Monday, June 9, 2008

French Laundry at Home Extra: Q&A with Michael Ruhlman

Many people have food and taste memories. Many also have music memories. I feel lucky also to have not just food, taste and music memories, but also pretty vivid reading memories. I can look at almost any book on my bookshelf (or in the many boxes in my attic) and tell you when I read that book, where I was when I read it, and how long it took me to get through it. I remember certain books from my childhood that way, too. I read What's For Lunch, Charley? when I had to sit out in the hall as punishment in 2nd grade for blurting out an answer without raising my hand. I read Harriet the Spy for the first time when I was in third grade, and home sick with a cold. I don't know what the common thread is, or what the triggers are that make me remember all these details around reading, but I feel fortunate to have had books in my life that have had such a profound impact on me that I remember every nuance about having read them.

One of those books is Soul of a Chef. I remember stopping at the bookstore on the way home from work on a Friday night, picking up my usual stash of gossip magazines, and adding Soul to the pile. It was the winter of 2003, President's Day weekend, and the beginning of a much-needed three-day break for me at the time. The weather forecasters here in the DC area were predicting a snowstorm later in the weekend, but I had already done my shopping a few days earlier and was well-stocked, food-wise. I'd planned on cooking a lot that weekend anyway, and didn't want to deal with the typical Friday crush at the grocery store which I knew would be a thousand times worse that week because of the snowfall prediction.

I got home and settled in with my pile of magazines and some Chinese takeout (crispy beef, kung pao chicken, and steamed dumplings, in case you were wondering). That had been my Friday night ritual for some time, and it seemed a fitting way to end what had been a particularly stressful week.

Just before heading off to bed, I put Soul of a Chef on top of the magazine pile, knowing I'd start reading it the next day. My elbow was killing me (an old injury that always signaled a coming snowfall), so I took some Advil and went to bed.

I woke up Saturday morning to find a few inches of snow on the ground, so I turned on the TV and watched what would later become 24-hour news coverage of the blizzard that was about to pummel the region. Sure enough, from Saturday through Monday, three feet of snow covered the town. For some people this would be a nightmare, but not me. I love snow. I love the quiet blanket it becomes. I love the crisp whiteness, and honestly, I'm most content when I can sit on a chair by the window and just watch it come down for hours and hours.

So that's what I did. I sat on a big, overstuffed chair by the window, curled up under a heavy, brown wool blanket, and read Soul of a Chef , taking breaks only to watch the snow. I read the entire book that day, and went to bed dreaming of chopping and cooking. I woke up Sunday morning planning to shovel and do some cooking of my own, but instead stayed inside the whole day as the sleet and ice storm portion of the blizzard moved through. I walked into the kitchen to see what I might want to make to eat, and passed by Soul sitting on the counter where I'd left it the night before. Instead of cooking, I picked up the book, went back to my chair, and for the second day in a row, read that book cover-to-cover, picking up on the details and nuances I'd missed the first time around. The snow and sleet fell harder that day, but I barely noticed. I couldn't stop reading.

I didn't cook a thing that entire weekend. It seems like such a contradiction and almost blasphemous to admit that while I read those two days, I ate an entire box of Pop Tarts, a bag of pretzels, and leftover Chinese food. I just couldn't put the book down long enough to focus on anything in the kitchen. Plus, I knew anything I made wouldn't be as amazing as the dishes I was reading about in the book.

I don't know if I'm the only person whose brain works this way, but every now and then a book will stick with me for a few weeks after I've finished reading it... the stories invading my brain when I least expect it. The same thing happened with Soul of a Chef. At the time, I was doing some consulting work for a housing-related nonprofit, and I can so clearly remember sitting in an overly heated conference room, listening to people drone on and on about inclusionary zoning and risk-based pricing of mortgage-back securities, and all I could think about was what Michael Symon might be cooking at that very moment... or what Brian Polcyn looked like... or what the kitchen at The French Laundry smelled like. It was all-consuming, and I thought to myself, "who is this Michael Ruhlman who wrote this book with these incredible stories that I can't stop thinking about?" And, I've read everything he's written since then.

So, why am I telling you all this? Well, it's a very long, roundabout way of saying that if you had told me back then that I'd actually get to meet this author whose books have had such an impact on me, I'd have told you to put down the crack pipe.

Fast-forward to today and I feel so fortunate to have met and gotten to know Michael Ruhlman over the past year and a half. Not only is he an amazing storyteller, he is also a man of character, integrity, great wit, and undeniable smarts. He found out about this blog not long after I started it, and much to my surprise and delight has been incredibly supportive and wonderful, even when I screw up (or write fiction about him giggling and snorting). And for that, and a million other things, I am grateful.

I'm also quite honored that despite his incredibly busy schedule, he set aside some time for a brief Q&A about The French Laundry Cookbook and a few other things. Enjoy.

* * * * *

Carol: Next year is the 10-year anniversary of The French Laundry Cookbook's publication. But, knowing book production schedules, I'm guessing that 10 years ago today, you were probably still working on the narrative and adding the final touches to the book. Can you tell me a little bit about what that writing process was like?

