A writer enters the Culinary Institute of America, the Ivy League of cooking schools.
Ruhlman (Boys Themselves, 1996) began a love affair with food after an uncle passionately detailed in a letter a potato he'd been served years before at a New Orleans restaurant. Ruhlman entered the CIA with that perfect potato in mind. The CIA, as exacting as the agency with which it shares its abbreviated name, requires students to arrive with a set of freshly sharpened knives and to be familiar with videos such as "Shucking Oysters'' and "Calf Slaughter.'' Ruhlman enters the school with some trepidation, particularly as the first day's soup stock is made with 120 pounds of chicken bones. The actual work of cooking is demanding--students get burned, they must begin work at dawn to prepare for lunch, and they are expected to learn thousands of recipes--but few drop out. Cooking represents a measure of both science and excess--one teacher regales them with a mythical meal of ancient Rome: a cow stuffed with a pig stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a truffle wrapped in foie gras; only the truffle was eaten. Students are expected to work in restaurants during the school year, and Ruhlman effectively captures their excitement and exhaustion as they learn about the real world of cooking. But Ruhlman is not as fine with the details as a cook needs to be. He calls a Reuben a grilled cheese sandwich, and his response to a teacher's impassioned lecture on Alice Waters's ethic at Chez Panisse--which he sums up as "if we screw up the earth, we'll have rotten food''--is needlessly glib. While his insights into his teachers and students are often interesting, the book has little to say about the art of cooking and even less to say about how it all tastes.
An attractive mise en place, but one that lacks the simple artistry of that long-remembered potato.