Undercover Gastronome

November 30, 2006
Michael Ruhlman '85

Michael Ruhlman '85. Walter Novak

For a gourmet like Duke student-chef Bryan Zupon, the decision not to channel his considerable culinary talents into a full-time career may seem lamentable. But, as journalist Michael Ruhlman '85 can attest, the life of a professional chef is far more grueling, and far less glamorous, than it sounds.

When Ruhlman went undercover as a student at the legendary Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in 1996, his goals were twofold. As a gastronome, he was determined to master the techniques and training required to become a professional-level chef. As a writer, Ruhlman wanted to capture the rigorous intensity of the experience for readers curious about what goes on behind the swinging doors of a successful commercial kitchen.

The resulting book, The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America (1997), turned out to be the first in a food trilogy that includes The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection (2000) and The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen (2006). He's also collaborated on several cookbooks: The French Laundry Cookbook and Bouchon with Thomas Keller, Charcuterie with Brian Polcyn, and A Return to Cooking with Eric Ripert. Although Ruhlman has also written nonfiction books about same-sex education, wooden-boat yards, and pediatric heart surgeons, his track record as a food writer has gained him the most visibility.

"I'm lucky that my interest in learning and writing about food coincided so felicitously with the country's emerging interest in food," says Ruhlman. "When I started [at CIA], food journalists, by and large, did not have any training in the culinary arts. So it gave me a real advantage."

The Chef trilogy captures behind-the-scenes accounts of what restaurant life is really like—the sinking, gut-wrenching feeling when the line gets backed up as new order tickets pile up; staff members who quit during a rush or don't show up at all; the physical toll of working on your feet, nonstop, in a crowded 105-degree kitchen for ten-hour shifts.

Since Ruhlman first donned a chef's jacket a decade ago, the public's growing fascination with food and the popularity of such 24/7 cable programming as The Food Network have given rise to the phenomenon of the celebrity chef. As he asks in his most recent book, when a chef's empire includes, say, a handful of restaurants, a slickly marketed line of spices and prepared foods, a couple of television shows, and full-time publicists and marketing managers, who is actually doing the cooking?

"I think that there is going to be a correction in our adoration of the chef," he says. "We are going to begin to appreciate those chefs who deserve to be appreciated and understand that not everybody, because they are a chef, deserves to be a celebrity. We are going to become more sophisticated about what the work entails and what is a good meal versus a great meal. And as we become more educated, we are going to care less about who the chef is than we are about the restaurant experience itself."

As he chops vegetables to make a mirepois for veal stock simmering on his stove—Ruhlman does all the cooking in his family—he reflects on the wave of attention being paid to experimental chefs whose ingredients lists include chemical additives such as powdered calcium chloride, xanathan gum, and sodium alginate, the better to froth up beet foams or make gelatinous molds that hold their shape despite temperature fluctuations. "Will the market support numerous molecular gastronomical havens? Probably not. They take a lot of work and are very expensive to run. There is also a very small market for it; people still want to eat ‘normal food.' Having said that, there is certainly room for experimentation. [Chefs like] Wiley Dufresne and Grant Achatz will advance things. They'll create fifty new dishes using unusual techniques, and a couple of those will catch on and ultimately become mainstream. Eventually, sous vide will be mainstream."

Bryan Zupon dreams of one day making a pilgrimage to Spain's inimitably outré El Bulli restaurant, where the thirty-five-dish tasting menu created by chef Ferrán Adrià started with a new take on the classic gin and tonic: a martini glass filled with gin foam poured over a cube of cucumber and topped with an orange-peel twist. Still, Zupon agrees that some of today's avant-garde chefs can go too far. He mentions one who insisted that diners wear masks while they ate so that their sense of taste was heightened by the deprivation of sight. Like Ruhlman, he has deeper respect for those chefs whose heart and soul are devoted to the craft of cooking rather than the cult of celebrity. After all, Zupon says, sometimes at the end of the day, there's nothing better than a simple, perfectly grilled steak with a side of crisp, golden fries.