A birthday celebration done in style. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

A birthday celebration done in style. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

All I wanted for my fiftieth birthday was to eat all the lobster I could, with a good white wine and a Blanton’s bourbon after.

I remember when my mom turned fifty because Donna insisted on doing something special for her, while I lamely lay in bed, scratching my head (within the hour she’d marshaled friends and chartered a plane to Key West for lunch).

My dad did a fifty-mile bike ride on his fiftieth with his girlfriend Pat; she was incensed by the arduous journey (“Rip,” she hissed, “you don’t need a woman, you need a machine,” to which he replied, “I just realized it’s my fiftieth birthday”).

They were so much older, fifty an impossibly remote age to me, a 25-year-old. Yet here I am now, on that very day. In a wistful column on aging rocker Mick Jagger and others, Gail Collins writes that Paul Simon, who’d penned the words in his youth, “how terribly strange to be seventy,” confirmed that while it wasn’t bad, it was indeed strange.

So, yes, strange to be fifty, as well. How did I get here? I’m still not sure but I do know it was only half intentional.

I got my first book contract when I was 30 (happily on my Dad’s 55th birthday).

I finished The Making of a Chef in 1997—that changed things for me. But not immediately. Donna and I were forever worrying about money. Broke, looking for a cook’s job summer of 1997, I went to an obscure restaurant in Bainbridge, OH, and walked out more or less with a plane ticket to The French Laundry in Yountville, CA.

I wrote The Soul of a Chef concurrently with The French Laundry Cookbook because I didn’t know what else to write; I wrote it so fast I was sure it was garbage and prayed no one would call me on it.

lobster and butter

A chef-author I’d read, Anthony Bourdain, reviewed it for the New York Times Book Review. When I was in New York, I met him at his restaurant, then we met Eric Ripert at the bar Siberia, the original one, and drank beer, and the next day Eric and I flew to Puerto Rico for the winter installment of A Return to Cooking.

In 2003, after writing books about wooden boat builders and pediatric heart surgeons, I called my friend Brian Polcyn and asked if he wanted to help me write a book about Charcuterie, about animal fat and salt and preserving food. My daughter was now eight and my son four.

In the fall of 2006, I began this blog.

In the summer of 2009, not long after the iPhone was introduced, I gave into my compulsion to explore the idea that our fundamental preparations could be reduced to relative proportions and wrote Ratio. A year later, with the help of Will Turnage, I turned it into an app for smart phones.

The year after that, I published a book claiming there are only twenty things you need to know in order to cook just about anything. It won Beard and IACP awards, and as it was my first real collaboration with Donna, it is a book that remains enormously important to me.

A year ago, on a whim, Donna and I self-published a single-subject cookbook for iPads. We were going to do more, but I joined a new publisher who asked to publish the book in hardcover. The Book of Schmaltz will be out in a couple weeks.

I’ve got more books to write for Little, Brown. But I can’t help but wonder if I have anything relevant to say anymore. I probably don’t, nothing new anyway, but I can say the important stuff over again so nobody misses it.

lobster wine dinner

This is important: since none of us knows when we’re going to die, the first rule of life is to have a good time. I would add a corollary: it’s important to have your Last Meal as frequently as possible (me: oysters, steak frites). And on my fiftieth birthday, a year and a day after Donna’s, I want to have all the lobster I can eat.


I can lift a glass of this wonderful Riesling to Donna and thank her and tell her how lucky it is to be fifty.

lobster dinner2

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© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.



37 Wonderful responses to “Turning 50 (with lobsters)”

  • Tory S

    Happy birthday, sir!

    Ratio forever changed the way I think about baking; 20 invited me to explore technique in a new way. I know I’m not alone in saying that I’m immensely grateful for your contribution to Amateur cooks everywhere.

    Ad multos annos!

  • Anton Zuiker

    Can’t help but believe that your list of accomplishments will continue to grow, to 60, 70, 80 and beyond. I see lots of lobsters in your future!

  • Dale

    Happy birthday!

    A few weeks ago I celebrated my 80th. A couple of martinis, a dry aged tenderloin, a bottle of Brunello and a runny chocolate cake.

    Had I known that I was going to live this long, etc., etc.

