Michael Ruhlman: The soul (and craft) of a food writer | Bleader

Michael Ruhlman: The soul (and craft) of a food writer

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Charcuterie at Balena.

Chefs, I sometimes feel, regard food writers mainly as a harmless form of stalker. But if you ever wanted to see a food writer—not a writer turned TV personality like Anthony Bourdain, but an actual, book-a-year making-his-living-at-it writer—treated as a rock god by a roomful of charcuterie-making chefs, you should have been at Balena last Tuesday at noon, when Michael Ruhlman came to talk, accompanied by cured meats from nine regional charcuterie makers such as Paul Virant (Perennial Virant), Cosmo Goss (Publican Quality Meats), and Chris Eley of Indianapolis's Smoking Goose.

In town to promote a revised edition of his and Brian Polcyn's 2005 Charcuterie, Ruhlman spent an hour in conversation with the editor of Plate, Chandra Ram, making food writing as down-to-earth, no-bullshit a craft as food creating. He found a natural analogy between writers and chefs in following your interests—he doesn't like the usual phrase "passion"—and honing your skills, while figuring that the money will follow when you get good at it. Part of the reason that it's a natural analogy is because chefs are forced by customers to have the discipline that writers have to develop to be successful—and it was training as a cook at the Culinary Institute of America that helped Ruhlman believe that he could crank out his first noncookbook food book (The Making of a Chef) in the four months his wife told him he had before they were broke, because he was a cook and cooks get it done.

The public conversation was mostly about food itself, but afterward, I sat down at Balena with Ruhlman for a few minutes and we spoke more directly about the craft of writing about food.

Michael Ruhlman talks to fans before the event at Balena.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Michael Ruhlman talks to fans before the event at Balena.

Michael Gebert: Your books come up so often when I talk with chefs about how they got into the business of making food—if you're a chef in your 30s, then The French Laundry Cookbook, which you wrote with Thomas Keller in 1999, probably hit you at a pretty pivotal moment in your development. And I feel like you helped make the broader audience receptive to thinking about how chefs think about things. Do you take any responsibility for the modern chef culture, or do you want to evade that?

Michael Ruhlman: I entered it just when it was taking off. The way I see it is, I caught the wave at the perfect moment. Our culture was just, just starting to embrace cooking and chefs. But they weren't so famous that [The Making of a Chef] was obvious, as it would soon become—I was the first person to document and write about culinary school. I just recognized something as it was beginning to happen. I liked it in the first place, I'd been cooking all my life, too, so it was just a natural. If I did anything it was just to perpetuate it, along with a number of other people, like Bourdain, like Thomas Keller, like Rachael Ray for that matter. Emeril Lagasse was just starting when I was starting.

The French Laundry Cookbook changed cookbooks so much by being about, not so much a chef's experiences—here's what I used to eat in Provence—but about their philosophies, about the meaning of food to them in stories like the one about the rabbits [a piece on how seriously you take meat after you've watched animals die for it]. How did it come about?

Thomas Keller, as is customary with that extraordinary man, knew that he didn't want a cookbook writer. He wanted a writer writer. And through what I think is grace, we found ourselves talking. I remember I went out there and first I said, let's just see if we get along. I kept saying something like, "In this cookbook I see—or excuse me, if I'm lucky enough to get the job," and he'd say "Will you stop with that? You're doing the book." And I knew that anyway, but I wanted to be respectful.

But we got along from the beginning. He cared about the same things I did. And as it turned out, I could begin to intuit really what mattered to him. And so, I had just learned all the fundamentals of cooking, and I was out with the one of the best practitioners of those fundamentals, who was also one of the most aware, thoughtful—not chefs, but people—that I've ever encountered. So it was a combination of my loving story, of isolating what's important, of his awareness of the world around him and of cooking, that brought that out.

He told me this rabbit story—it was one of many stories he told. Thomas is always talking about refinement, refinement, refinement. He said, let's talk about the tools of refinement, so there's a page called Tools of Refinement. It really was a combined work, originally written in third person, not from his voice, that's how much I reported it rather than wrote it as a cookbook. And I think that's why it's valuable, because it really gets his mind.

