Michael Ruhlman’s book, The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection is a fascinating look into three distinct aspects of cooking: culinary school, owning a restaurant, and developing recipes. I was excited to learn Ruhlman is from my hometown, Cleveland, and that one of the restaurants he profiled in detail was Lola Bistro & Wine Bar, owned by Michael Symon, who currently stars on the Food Network on both the Iron Chef and Dinner: Impossible shows.
Ruhlman separates the book into three sections that give the reader a clear picture into what chefs may go through to realize their dreams. The first section, “Certified Master Chef Exam (Or the Objective Truth of Great Cooking)” follows the journey of Brian Polcyn, a chef attempting to pass the certified master chef exam at the Culinary Institute of America. The exam is an expensive and exhausting process whereby chefs from across the country strive toward winning the title of “certified master chef.” This is the equivalent of an expert in the field and can open a variety of doors for those that win. Ruhlman does an excellent job making the reader truly care about Polcyn and the other chefs he competes with.
In part two, “Lola,” Ruhlman follows the adventures of Michael Symon, executive chef and owner of Lola Bistro & Wine Bar in Cleveland, Ohio. The fun-filled atmosphere Symon creates in his kitchen and in the dining room of his restaurant is clearly portrayed, and Ruhlman’s descriptions would make anyone want to try the food at Lola. Symon’s unique approach to cooking and positive attitude is displayed in the way he interacts with his guests and the clear popularity of his restaurant.
“Journey Toward Perfection,” part three, made me want to visit Napa Valley as soon as possible. Thomas Keller, executive chef and owner of the famous French Laundry restaurant in California, describes how he makes his one-of-a-kind dishes that cause people to fly in from all over the world to experience his cooking. And he has no formal culinary training of any kind! I appreciated the humanity Ruhlman brought to Keller’s story, describing his struggle to buy the restaurant and maintain it in his first years of ownership. I also admired Keller’s approach to business, striving to use every part of the animals he uses in unique and flavorful dishes – including popular dishes he has never tried himself! In one chapter, Ruhlman asks Keller what he likes about one of his most popular dishes, “Pearls and Oysters” (an oyster on top of a bed of tapioca “pearls”). Keller replied, “I’ve never tasted it. You don’t have to put your hand in the fire to know it’s hot.”
Ruhlman elaborates on the purpose of his book at the end:
Keller, in his 25 years as a chef, I guessed, had fed one million people. Probably more. This was a good thing. He was a good, thoughtful cook. The work had provided him a livelihood. It had made him famous in food circles in his country and beyond. But more important than that, and this was everything, it was the good use of one life, and he knew it. No less so for Brian Polcyn and for Michael Symon. By the time they reached Keller’s age, they would likely have served a million people or more. Maybe they already had. They all were great chefs; they never forgot for a moment what the work was all about: to cook for people and to make them happy.
The best part of the book were the recipes at the end! A few I wanted to try are listed below. If you’re interested in the New York Times book review of The Soul of a Chef, check out Anthony Bourdain’s article here.
Corn Crepes (Michael Symon, Lola Bistro & Wine Bar)
- 1/2 cup corn kernels
- 1/2 cup flour
- 2 eggs
- 4 oz. milk
- 1 tsp. corn oil
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- Pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup red bell pepper, chopped
- 1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped
- 1/4 cup scallion, chopped
Puree all ingredients in food processor till combined.
Pour a tsp. of oil into a small hot saute pan or crepe pan. Ladle in 2 oz. of batter. Cook till lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Flip crepe, continue cooking for about another minute; remove to a rack to cool. Repeat with rest of batter. (Michael serves with BBQ sauce and sour cream. Serves 4.)
Crab Tater Tots (Michael Symon, Lola Bistro & Wine Bar)
- 2 lbs. potatoes, peeled
- 2 oz. butter
- 3 yolks
- 3 oz. flour
- 4 oz. bread crumbs
- 2 tbs. chives
- 8 oz. lump crab meat
- Oil for deep frying
Boil potatoes till tender through the center; drain, let moisture steam off; then rice, mash, or pss through a food mill. Work in the rest of the ingredients while potatoes are still hot. When the mixture has cooled, incorporate the crab. Form into spheres the size of golf balls. Deep fry (makes 18 tater tots; serves 6).
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