Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America

I never knew what it would take to become a chef. Now I know I'd never want to go through that.

That statement is one of the reasons Michael Ruhlman wrote this book. He wanted to know what it would take to become a chef through the Culinary Institute of America, and he knew that what he wrote about his two years there would either persuade aspiring cooks to attend, or tell people to stay away and choose another career path.

While most of you know that I enjoy cooking and baking (it's actually cathartic for me), I can tell you right now there's no way I would make it at the CIA. I mean, if I set my mind to it and I really wanted it, I'm sure I could graduate. But I doubt that I would truly enjoy what I was doing (that's the thing about school: it takes what you love and crams it down your throat until you don't even like it anymore...but that's another story).

Ruhlman does a great job of getting you into the daily lives of students at the CIA. The main focus of his work is ever-present: show the average person the kind of hard work and sacrifice it takes to become a good cook. But there's also the underlying story of Ruhlman's own goal to not just be a writer telling the school's and students' stories, but to actually become a cook himself. This, I think, is what ties the book together and makes it more than just a journalistic non-fiction read. Ruhlman's story is essential to the progression of the book; there's a circular journey rather than simply a linear Day One to Graduation feel.

It's obvious that Ruhlman is passionate about what he's learning and the people he meets. However, it does, at times, become tedious and confusing. He packs two years' worth of academic knowledge and people into 305 pages. Students (at least at the time - the book was published in 1996) had blocks of classes that could be as short as 7 days each. That means there are a lot of new people to introduce to the reader on a regular basis, and sometimes, at least for me, it was a bit hard to keep people straight. Another issue I had was some of the language, although this wasn't so much an issue as a slight annoyance at myself. I truly believe that if I knew French, I would be a better cook. At least I'd be able to understand the names of many of the dishes and items Ruhlman wrote about, not to mention I'd be able to pronounce them.

But, that aside, I learned a lot. I even learned a new phrase: "in the weeds." I'd never heard it before, and although Ruhlman didn't explain it (maybe he thought it was common knowledge?) it was pretty easy to realize it meant that a cook had fallen behind and was rushing just to keep up with the speed of the orders. While some parts, as I mentioned before, were a bit tedious (I really didn't need to know every ingredient that went into random meals) others were fascinating (it turns out I was interested in knowing exactly what ingredients were needed to make glace).

4 out of 5 stars. While this isn't a book I would sit down and read again, this is a book I would recommend. I learned so much and have a very deep appreciation for cooks everywhere, especially those that are formally trained. I definitely want to visit the CIA's four restaurants, where the students are both waiters and cooks. This book taught me that while I may not want to ever attend a cooking school, there is so much to learn about cooking and baking (because baking really is a different beast) and I'm grateful that I had an insider's view into the top cooking school in America.


  1. Amy, I am always very impressed by the books you choose to read! This is not a book that I would've walked past in the library and thought to check out-ever! But despite my lack of interest in cooking, I am going to look into this book because, a) your review was intriguing, and b) I am always interested in other peoples life experiences. Thanks for recommendation!

  2. You're welcome! I'm glad it intrigued you. I've actually been reading a lot of books outside of my usual niche lately, but I'm really appreciating what non-fiction can bring to the table. Turns out it's not all boring!