The Beard and the Ripper. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Well, they do and they don’t. Ruhlman’s Twenty surprised me by winning both an IACP award and a James Beard award this spring.

The book’s editor, before the Beard ceremony, wrote, “The book is just unusual enough to break through all the other more standard cookbooks.”

True, it is unique, a book organized by techniques rather than by types of dishes. I thought this was a liability in the awards department. Ratio was a completely original book, a book like no other, and was nominated for nothing. The French Laundry Cookbook I thought was truly unique, with its broad mix of story, Thomas Keller’s trajectory, but also the stories of his purveyors, its discussion of critical elements of his cooking (beurre monté, special tools such as the chinois and the tamis, butter poaching lobster), Deborah Jones’s exquisite photography, and recipes that documented exactly what happened in the French Laundry kitchen rather than attempt to create French Laundry At Home recipes.

When Deborah Jones didn’t win the Beard for photography, I remember an audible gasp from the audience. When Charlie Trotter’s Kitchen Sessions won in the “Cooking From a Professional Perspective” category, the wrongness of it was so clear that Trotter himself sought to correct the situation by telling the audience that while he and Michael Chiarello were deservedly proud of their books, the award so clearly deserved to go to The French Laundry Cookbook that he was going to give Thomas the medal after the ceremony. (He tried, but Thomas wouldn’t accept it, so Trotter sent it to him, and I later saw the award and the letter from Trotter framed in The French Laundry offices.)

That was the moment for me, May 2000, like Ralphie’s realization of the commercialism of contemporary culture (“Ovaltine?!”), that what I’d thought was meaningful and just was not, and have ever since have been suspicious of all awards. Russ Parsons, of the LATimes, always reminds me that what’s important and fun is to be nominated. The Making of a Chef was nominated, the first documentation of a culinary education, but didn’t win. Do I care? Not really. But when Michael Symon won best chef Midwest, I whooped and hollered, more excited and glad than Symon himself. I love it best when friends win.

Publishers seem to think that awards are good for sales. Maybe, though Charcuterie was nominated for a Beard award, lost to the excellent Bones, but has far outsold  that book.

For me, the value of winning these awards? It gives me an excuse to thank two people who are under-recognized for what they’ve given to the book. It allowed me to publicly thank Donna for her wonderful process photography. And also to acknowledge the book’s designer, Vanessa Dina, of Chronicle Books, who created such an inviting and compelling and clean design for it.  Vanessa has written her own book, The Meat Club Cookbook: For Gals Who Love Their Meat. Truly a gal after my own heart!  Many thanks to Donna, who does so much, and to Vanessa for her excellent design.

And I can also here thank my dad, Richard, aka The Ripper, who made all things possible.

Congrats, too, to the following excellent books whose company it’s an honor to share.

Other finalists from The James Beard Awards:
Splendid Table’s How to Eat Weekends by Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift


Other Finalists from the IACP Awards:


If you liked this post on cookbook awards, check out these other links:

© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.


18 Wonderful responses to “Why Awards Matter to Me”

  • Tracy

    I don’t understand why Ratio did not win anything, it is such an amazing book. I can’t even begin to tell you how many copies of that book I have given as a gift, that book is AMAZING!

  • Thomas

    I agree. Twenty is good and I’ve given 5 or 6 copies of it to friends. But Ratio, Charcuterie and The French Laundry are amazing.

    Congrats on the award!

  • Jon in Albany

    I’ve enjoyed a lot of your writing. I’ve read all of your food writing that I know about. I refer to Charcuterie the most often, but I’ve got to tell you that every year at the holidays, at least two people ask me for my sugar cookie recipe, which is really your sugar cookie recipe out of Ratio. Congratulations. And, please keep it up.

  • Michael Ruhlman

    thanks all, but thomas,twenty is just good?! sheesh…

  • Morten Båtbukt

    I agree on The French Laundy and Charcuterie, but haven’t done more than flip through Twenty so far. Was far too disappointed with Ratio to buy Twenty.