Michael Ruhlman: It was a really important time in my life. Everything was just about to change. Once the contract went through for that and for Soul of a Chef, I quit my job as a line cook (I’d been there all of four months) and flew out to California for the month of February 1998. I lived in a room in Keller’s house and more or less hung out, taking notes in the kitchen, interviewing purveyors in Napa and Sonoma, drove up and spent the night with Don and Sally Schmitt, who sold the restaurant to Keller. And I’d watch service at night. When Thomas had a night off we’d all go out to dinner. I basically just heard a lot of stories about his life as a cook and we talked a lot about food. Then, like any other story I report, I went home and began to write.

Carol: We all know you love food, but I can't imagine working on this book was all rainbows and unicorns. What were some of your biggest challenges on this project? Were there ever times you got frustrated or just couldn't type another word? Did you get "fooded-out" at any point?

MR: Actually, no. I got fooded out by the time I finished Soul, which followed The French Laundry Cookbook. Actually the most frustrating part was working with the publisher. Artisan had perhaps never seen a cookbook written like a novella with recipes. I got a manuscript back with big strokes through entire stories that read “kill this,” and “I don’t understand what this is about.” The late Cliff Morgan who designed the book with Level partner David Hughes, originally did a jacket that had type on it, the first words of the book, “It was a sad time in my life…” Cliff and Dave were fired from the project by the publisher.

Through the efforts of Thomas and Susie Heller, Cliff and Dave were returned to the job after a design by an alternative, and I got to write more of what I wanted.

Interestingly though, I wrote the stories as third person stories, as journalism. The publisher, Ann Bramson, who does extraordinary books, insisted that they be rewritten in first person from Thomas’s point of view, which in hindsight was good for the book.

Carol: That brings me to my next question -- one of my favorite parts of the book is how the purveyors are featured. It's hard to find good storytelling in a cookbook; most of the time it feels so forced. But in this case, it's the stories that really showcased this (to me, anyway) as a new way to write a cookbook. Was that the plan from the beginning?

MR: This was Thomas’s request and one I gladly embraced. The morning after my first meal at The French Laundry, Thomas and I had breakfast down the street at Gordon’s, I think it’s called—I remember it because Versace had been killed the day before—and Thomas said, "I want this book to be filled with stories; I like the European cookbooks with lots of stories in them." And I said, "Excellent, because that’s exactly what I do."

Carol: Have you made any of these dishes at home for friends and family?

MR: Bien sûr. But as with most cookbooks, I like the base recipes and technique. The pasta for instance and the agnolotti technique... butter-poached lobster I’ve done a lot.

Carol: What advice do you have for the home cook who wants to attempt these dishes?

MR: Read them through, plan them out well. Be organized. None of them are difficult really, there are just a lot of steps so you need to have good mise en place.

Carol: The French Laundry Cookbook was and still is a defining cookbook of its time. A hundred years from now, when culinary and cultural historians look back on the book, what do you think it will say about the way we approached food?

MR: I hope they’ll say this was a sign of a renaissance that has helped us save the earth, grow great food, and eliminate hunger and famine.

Carol: With the growth and reach of Food Network, PBS, and shows like Top Chef, more and more people of all walks of life are talking about and learning about food. What do you think food television in general is doing well, and what could be done better?

MR: The best thing the Food Network has done is draw huge numbers into the kitchen who might not otherwise have cooked. I’d like to see more teaching on fundamental technique, but that’s my bias. Its bias is entertainment, not information, which is the nature of television.

Carol: You've said publicly that you think there are too many cookbooks and food books available to the public. If you had to distill the characteristics of what makes a book "worth buying," what would those characteristics be?

MR: Good cookbooks inspire you to cook on your own and for others and to try new techniques and combinations.

Carol: Any pet peeves when it comes to food and cooking and how it's covered or debated in the media?

MR: A gushing emphasis on “great new recipes” and trendy ingredients. We now have literally countless recipes available in a blink.

Carol: It's been written about on a number of food blogs, so I'm curious to know your take on why we see more men in leadership roles in the kitchen, rather than women. Why do you think that is?

MR: Historically a guild profession, run by men, and not the most refined sorts one finds in society. Also the work was hard with lots of heavy lifting. The fairer sex was not always welcomed. Those that are in the kitchen now owe it to their sisters who put up with a lot of brutish behavior in order to pave the way.

Carol: You've mentioned on your blog that of your two children, your daughter is becoming a more adventurous eater while your son is not necessarily so. I'm sure a lot of parents encounter similar challenges -- so what's your advice on a) dealing with picky eaters, and b) encouraging kids to be more adventurous in their eating?

MR: We always encourage, make all the food available, force at least one taste but ultimately let them eat as they wish. I believe that given abundant fresh food, our bodies will tell us the best things to eat, if we have the sense to listen. It may be fun to eat a whole bag of chips or a Big Mac, but listen to how your body feels after.

Carol: When you have friends over for dinner on a Saturday night, what do you cook for them?

