The Reach of a Chef, a Review

The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen
By Michael Ruhlman

As an avid home cook, I’m a sucker for behind-the-scenes in-a-professional-kitchen books, ever since reading Becoming a Chef by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page in the early 90’s. Since then I’ve devoured Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, Heat by Bill Buford, The Seasoning of a Chef by Doug Psaltis with Michael Psaltis, and The Perfectionist, Life and Death in Haute Cuisine by Rudolph Chelminski, among others. It’s not surprising that I would latch onto The Reach of a Chef shortly after its publication.

Michael Ruhlman hooked me when I read his book House, not about cooking, but about remodeling his house in Cleveland and celebrating the completion of the kitchen by roasting a chicken. I guess it’s because he writes with a clear and lucid tone, and celebrates the importance of the minute and the mundane. I followed that with The Soul of a Chef, as well as his cookbook collaborations Bouchon and Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing. Though these are cookbooks, the quality of the writing carries through.

Early in The Reach of a Chef, Mr. Ruhlman remarks, “I covet the rank solitude of my office, but out in the world I’m most at home in a kitchen and so have returned again and again, an impostor cook looking for Answers.”

In this book he takes us into the kitchens of famous chefs, up and coming chefs, the kitchens of the Culinary Institute of America, and even spends time in the kitchen with Emeril and Rachael.

It was a thrill for me to vicariously visit the kitchens of The French Laundry, Per Se and Masa, but even more so to examine the burgeoning careers of two young, and very different chefs, Grant Achatz and Melissa Kelly. In the chapters devoted to them, Mr. Ruhlman writes admiringly and eloquently on their backgrounds and their vision to create their own restaurants.

Grant Achatz’ chapter is entitled Edge Cuisine. Here are a few excerpts:

Grant Achatz was one of the most impressive cooks I met while writing The Soul of a Chef. He worked the fish station at the French Laundry. He was young, twenty-three then, in 1998, yet he’d been at the Laundry for a year and had spent a year at Charlie Trotter’s. These were two of the greatest kitchens in America; Grant’s positions were coveted and difficult to land.

Working at The French Laundry, Grant learned to appreciate chopping his own shallots, even though he scarcely had time for it. ‘It affects your psyche,’ he told me. “If you take a half hour to chop shallots, you’re going to make sure they don’t get wasted.” This was a remarkable thing for a twenty-three-year-old cook to have sensed and learned — and, moreover, articulated.

“I grew up in the French Laundry kitchen,” Grant says. “Thomas taught me how to cook in the philosophical sense. In the literal sense as well, but more about how to treat food, how to express yourself through food, get excited about it.”

While the cuisine Grant does now at Trio doesn’t look anything like Keller’s food, Keller’s food is clearly reflected in the technique.

In the summer of 2000, Keller intended to take his three sous-chefs to Spain during the French Laundry’s summer break. He suggested that Grant go early to El Bulli and spend some time in the kitchen led by Ferrann Adria.

“If I hadn’t done the stage at El Bulli, I’d still be cooking French Laundry,” Grant says.

As it happened, he went on to become the executive chef at Trio, in Evanston IL and win the Rising Star Chef award from the James Beard Foundation in 2003 before striking out on his own at Alinea.

Melissa Kelly’s chapter, The Romantic Ideal, is no less interesting, although, “The food at Primo couldn’t be more unlike the food Grant pursues.”

Melissa is the chef/owner of Primo in Rockland, Maine. Our son Eric lives near there and I wrote him to wonder if he had dined there. He replied, “Yes; she’s an excellent chef and a good person. I’ve worked with her on a bunch of MOFGA events.”

Here are some excerpts from her chapter:

Melissa’s food is home cooking food that emphasizes the best possible vegetables, meats, dairy, and fish, simply prepared. It’s served in a house on a hill. To enter it, guests walk across a front porch, through a foyer, and into a vestibule whose main feature is a staircase leading up. There are three small dining rooms on the ground floor. Upstairs is a small bar (your best chance to eat at Primo in the summer if you don’t have a reservation), a small dining room that has a more bistro like feel to it, and an open room that serves as a private dining room for up to 14 people. Servers descend via a back stairway that leads to the kitchen. The hallways and doorways, the molding, the tongue-and-groove floors, the staircases all kind of whisper Home. The servers and cooks, they all work in a house, not a building, and this has its own impact. Service is casual, and the relationship between the servers and the cooks is not just cordial, it’s family-like, as much as front and back of the house can be, anyway.

Most important of all, perhaps, her food spirit pervades the place, her convictions about life as they’re reflected by the products she uses and the way she handles them — that’s really what Primo is about. Not foams and alginates, but a garden.” [,] It’s hard to cook out of a living garden. Melissa must cook whatever that bounty happens to be when it’s at its peak even if she wasn’t planning for it, not wasting a leaf.

Michael Ruhlman’s four chapters on The Power of the Branded Chef are instructive about the direction in which the stars of the food world are moving, but I read them with little joy. And yet, branding is a big part of the restaurant world and needed the same care and investigation as the individual restaurants to which I more comfortably relate. I want romance and there is much in this book to feed that desire, so slogging through branding and outposts and rollouts is a small price to pay.

The book closes with detailed chapters on Per Se and Masa at Columbus Circle in New York, with an expansive look at their chefs, Thomas Keller and Masa Takayama. This is a rare treat for someone who will probably never dine in that rarefied atmosphere and a fitting fillip for the book.

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