in the dining room. But then I think, f–k, it’s such a dirty job, fat flying all over the place, the heat, smell in the air after you’ve frenched 30 racks and 4 or 5 saddles of lamb.
    Having to tell the dishwasher to clean the grease trap, purveyor’s hassling you for money. Ugh.”

    My new Buddy Bob del Grande goes right to the heart of my issues. I started cooking professionally late in life, and only because I married someone who encouraged me to do so, in many ways. We had adapted to the life of a nocturnal cook, until we, unexpectedly, had a family. I not only had to deal with three hours sleep before one of those beautiful lades wanted to snuggle, but with the fact that I was working 60-70 hours a week, and after the cost of quality day care, I was working for well under $100/week.

    So, that’s where the chef questions I’d like answered, and presented to culinary students, come from. I’d like a good study on the effect of a culinary profession on marriage, relationships and social life. My previous life as a lawyer tells me that the more you are away from home, the higher the incidence of divorce.

    Let’s talk about health. In a short time this spring I read an article (in Food Arts?) about Rick Tramonto talking about the effect years of cooking had had on his knees. Then I read Ian Kelly’s biography of Careme. Careme probably died from inhalation of carbon monoxide from coal burning stoves. Cooks are sill breathing noxious fumes, but many don’t have health care. Several years after I modified my work schedule, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, it’s a hereditary condition, but did it advance from all the slicing and dicing? I don’t know, but I am glad I have good health insurance.

    What is the effect of the current debate on immigration policy going to have Restaurant Kitchens. I’m on Bourdain’s side, though it doesn’t affect us much here in Buffalo.

    My bottom line, is that celeb chefs are few, people who want to work in this industry need to know all of what they are getting into, and there is a lot more good food journalism to be done on these subjects.

    But please don’t think I am a pessimist! Let me share the absolutely greatest feeling I have ever had as a part of the Western New York Culinary Scene. In August, 2005, the person I consider the best cook in the Buffalo area (he has been invited to and cooked at the Beard House) was injured in a motorcycle accident. He started out losing his leg. Then more. And even more. His Restaurant income, etc. wasn’t going to cover his expenses. Someone came up with the idea of a culinary benefit. My participation was small – hitting up local restaurants to donate gift certificates. Nobody said no – most went beyond what I had asked. A whole bunch of us who weren’t actually cooking at the event paid the cover fee to be there. They hoped to raise 50K. They raised many times that. Yeah, we protect our own, but there are people who appreciate the work we do. Mike, knows me, but not well. The look on his face when he recognized me, and that I had worked on his benefit – PRICELESS.

    PS I don’t need to know Ruhlman’s opinion of Rachel Ray is. I just know she causes cavities!

  • Jennie/Tikka

    Also (and this is me thinking out loud) why would you need to know the Brix of a vegetable if you’re not fermenting it??? Brix is useful in knowing how far your fermentation process is going to go and what your alcohol level is going to be.

    The problem with Chefs, and this industry – can best be summed up in this analogy.

    Each and every Friday night, my spouse attends an invitation-only, kenpo blackbelt class. Four other days/nights a week, he attends classes there, too. The studio has only a smattering of members because the pain level (and injury level) to gain a black belt + further degrees is harder at this place than it is at other studios. My spouse happily attends and gladly returns home with his collection of bruises, cracked ribs, black eyes, cuts, etc. Each and every time he does he proudly points his newest injury out to me. Each time I pose the question, “You paid your instructor $100 to beat you up – and you like it? What does that say about you?”

    These blackbelts, just like the “Old Guard” Chefs these days, primarily feel their superiority in their level of pain exposure. More pain = better chef, at least, that’s how the thinking goes. Each will say that the greater pain means they are more serious about their “art” (and both use the term “art”).

    Let’s not forget that Careme died young because he overdid it in the kitchen.

    Addiction to pain is not the same as greatness. Pain needs to be directed and useful before it has a positive end. Greatness is an internal quality you either have or don’t.

    Perhaps the younger generation of Chefs coming up (of whom I am not one, being 40) are merely correctly observing, that the previous generation of Chefs just seem to really get off on

    pain.