MR: Braises, because they’re both economical and delicious.

Carol: Is there any food you will not eat? Ever. In a million years. Because it's so gross that even thinking about it makes you gag?

MR: I really don’t like to eat calves liver. I tried again last summer in Paris—it was spongy and nasty. Give me tripe any day!

Right. Because tripe is "terrific."

Thank you, Michael.

* * * * *

Up Next: Île Flottante

Read My Previous Post: Fava Bean Agnolotti with Curry Emulsion


Anonymous said...

That was wonderful. I have enjoyed seeing Michael on Anthony's show, and "Elements of Cooking" has taught me more about how to make good food than any other book I own. So I've been a Ruhlman fan for some time now.

Thank you for posting that!

Kitt said...

Great interview! How nice that you have gotten to know each other and become friends.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this -- I love his writing, as well, so I think I'll go over to Amazon and see what I don't yet have, and buy it.

Victoria said...

Just beautiful. Thank you.

Natty said...

Time to reread Soul of a Chef. Great interview!

Anonymous said...

Once again so very cool Carol. I love his writing so this was a great addition. It's good to know that you have the same opinion of him as I do. I feel that his persona really comes through in his writing. I have to say though that I refuse to believe that he actually likes tripe and would willingly eat/order it. It just can't be so.

amber said...

great interview. it was a combination of his and bourdain's books that helped push me further into the kitchen and to tackle some real cooking, not just the "semi-homemade" or "30 minute or less" variety. i love it when my favorite folks cross paths. :)

Heather said...

Love him! Great interview, I'm terribly jealous. Ruhlman writing (much like yours) makes the reader feel like they know him. I can't help but think that hanging out with Ruhlman and Bourdain would be the highlight of a lifetime.

Anonymous said...

Soul of a Chef is on my shelf at home. Can't wait to read it.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful interview. I also loved the description of your "reading memories", which reminded me of the first time I read soul of a chef (last November on a flight from Detroit to San Diego- and reread it the following week!)


Joseph Bayot said...

Soul of a Chef is definitely a dog-eared constant on my night table, if I ever want a quick fix before I go to bed.

Thanks for the interview. I enjoyed reading it.

Chris said...

I just picked up Soul and Elements.
Elements is on the table at the moment but I am looking forward to reading Soul.
I am well on my way to owning all of MR's culinary books and can say that I have enjoyed everything I have read so far.
Carol, Thanks for the interviewing
MR, Thanks for being interviewed.

Anonymous said...

I am off to buy Soul of a Chef...since I already have the FL cookbook.

krysta said...

I was the same way with Soul of a Chef, I wondered what Michael Symon looked like and so wanted to hear his laugh. I've learned more about cooking from Ruhlman's books than any other. Thanks for such a wonderful post...kinda jealous too.

Anonymous said...

Did you actually meet Mr. Ruhlman or conduct the interview over the phone? Just curious! In everything I've read and seen, he seems like a cool person, very down to earth. Another great entry.

Jesse Rubin said...

how funny, I am on a business trip and just picked up Making and Soul. Thanks for posting this.

Anonymous said...

Having had lunch with MR on Friday last along with nine other food types, I can attest that he really is a nice guy.

Interesting comment about the liver, since one of the dishes we served (we did all the cooking) was a pate with both ground pork liver and whole chicken livers. He didn't seem to have any trouble with it. This wasn't from Charcuterie, but we did have both bacon and sausages from that book.

He also signed books for us. Really a gentleman.

We followed up the day with dinner at Lola, which was excellent.

Anonymous said...

Nice interview. You don't like calf liver?? I wouldn't have guessed that.

Carol, I enjoyed your recollections of reading "Soul." It's a book that changed my life, for sure. I read it in January, 2007, and by February, I was cooking out of FLC. Big pot blanching--green beans--was my first dish.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a wonderful interview with the wonderful Mr. Ruhlman...
I too have TFL cookbook and have not ventured to use it yet...after 6 years of ownership - you give me inspiration.
I love your blog and will return often...and will take your advice and pour a glass of wine and read on...can't right now as it's 9 AM! :)

Thank you for the wonderful post...

Casey said...

Superb interview, Carol. I adore Michael's books, including his non-food ones. Several months ago he did a brief interview with me, answering questions on his favorite writing professor at Duke and the current state of his home remodeling project.

Tiffany said...

I just found your blog via another of my fave foodie blogs. It was such great timing since I am in the middle of my second read of "Soul of a Chef." The first time I read it was my sophomore year in college, about a year before I became obsessed with food and cooking. Now, with some experience under my belt, the book is even more meaningful. Great posts!

Arundathi said...

That sounded like me reading the book - except change that from snow to rain! I did read it twice in a row and the drove in the rain to the closest B&N and picked up his other books! He's just an amazing writer.

Anonymous said...

Reading this post gives me the "chills" and recalling my time in the shitter where I read all three "...of the Chef" books (not all the same time of course). Ruhlman's life depiction of a cook and chef has redirected my life in general.