    Ratio promised so much, but really just pointed out so much that I already knew. I admit I know more about cooking than most, but the essence of ratio was already known to me, and the recipes were simply basics that were already in several of my books. In addition there wasn’t a single recipe that inspired med to do anything (and there are far too many errors for a book of this size) new. Where as both The French Laundry (and Ad Hoc) and Charcuterie has been exceptionally inspiring.

    To hammer the point home: This blog has inspired me time and time again, and thus an unlimited amount of times more that ratio ever has.

    Anyhow; I now must have another look at Twenty (I know other foodies and food bloggers who love it) to see if perhaps it is time to once more turn to a Ruhlman book.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      Wow, you’re the first person to say that, at least to me. Sorry Ratio disappointed you so.

    • Carly

      It doesn’t really surprise me that someone who’s very into The French Laundry Cookbook would not be so into Ratio. As with most things, no book on food or cooking is going to be for everyone. There are a lot of ways to learn something, and if you feel you’ve already learned all of the things you care to learn that are covered by a book like Ratio, then sure, it makes sense that that one might not be for you. Someone else, with a different skill set or just a different way of learning and thinking, may still get a lot out of it. Really, whether or not something appeals to you or applies directly to you shouldn’t be the measure of whether it’s good or worthwhile.

  • marlene

    I was a bit surprised that Ratio wasn’t nominated for anything as well. I was very excited at Twenty winning. I believe I told Michael way back in November there’d be a nomination for it. 🙂

    And I’m still stunned at the French Laundry loss as well.

  • Kim Foster

    My husband David produces shows and concerts. He’s been nominated for a couple of Tony’s and won a Grammy, but this one year, he produced a special event on Broadway that had gotten raves from the Times, critically-acclaimed everywhere, sold out every night, huge fandom around the performers. They were a shoe-in for the Tony. The Times even predicted it. They lost, to a show that I believe was much more pedestrian,and not nearly as acclaimed or beloved by fans and critics. I still have no idea why, except that what wins and what doesn’t is often random, subject to lots of ideas we have no control over.

    LIke you, that experience made me less impressed by who wins and who doesn’t. But here’s the thing: It’s not about one book, or one show, or a single award – it’s how your art/writing changes people, inspires them, moves them. The award is what you get every time someone roasts a chicken for the first time, and their life is changed,even a little, or how Charcuterie inspired Charcutepalooza, & had 400 people brining, smoking, stuffing, etc.

    You’ve changed how people cook. Actually how they cook, Michael. And you did that over the course of many books, the things you learned from each chef, each writing process. This book so deserved the award and congratulations (!) but ten years from now, only a handful of people will be able to remember who won this year. Or be fixated on how they liked this book of yours better than that book of yours. What people will remember is that they read something you wrote and it deserved to be incorporated into their lives. They invited you in and kept you around. I think that happens often with your work. And I don’t think you can get an award better than that.

    So congrats on all of it!


  • JGD

    Slipping in a reference to my favorite Christmas movie (“A Christmas Story”) should be worthy of a prize!

    Congrats on all your successes.

  • Karen Hollings

    Congratulations Michael! My husband Robbie and I enjoyed meeting you in Charleston this past December. I love Twenty and to celebrate your win, we are poaching some great South Carolina shrimp using your recipe.

  • Lori @ RecipeGirl

    I was surprised that Ratio didn’t catch award attention too… but you’re so deserving. Glad this one caught the right eyes. Congrats to you, Michael.

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    I am still in shock that when written, On The Line, did not win an award for not just its content but for the truly unusual layout of each page. Boggles my mind that those at James Beard did not see it as I did after I read it. However the fact that Chopped won out over Ming Tsai – I never imagined food network would ever turn into the network it did –

  • Andra@FrenchPressMemos

    Congrats on the award Michael. There are down-sides to awards but it is recognition you deserve and should enjoy. I have and cherish both the French Laundry and the Charcuterie book– and understand your surprise when neither got the Beard nod. It appears that I need to get my hands on Twenty — I have been flirting with it at our local cookery candy-shop for adults, Peppercorn in Boulder. Soon it shall be mine that new book of yours.


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