    However, I just can’t make myself believe that 80 is the new 60.

    • Allen

      Very inspiring, thank you! You know how to have a good time Dale. Very happy birthday to you, good health and happiness.

  • Mitch

    L’Chaim!, Michael. We hosted our most enduring and dear friends this past weekend and on a whim checked the Market Basket (yea!) circular and found lobsters at $3.99/pound. We steamed them outside on the dock and devoured two a piece with ears of corn and a bottle of a dry Riesling and another of un-oaked Chardonnay. Our toast: “Good food ALWAYS tastes best with good friends”. May all our Last Meals be repeated as often as possible.

  • cleek

    Happy Birthday !

    thanks for the blog, and especially for the bread app – before that little app, i’d never made an edible loaf of bread!

  • Barbara | Creative Culinary

    You’d best not stop because I have more to learn. On your fiftieth birthday I stood talking to a young manager of the meat department in a small, local specialty foods store. I was there to pick up pork belly to make more bacon, something I would never have considered if not for the year long dive into Charcuterie along with Cathy Barrow and others. He was in the process of starting his own small business offering charcuterie to small outlets and knows your book well. We had a great discussion but it’s maybe more meaningful today as I read this post.

    You can cite legions of known names that have been a part of your career but maybe it’s those of us who are unknown, just regular folks, who have read some of those books and maybe had a life changing moment that really are a testimony to your years. Trust me…making my own Maple Bourbon Bacon is indeed life changing!

    Happy Birthday!!

  • ...pat.

    I love you two! Michael, for your writing, Donna, for your photography; both of you for your passion for food. I’m sure you will find more things to write about food in years to come: sustainable food is becoming more important, GMOs and pesticides are raising people’s eyebrows, and we’re all becoming more concerned about the source and quality of our foods, which will of necessity lead us to find articles about what can be done with sustainable, quality foods.
    I look forward to reading and seeing more stuff from you two for the next quarter century.
    Your work has staying quality.
    Happy birthday, Michael, and sorry I missed your monumental birthday, Donna!

  • Kathy S.

    Happy birthday to you! I’m a couple of years behind you but I realized in reading this article that I’m only about 6 weeks away from being the age my mother was when I got married. And I was no child bride. Yowza. Anyway, enjoy your day! And your lobster!

  • Susan

    Happy Birthday! You’ve accomplished a lot in your 50 years and touched many lives, that’s a pretty productive life so far. Don’t rest on your laurels, there’s a lot of life left. It’s a good age to explore the science of nutrition. I’d read what you discover.

  • Michael

    Happy Bday Mr. Ruhlman. I was first introduced to you through your book, Soul of a Chef, and then enjoyed your banter with Bourdain on his TV shows (especially Cleveland episode of No Res). Have pretty much the rest of your books now too, and am LOVING the Twenty cookbook in particular. Have become a huge fan of your writing as well as world view and hope you will come to the Pacific NW again soon!

  • Saffoula

    Wishing you a belated happy birthday from a member of your ever-growing fan club!

  • former butcher

    Best wishes for your birthday, Michael. Keep writing!

  • Allen

    Happy birthday.
    Keep it fresh and memorable, like Donna’s photos, and you writing.
    May they last a long time.

    Cheers, good health and happiness.

  • Ryan

    Happy Birthday Michael! Mine was yesterday, though no big milestone like 50. Great family storytelling. You’ve made impressive use of your first half-century, and I am positive that you’re a long ways from running out of relevant things to say! Cheers!

  • kate hill

    M, it’s been a lollygag until now.This is when you start to crank and realize that time is exponentially building on all your early work. Choose those next projects well… and Bonne Anniversaire from Gascony.

  • Mantonat

    Happy 50th and thank you for putting every bit of your 50 years of passion and experience into every word you write.

  • Kurt

    Happy birthday, and thank you….I’ve been a bit on edge, hitting the big 4-0 on Friday, and this (and some Blanton’s, great minds think alike) really raised my spirits.

  • Fritz

    What a perfect birthday celebration! The love-of-your-life, lobster aplenty, melted butter, candlelight and an offset spoon to complete the scene made it ideal for you. Personally, the Badass spoon I bought for my recent birthday is a great treat to own and it will surely assist me in the many quests for my Last Meal.