Who made the decision to make it first person? Because now that seems so obvious, that you want to leverage the celebrity of the chef.

It was the publisher, Ann Bramson. She said, this has to be in Thomas's voice. So I changed it.

So here's this very refined, cheffy book, and then you went 180 degrees with Charcuterie, which is not only very DIY, lots of cookbooks are about doing it at home, but specifically using salt and fat, which most cookbooks are all about avoiding. How did Charcuterie flow from The French Laundry Cookbook?

That flowed from me only. That's something that I happened to be passionate about—that I cared about, I don't like the word 'passion,' I wish I hadn't said that. I loved the idea that we created this extraordinary food, not to appreciate it for our own gratification, but for the survival of our species [through preserving meat]. And we hardly knew anything about it. It was going away, all we had in America was Oscar Mayer salami, which is cooked.

But I didn't know anything about charcuterie. I never write books because I know everything about it, I write books because I don't know anything about it. I write books to discover things. This was something that I wanted to explore, and I'd just met a very interesting character in Brian Polcyn, who had been hired to teach charcuterie at Schoolcraft College in Michigan. I called him and said I needed help with recipes—I hate recipes, I could give a shit about recipes. But I needed them for this book because people needed to follow them, and he had them, and he also had the expertise. So we could work together and I could use my love of the subject and my ability to romanticize and have fun with it, combined with his knowledge of it and my ability to ask questions and learn the craft myself from somebody who already knew how to fit, but didn't know how to articulate it and write it down like I could. So that's how Charcuterie came about.

Charcuterie from Paul Virant.

So why do you hate recipes?

I hate recipes because we are so reliant on them. Recipes are not bad. I hate our reliance on them, and therefore I preach against the need for them. I think if you need to follow recipes, then you've gone down the wrong path.

If you already know how to cook and want a specific recipe for, say, your mom's meatballs, then a recipe is good. I've got a recipe for meat dumplings which I tried, which is part of my family history, and they were an epic fail. I completely screwed it up. The recipe's written in hand by my great-grandmother, the dough was a potato-flour dough wrapped around cooked meat, it was basically a way to use leftovers. I completely fucked it up. It really pissed me off.

So, that recipe that I really wanted—did not serve me well. To write a perfect recipe would take a book in itself. How can you possibly get all the nuances? In my book Twenty I say, give me a recipe for buttered toast. You'd think that would be pretty simple. Well, what kind of bread are you using? How cold is the bread? What kind of knife do you use? How thick do you cut it? How do you know when it's done? How cold is the butter? Because if it's too cold, you're going to hammer the toast. So even with a recipe for buttered toast, it's impossible to write accurately what will work in every situation.

And then there's your new The Book of Schmaltz, which started as an app for the iPad. I once spoke to Jennifer McLagan, who wrote Fat and Bones, but I think even she wouldn't have pitched a book called Schmaltz.

Well, we didn't pitch a book called Schmaltz either; we published it ourselves because I didn't think anybody would be interested in it. But I was. We wanted to experiment with this new thing [creating an app], because I'm always interested in doing new stuff. I get bored very easily.

And [a book on schmaltz] turned out to be a great idea, [publisher] Little, Brown said this is a great idea, no one's ever done it. Even the paragons of Jewish cuisine never touched it, Joan Nathan and Arthur Schwartz and others. They took the party line, fat's bad, use vegetable oil. Schmaltz was once the primary cooking fat of a large number of people, the Ashkenazi Jews. It's what held them together. And for a culture and religion that understands so well the importance of community and staying together, this is after years of persecution and pogroms and too many things to name, it's so awful what the Jews have been through. But because of that they understand sticking together and community and taking care of their own. And schmaltz was the one thing that they shared. And so to lose that seems an awful shame. So I'm glad to be the goy that gave the fat back to the Jews.

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