  • carolina girl

    Hi Jennie/Tikka.
    Thanks for your pov. Got ahead of myself…stock then consomme. I will write it 100 times in the black board. :) But, isn’t the nasty coagulation also called raft and essentially is it not still stock that you remove it from? Not trying to pick a fight.Just help me understand….Or are we expressing the same thing 2 different ways? Getting old sorry for my confusion.

  • carolina girl

    Hi Jennie/Tikka.
    Thanks for your pov. Got ahead of myself…stock then consomme. I will write it 100 times in the black board. :) But, isn’t the nasty coagulation also called raft and essentially is it not still stock that you remove it from? Not trying to pick a fight.Just help me understand….Or are we expressing the same thing 2 different ways? Getting old sorry for my confusion.

  • Christine

    After reading the book, I was not surprised when my CIA stager just didn’t produce. She told me how she was allowed to miss classes, that the chefs could no longer yell at her, and that with a doctor’s note she could retake an exam. That sure is not the CIA I graduated from, nor now, would I be inclined to hire graduates from! With all that change, I think I’d be better off hiring kids that have worked their way up from the bottom. Sad, since I love my alma mater!

  • t-scape

    I have to agree with kevin’s thoughts on how the word “idolize” plays out – I find it unsavory, too, and even incorrect. Admiration is one thing, saying that you idolize a particular person or group of people or profession just doesn’t sound right to me.

    I also concur on admiring Jacques Pepin a great deal – not just for the reasons Kevin described, although certainly they hold true for me too, but I found The Apprentice to speak to me even beyond food, and on a cultural level. It kinda just hit me the other day and I wrote about it in my podunk little blog, because it took a while for me to realize that I could learn so much with how he handled the process of moving from France to the US. His relationship with cooking and food before and after that move speaks volumes about him as a chef, and as a person.

  • Jennie/Tikka

    You remove a “raft” when making consume, carolina. That’s how you clarify your soup. You do remove foam from stock. These are the things that leach out of the bones while you’re cooking the stock. They float to the surface and create an obvious mess in the pot.

    You use mire poix in stock. You leave that in. A “raft” needs to contain egg whites and an acid to clear up a soup to the point of becoming super-clear consume. It needs to be removed.

  • carolina girl

    PS… it is a “raft” you remove from the stock…not foam. Thanks to my chef instructor for teaching me this …another unsung hero.

  • jaye joseph

    Crap, so if the young have always been like this, does this mean I was too? Quelle horror.

    I have a good friend who ditched her career and enrolled at FCI a couple of years ago. When she was in school, she had an externship, and continued to work at the restaurant for about a year after. She has absolutely no visions of grandeur about the fact that she only spent 18 months in a kitchen. It’s kept her from jobs and she is very understanding of that and willing to do what it takes to make up for that lack.

    I can’t help but wonder if the willingness to accept that you have to work hard is more common in older, second career students at CIA and other schools as well?

    Also, I’m just starting the chapter about Melissa Kelly in Reach, which I am loving. A friend just ate at Alinea a couple of weeks ago and shared his photos and notes with me. It was fascinating to read the Achatz chapter after having talked to my friend. I’m really looking forward to finishing the book and hoping I won’t have missed out on contributing to the conversation when I finish.

