SILENCE HAS A NAME - Poetry Chapbook and CD, with Music by Mark Hanley

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Getting Inside the Great Chef's World

This is the second or third time I've picked up The Reach of A Chef, Professional Cooks in the Age of Celebrity by Michael Ruhlman and it's gripped me as much this time as the others, if not more so. I haven't read anyone who matches Ruhlman's insight, sensitivity and intelligence, describing the art of the chef in today's world. His is simply the best book on the subject I have read to date.

The Reach of A Chef explores the lives of such culinary luminaries as Thomas Keller, Melissa Kelly, Grant Aschatz and Masa Takayama, in amazing, often breath-taking detail. The book reads like a top-notch thriller.The reader is left not only wanting to taste great recipes, but meet the chefs, study and work with them. Ruhlman describes -- the innovative Aschatz, concocting recipes that are more like strange experiments at Alinea in Chicago; Kelly plucking fresh produce from her garden in Maine, demanding the best, proving over and over again that a powerful woman in the kitchen who also happens to be petite, cannot be underestimated; the quiet and intense Keller, managing four four-star restaurants on the east and west coasts -- the fourth being Per Se in New York City; and Masa, who is not interested in evolving a brand, but runs the most expensive restaurant in New York, where for $450 (including tip), a customer can expect to dine on food designed, prepared and served entirely as Masa sees fit.

In the end, one has to wonder, where will Masa, Le Bernardin and Per Se be 10 years from now, from the customer's standpoint? Will they still attract moneyed foodies? Or just clientele willing to relive the thrill of days gone by? It is clear that running a successful restaurant requires a specially driven individual, but developing a brand, as superstars Cat Cora, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and most notably, Emeril and Rachael Ray have done, requires a special kind of personality, not only driven, but infused with magical timing, focus, persistence and endurance.

Emeril was always a maniac in the kitchen, cooking fast and furiously, but not always the nice guy. In the early days, he cursed out employees, until, one night, in the middle of service, a restaurant's owner, passed him a piece of paper on which was written a life-changing message: "You're too damn smart to be so damn stupid." Emeril re-read the note when he got home that night and determined he was going to change his attitude and habits and become as supportive and positive as he could be. The first life changer, he claims, was a book he read called, The Magic of Thinking Big. In Emeril's world, anything is possible, and this is the key message of his brand, and perhaps the reason he attracts so many people. His enthusiasm is highly contagious.

Cora's branding name and theme is also the title of her second book, From the Hip. A Culinary Institute of America (CIA) graduate, she is now a celebrity chef, and a regular on Iron Chef America, where I recently saw her beat out a French chef contestant with her extraordinary focus and versatility, working a menu with cherries as a theme.

According to Ruhlman, a great chef must possess "infinite energy and stamina...and massive ambition." It's not just the massive energy and product of great American chefs Ruhlman brings to the reader, it's also their process and art. And this is where both his narrative and its central figures, as well as Ruhlman's skill at depicting them, transcend being merely compelling, and become sublime.

This, fellow foodies, is what it's all about:

"The enduring image I have from my short time in Masa's kitchen was from watching a lunch service.

"At this particular lunch service, there was a single customer, an older woman, seated centrally at the hinoki bar. Masa stood before her unsmiling but looking comfortable in his loose clothing, his round shaved head glowing in the carefully lighted space. He bowed in plying his trade, in cutting fish on his board with his gorgeous knife. He first served the series of nonsushi dishes, ginkgo nuts, the uni risotto for which he's famous, the lobster-and-foie shabu-shabu for which he should be famous, the elaborate blowfish dish, before moving into the sushi performance that included a dozen carefully prepared bites of toro, mackerel, grouper, shima aji, tai, hirame, ken, ika, tako, kanpachi, anago, ebi, eel. He cuts each piece before the woman, forms a small ball of rice and seasons it with a bit of fresh wasabi or one of a few simple sauces, folds the fish over the pillow of rice, and sets it on a dark stone disk in front of her. The woman lifts it with her hand and, with a small dip of her head, like a bow, eats it in a bite. 

"The meal lasted more than two hours. Occasionally, Masa would take a break in the kitchen, talk on his cell phone, to have some tea, who knows -- maybe check in with his bookie or reserve a Sunday tee time, or just relax for a moment. But when his customer, the old woman, had been alone for the right amount of time, he would return and resume his work.

"The entire restaurant was empty but for these two people, with fine spots lighting them both up vividly against the black walls of the restaurant, Masa slicing and serving exotic fish and the woman eating what he placed before her, all of it in perfect silence. I stood and stared transfixed from my hideout in the kitchen. They were beautiful to behold. A monk serving a monk." - From The Reach of A Chef, by Michael Ruhlman

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