A Plimptonesque writer finds further adventures, and misadventures, over an open range.
Building on The Making of a Chef (1997) and The Soul of a Chef (not reviewed), Ruhlman returns to the Culinary Institute of America, a one-time trade school that ascended to college status and acquired a student body to match—not only youngsters seeking to become chefs, but also older professionals engineering midlife career changes away from, say, brokering and toward, say, pastry-decorating. Ruhlman notes that in just the last few years Americans have been discovering that it’s possible to eat well, just as certain chefs have discovered that it’s possible to make sizeable fortunes from becoming brand names, with presences on the Food Network and in all the right magazines. Remarks one career adviser, circularly, “Not everybody likes a brand, but everybody likes a celebrity. . . . You become a celebrity because everybody likes your brand.” The rush to stardom benefits only a few, of course, leaving all those CIA enrollees who graduate only to work 80 hours a week for salaries in the low five figures most irritated—and eager to complain. Therein lies another change in culinary mores: The culture of complaint has entered the kitchen. Where it was once customary for someone to be fired for the quietest grumble—for “to allow people to complain opened up the doors to self-deception, laziness, and a lack of accountability”—whining is now de rigueur, coupled with an insistence that chefs not scream at their underlings, another traditional practice that’s becoming rarer in the face of this sensitive new workforce. Ruhlman rushes about the country, fascinated by celebrity chefs here, up-and-comers there, America’s changing food habits here, the underlings of the culinary world there, and his travels are wondrous to behold, especially when he hits Manhattan’s Masa sushi empire and its customary four-digit lunch bills.
True tales of the kitchen à la Anthony Bourdain: a pleasure for foodies, and an education of the palate and pocketbook.