  • carolina girl

    I love this healthy discussion as lots of these things have been on my mind recently. First, the word idolize has such negative connotations. After reading Making and Soul of a chef, I walked away with the impression you were more of a respector (real word?I don’t know…but you get the drift)and student of the chefs you mentioned. Being an older student, you spoke to me a someone who is in the kitchen for the experience and education it affords. Did you appear awestruck at times? Not exactly screaming school girl at a beatles show, but very impressed. Deservedly so. I felt like you drew an extremely real picture of the industry that one cannot pick up by turning on the tv. You had the opportunity to mingle with some of the best, and you conveyed just how cool you found it. Keep taking your faithful readers to places we would love to go.
    Second….the whole celebrity chef thing. I believe you got the point of “dues paying” across crystal clear.The culture is changing but the reality is not. I make very little compared to what other 30somethings make. My car is paid for, and I can afford the power bill every month. I may on a tight budget but I am happy. When did the definition of happy change to become synonymous with famous? When did we really begin to buy the lie that fame comes easily and does not have to be earned?The cosmic forces will continue as they always have and people with genuine love of their chosen field will continue to be the rock stars. Pepin, Keller and Ruhlman will all be remembered not for flashy sets and catchy phrases but for a genuine passion. Who 20 years from now is really gonna remember that with a set budget of say $40 a day you too can enjoy the Baltimore harbor? (besides the poor waitress who always gets pretty much stiffed after accommodating the budget conscious millionaire…watch the show, this is heinous!)I’m not. I am going to remember that people with passion inspired me, not a tv star! I say keep inspiring and know that the people who are supposed to “get it” will. It sounds callous, but the hell with the rest of ‘em. If you want to be famous, earn it. Do it for the right reasons. Do it because you are inspired by Alice or Paul or Julia. These folks are the reason I am here! Not because the tv told me so!
    Now… the question
    In the interest of fairness, what dues did these tv guys pay anyways? I mean, some of the folks on tv DO have scarred hands and worked their way up from dish dawg. Why don’t they focus more on their journeys? Is that part of the pomp and circumstance and false advertising? Maybe some of the more responsible in your face celebs need to humble up and remind their young celeb wannabes that they did not get where they are had they not come to admire someone who, gasp!, was a chef before the profession needed an ego stroking tv channel complete with a televised prom?

  • terry

    Not meaning to digress from all these interesting & thoughtful comments…but Michael, is the Double Down in Las Vegas really the Happiest Place on Earth, or is this just another case of culiary hyperbole at play??

    PS; Enjoyed all the books a great deal. Its interesting that food is like so many other endeavors, where the best folks actually work the hardest, though somehow they make it look easy.

  • ruhlman

    please, ed, aeration is great in its many forms, from breads to cakes to creams to meringues. foam is not great. foam is aeration gone wrong. it gets in the way. it annoys when its supposed to impress. i’m all for productive innovation. foam is harmful.

  • Ed

    >>>but i hope not! Ed! You’re a chef, foam is what you skim off stocks and discard. Foam is what you avoid when you’re swimming in a lake. Foam is volume without substance–like the bore beside you in on the JFK to LAX flight. The only good foam there is is milk in coffee, and that’s called froth.

    Wow man, I love your books, and this comment will not really change that…but I feel like saying “et to brute?”

    Foam is also whipped cream, the thing that makes mousses possible, the meringue on your lemon pie, the air that makes really good hollandaise light despite its richness, the head on good bear, the tickle of the first sip of champagne and on and on…why the disdain if it is used in the savory world? No one sits around complaining about whipped cream do they? We should start, because godamnit there is air suspended in it and that is evil!

    Stepping away from hyperbole (and I am still clinging to hope that your comment was coming from this realm as well,) there are good reasons for areation. Take some thing simple like lemon juice and an oyster. There is nothing wrong with just squirting lemon juice on it, I do it all the time. However, if you mix a very small percentage of lecithin into and agitate you get a mcuh lighter texture that can uniformly cover the oyster without using too much…there are functional reasons for doing it. The process of mixing air into a product also assists in the perception of certain aromatic compounds…I’m sure you know this you swirl your wine on occasion, no?

    All the disparaging remarks on “whatever you want to call it” are sad…I may think biodynamic farming is super kooky, but if people want to plant crystals under the full moonlight, go right ahead. I’m not going to claim it isn’t a valid methodology just becuase it is one I don’t subscribe to.

    For a person who is clearly as well educated as yourself to jump on this bandwagon is also unfortunate…trying to earn brownie points with the super snarky Bourdain?

  • Jeff

    Having just finished reading “The Reach of a Chef” while on vacation in San Francisco and Napa/Sonoma, the concept of Chef branding discussed at length in the book was fresh on my mind as I dined at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon. I really think that my expectations of what the Keller “brand” entailed (that as well as mediocre food and service) ruined my experience at this restaurant. The Keller “brand,” that is perpetuated is one of cooking techniques refined to perfection, the highest quality ingredients, and exceptional levels of service. I wasn’t expecting food and service to be on the level of the French Laundry or Per Se, but I still expected an excellent meal and good service.