  • Tom Jensen

    Happy Birthday, I just turned 53 on Saturday. Treat yourself to a colonoscopy. Don’t put it off. I got one in January and two weeks later the doctors cut out 6 inches of colon. Had I gone in at 50 the doctor said there was a 90% chance that I would not have had cancer.

  • Dean McCord

    I turn 50 in less than 2 months. I’m inviting everyone I know to a huge party I’m throwing for myself. I’ve got a local chef, Ashley Christensen, cooking for me. And I will have a good time. You’re welcome to join us, Michael. It will be fun. And happy birthday.

  • Jon

    Happiest of Birthdays, Michael. Congrats on hitting the big milestone, on celebrating it with the people who matter most to you, and reflecting back upon a great life to date–with many more adventures ahead (especially if you continue to hang out occasionally with Bourdain).

    Also, I am greatly enjoying the thought of you, Bordain, and Eric Ripert at the original Siberia bar. I can only imagine Eric’s reaction to that place.

  • Zalbar

    “But I can’t help but wonder if I have anything relevant to say anymore.”

    You’ve written about learning to cook. You’re written about cooking and crafting cured meat. You’ve written about the thought processes of chefs and this craft of ours.

    I would be interested in hearing about the before. The farmers that bring us our heritage breed meats. The care they take, why they do what they do. The farmers that bring us our produce. The organic movement and how it has changed over the years. Sustainability. All of this is something to bring to the public. It’s important, and the questions to be answered are endless.

    Remember that freshly pulled from the ground still warm from the su new potato pulled from the ground and eaten? You should tell us about those potatoes.

    You wrote about a restaurant in Maine that you visited that fascinated me. Farm out back, and a lot of hard work and dedication put into the menus and meals.

    Happy Birthday,

    O Captain! My Captain!

  • Canice

    What a nice retrospective, and what a fine life.
    I’m almost 49, grew up the youngest of three. Neither of my siblings lived to my current age, and I believe they both wished to see 50.

  • Michael Ruhlman

    You all are so, so kind to read and take the time to comment. I’m really lucky. Thank you so much. Not looking forward to that colonoscopy though…

  • April

    Happy Birthday! I “discovered” you five years ago while on deployment to Afghanistan. I read The Making of a Chef in a day, and decided you were the most clever person alive – figuring out how to get into the CIA and then later getting to hang out with all my favorite chefs. I immediately ordered The Soul of a Chef, The Reach of a Chef, and the French Laundry cookbook. My base was tiny – no shops, no food outlets, but we got mail (occasionally) and I devoured each book – they were my little escapes from often tragedy-filled days. I wish I had gotten pictures of me adapting Chef Keller’s recipes for our meager kitchen – cooking with our local interpreters during Ramadan. We pulled off some amazing feasts. Your books made me excited about cooking – and five years latter I was able to put that passion to good use cooking dinner for my husband’s 50th birthday. Cheers to you!

  • tea_austen

    The important stuff is always worth saying, over and over again. You may surprise yourself yet. I very much expect that you will.
    Happy Birthday, Michael. And happy every day. As I am getting older I realize how important it is to celebrate Tuesday as much as any holiday. It’s about making the moments, the memories, isn’t it? Here’s to many more of them.
    PS. While I really like you quite a lot, I think I love Donna. Happy, happy to you both!

  • Seth Diamond

    Michael… If it wasn’t for my reading your book “The Making of a Chef” ten years ago, I wouldn’t have had the courage to ultimately change careers, go to culinary school, start Food Biker, and follow my dreams.

    You’ve set the bar incredibly high for writing and culinary multimedia. Don’t stop, whatever you do, and the world continues to look to you for inspiration.

    Wishing you a very happy belated 50th birthday and keep going!

  • Brad McNeal

    Hi Michael, been a reader and admirer of your work since your appearance on the Splendid Table, years back, talking about stocks. This turned up in my inbox today. Sorry Amazon, I have this work, still my favorite of all.

    Walk on Water: The Miracle of Saving Children’s Lives
    Walk on Water: The Miracle of Saving Children’s Lives
    by Michael Ruhlman

    List Price: $16.00
    Price: $12.55
    You Save: $3.45 (22%)


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