    The flat iron steak served with frites was pretty bland and under-seasoned and the caramelized onions were so dominant that it kind of reminded me of a White Castle burger. Even with the onions scraped to the side, the dominant taste was still onion when it should have been steak. The fries were excellent…but for 28 bucks I would have expected a much better steak. I had a Monkfish special that was also mediocre. I have cooked Monkfish a total of one time in my life using a recipe from an old Mark Bittman Fish cookbook that blew this away. The service started off good but after my salad it went downhill as we watched people seated 15-20 minutes after us get served, finish eating, and order desert before our entrees arrived. Bouchon was the most anticipated dinner of our trip and was the biggest disappointment. Of our 5 nights of dining in Napa/San Francisco Bouchon was the worst. The food wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either and I would never recommend this restaurant to friends that are traveling to Napa.

    So I am not sure if the Keller empire is growing to the point where Bouchon is getting by based on the reputation/branding of its owner more so than the food or if my expectations were so high based on all I have read about Keller in your books and in other various magazines, newspapers, etc. that I was almost guaranteed to be disappointed. Then again, maybe I just was there on an off-night.

  • Tags

    I bought my nephew Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” as a confirmation gift because I heard he wanted to be a chef. He idolizes Emeril, and realize that maybe Reach would’ve been a better gift in this case. There is a disconnect from reality that comes with anything on TV, because perception management is juggled for the sake of entertainment. This means more viewers, and more profit. Aspiring chefs are often basing their ambition on this dubious view. Seven year waiting list to see Emeril’s show. Amazing

    Meanwhile, Jose you can’t see is doing all the work.

  • Tana

    I think the title change is appropriate, and adds focus to the theme of the book. My copy of the book is in the hands of Robin Somers, who teaches a writing course at the Unversity of Santa Cruz called “The Meaning of Food.” I loaned her a couple of your books and she just loves them: I hope she teaches “Reach.”

    She finds your writing “calming.”

  • Kevin

    I don’t think idolatry is a reasonable response to any skill — even skills as extensive and refined as Boulud’s or Keller’s. What is a appropriate is admiration, even great admiration, but not the sort of worshipful feelings that the verb “idolize” implies.

    The chef I admire most is Jaques Pepin. Not because he’s a “great” chef, but because he’s an honest chef who (apparently) simply wants people to eat well and hasn’t allowed fame to interfere with that purpose.

  • jaye joseph

    Thanks for opening this up for discussion. Since I’m not a professional chef (just an above average home cook), I can’t really comment on the industry. What I can comment on is what I see on a daily basis in my profession.

    I’ve been a graphic designer/Art Director for the past 10 years and now that I’m working with some kids straight out of school, or maybe on their second job, I’m constantly floored at their expectations and attitudes.

    It’s all gimmee, gimmee, gimmee with no understanding of the fact that it takes time and that you grow along the way. (It also makes me scared to death that I might have been like that 10-12 years ago. God help anyone that was my boss back then if I was like that.)

    I’ve worked with some younger folks that are extremely talented in many ways, but don’t, for a minute, understand that they are not designing in a vacuum, but instead to create visual communication that performs a job for clients/end users.

    While they come out of school with skills, they don’t come out of school with experience in working in a team-based environment (the kitchen), with clients (chef, owners, managers), with end-users (diners). They don’t understand the day-to-day yet (budget constraints, environmental factors, deadlines) and they have no desire to learn this because it’s not instant for them. They want to start out as Chef, or Art Director/Creative Director. They feel like they learned everything they needed to learn in school and through extern/internships.

    The reality is so different, and quite frankly, I want to give ‘em all a good slap.

  • sorcha

    I don’t see anything wrong with idolizing chefs either – people who work hard, for long hours under difficult conditions, to develop their skills and talents and to produce food that’s beautiful and delicious? Sounds worthy of some idolizing to me.

    I always did wonder if Keller found his shoes, poor guy.

    I can see the visual impact of the new photo, but the subtitle change does puzzle me a bit.

  • ruhlman

    Ashley: The shoes, yes and no. The did turn up, he couldn’t remember where. The metaphorical shoes he’s still working on. He said the other day it was strange to accept the restaurateur beard award because it used to be that restaurateurs were on the other side of the fence from the chef–they used to be the enemy, so where did that leave him now? I think he really misses the daily work (and comradery) of the kitchen. and maybe matt at light bistro is serving foam.

    but i hope not! Ed! You’re a chef, foam is what you skim off stocks and discard. Foam is what you avoid when you’re swimming in a lake. Foam is volume without substance–like the bore beside you in on the JFK to LAX flight. The only good foam there is is milk in coffee, and that’s called froth.

    Bob: Emeril’s great value is making more people comfortable in the kitchen, especially dudes who wouldn’t exactly take to the galloping gourmet or jeff smith. untold numbers are cooking food because of him and rachael.

    Pauper: don’t forget that the CIA is a not for profit operation.

    Jaye: the young have always been like this, but jennifer at snackblog noted the other day that many chefs are noting how few young cooks are doing time in europe, the way the previous generation did.

  • Chris

    There’s nothing wrong with idolizing chefs Michael … anyone who reads your books realizes that you idolize ANYONE who is a “craftsman,” whether it be as a teacher, boatbuilder, surgeon, or chef. You like people who are dedicated, with almost single-minded intensity, to the perfection of their skills and their craft. Though sadly, I think we see now that there’s a whole new generation of chefs who seek perfection of their image, and their craft is no longer cooking, but it’s public relations, and cooking is merely the means to that end.

    That said, I wish you’d come down from the mountain of focusing on the best of the best, in 5-star restaurants or cutting-edge bistros, but start looking around at some of the “mom-and-pop” places or restaurants owned by recent immigrants or immigrant families, and see if they also have the quest for perfection … combined with the need to make enough money for their families to succeed. Because it’s been my observation that they work harder than anyone else, and while the food may not be cutting edge, sometimes it’s delightful and keeps customers loyal and coming back for years, unlike the fickle hangers-on who only haunt the best of the best places … as long as they remain “cutting edge” or the place to be seen. No one ever studies the Chinese family that busts their butts in the kitchen of their little storefront restaurant plying their skills to keep the lights on, and striving for what they see as the American Dream … when so many of of us have become cynical about such a thing existing.

    How about that for a book topic?

    Discuss amongst yourselves.

  • rockandroller

    “Critics say I idolize chefs.”

    Seriously, why is that so bad? I idolize chefs too, as well as owners, managers, hostesses, line cooks, dish dogs, etc. It’s incredibly hard work and for most the payoff is not very handsome, but it’s an integral part of our society and one I appreciate greatly.

    I’d much rather have my kids aspiring to be chefs than rock stars, socialites like the aforementioned Paris or overpaid athletes with limited careers and even more limited skills. Cooking and eating are essential to one’s way of life. Playing a great ball game or knowing how to play up your assets when you’re in your 20s and your assets aren’t yet sagging are not admirable skills to me.

    In short, isn’t it our “admiration” of chefs that drives us to restaurants, even a chain restaurant? I love having someone else cook for me, especially when they can produce something better and quicker than I could at home. I take great satisfaction from cooking a great meal, but when I can afford to go out and I come away from the table with a smile on my face and a full belly, you bet I idolize the chef.

  • the pauper

    one of my most loathed saying that developed over the past year or so is, “it is what it is.”

    dislike for overused phrases aside, we like the world where chefs can make a living being a chef. we do not like when chefs water down their brand where something they endorse tastes like crap. can’t have it both ways…

    you like the CIA for what it did for you, but the school could not be functional if not for the tuition paying students.

    in both cases, both the chef and the school have expanded their reach so that their fixed profit margin would bring in more net profit. maybe my view is more cynical, maybe it’s not about greed.

    maybe mario batali just cares about the everyman who wants his pasta sauces but can’t pay for a dinner at babbo. and maybe the CIA just wants to help thousands more individuals attain their culinary dreams. i think that plays a part, but there’s an invisible line somewhere and i think both of those mentioned have crossed it.

    greed isn’t always bad though. their philanthropic endeavors have increased i’m sure, but it’s just a matter of scale. have they helped more now that they’ve made more money?

  • Shannon

    I read “The Apprentice” by Jacques Pepin and think that it shoud be required reading for all people who want to enter the profession.

    If you want to be good, you have to work hard. The original reason why Emeril and Bobby (and the other original FN chefs) were picked was because of their reputation as seasoned, accomplished REAL chefs.

    Now it’s about whose personality is more appealing to the viewer rather than showing people who could really teach the viewer something.

    For instance, I learned how to dice an onion in an efficient professional manner by watching a demonstration on an episode of one of Emeril’s shows.

    If I learned from Rachael’s technique, I’d having bloody stumps for fingers with a pile of haphazard chunks of onion.

    If you want to learn how to throw ingredients together, watch Rachael.

    If you want to learn how flavors work together and create a singular sensation, watch a show hosted by a chef who’s learned through the school of hard knocks.

  • Bob delGrosso

    Nice bit of soul-searching reflected here Michael. It’s refreshing.
    Frankly, I believe very few chefs are worth our attention. There’s really just a handful of types who we can actually learn something of value ( e.g. Keller, Adria, Waters, Me :-) because most of them them contribute nothing to the culture other than plagiarized and rehashed recipes and a confirmation of a shared cultural belief that any “expert”, hunk or babe deserves a hearing if he/she demands it. Even if all that he is saying is “look at me, aren’t I something else?”

    You know, it’s the Paris Hilton syndrome.

    But who knows really? Could be that guys like myself just aren’t able to see the value of an Emeril performance. Could be that Bobby Flay is throwing down something more profound than cooking as professional wrestling. And maybe only time will tell if Gordan Ramsay leaves behind something more than a lingering sense of titilation over watching a guy in white scare the shit out of some kid.

    Dunno.

    What I do know is that chefs and aspiring chefs are not going to yearn to go back to the kitchen and stay there en masse any time soon because as you know, cooking in a restaurant wears really thin after not very long.
    Sometimes I get yen to go back. I really miss the camaraderie, the rush to service, breaking down the kitchen with my crew, schmoozing with the customers in the dining room. But then I think, f–k, it’s such a dirty job, fat flying all over the place, the heat, smell in the air after you’ve frenched 30 racks and 4 or 5 saddles of lamb.
    Having to tell the dishwasher to clean the grease trap, purveyor’s hassling you for money. Ugh.

    I wonder if there will not come a time when chefs exist only on TV, and all food is cooked by robots.

  • Ashley

    I finished The Reach of a Chef about two weeks ago (Michael, I am the one who sent you that goofy email…I’m halfway through Walk on Water now and I signed up for Michael Symon’s cooking class on the 12th!), just before this season’s “Next Food Network Star” is beginning.

    Ed, I think you’re right about your students not only being influenced by the new celebrity status that chefs can attain but by the time in which we grew up. Take away the parts about food, and what you say echoes what attendings (surgeons and medicine) in the hospital are saying about medical students and residents. (I’m a resident.) There is enormous concern about the emphasis of lifestyle over professional curiosity, altruism, and service. It’s not limited to the culinary world, this sense of entitlement and desire for instant gratification–and medicine doesn’t have the confounding factor of celebrity. If anything, our status as doctors is rapidly dwindling.

    Ok, now questions for the author–did Keller find his shoes? And has he found a way to still feel like a chef while managing his new empire? And where can I eat foam in Cleveland?

  • Ed

    The young cooks I encounter these days, by and large, really don’t think they need to put in the work. I suppose the same was true of many of my contemporaries when we graduated, but it is sort of crazy these days.

    A guy works the line for 6 months and thinks he is ready to be a sous, lots of crying about 12 dollars an hour (which really is a problem.) More than just the cult of the chef, I really think this is a product of the culture at large.

    These kids were raised in an escalating environment of instant gratification. One click and its yours…the virtue of patience is lost on many of them. I try to help those I work with come to grips with the fact that they just are not as good as they think they are, but many fail to asorb the lesson.

    While I do hope to write a book (or books) at some point in my career…the whole fame part of it is really not my bag. I suppose witnessing what it did to a few of my mentors helped shape my views on this subject, but it really seems like a deal with the devil most of the time.

    On a side note…why is it that chefs not involved in the more technical aspects of modern cuisine feel the need to take pot shots at those who are. I have dined at Primo in Maine and here in Orlando, they are great places and I appreciate her aesthetic. I am just as excited by great ingrdients as any other chef, I also happen to be interested in the evolution our craft and the explosion of technique in the past 10 years is really remarkable.

    Foam is just another vechicle for flavor when used correctly, and as much as these traditionalists wish it were gone, I have a feeling it isn’t going anywhere. How is it any less valid than a vinaigrette? Please tell me, I’d like to know.