The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen
Michael Ruhlman (Viking)
Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany
Bill Buford (Knopf)
Earlier this month I caught a rebroadcast of a radio interview with writer Frederick Kaufman in which he discussed his now notorious 2005 Harper's essay "Debbie Does Salad." In the magazine Kaufman and erotic photographer Barbara Nitke compared the conventions of Food Network shows--wet, steamy close-ups, rhythmic, repetitive editing, the "money shot" of the host slicing into the perfect pie--to those of the adult film industry. On the radio Kaufman went even further, arguing that the hit show Iron Chef could be read as classic fetish porn, a highly codified transformation narrative in which the main character--in this case the main ingredient, like squid--is changed from its ugly and pedestrian self into an object of beauty and desire.
This hilariously overwrought bit brought to mind two books that came out a few months back to a fair amount of acclaim: Michael Ruhlman's The Reach of a Chef and Bill Buford's Heat, both first-person examinations of America's exploding food culture. Ruhlman's book is the third in an informal series. The first, The Making of a Chef (1997), is his account of a year or so in the life of the country's preeminent cooking school, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. The Soul of a Chef (1999) examines the ideal of culinary perfection from three very different perspectives; it was the book that got me hooked on food writing.
In The Reach of a Chef Ruhlman revisits friends and haunts from the first two books, including Thomas Keller, the CIA, and Chicago wunderkind Grant Achatz, as he explores the changing role of the chef in an age when it's as important to be telegenic and market savvy as it is to be a good cook. It's a lot of ground to cover, but he tackles it gamely and finds plenty of interesting tales to tell. In the long chapter devoted to Achatz (whom he first met when the future star was working the fish station at Keller's French Laundry) Ruhlman adds depth and detail to his by-now familiar backstory--did you know, for example, that his creative explosion at Trio can be traced directly to the chill that socked the American restaurant industry in the months after September 11? With fewer mouths to feed, Achatz had more time to play in the kitchen.
But despite meticulous reporting and much elegant, meditative prose, the book falls short of its predecessors. It's badly edited, for one, with annoying repetitions, but more important it can be cripplingly reverent. When Ruhlman wrote The Making of a Chef he was already an accomplished writer of long-form, narrative nonfiction; his previous project had been a book about a private boys' school in Cleveland. A decade later he's one of the best known food writers in the country and a skilled cook to boot. In addition to the three Chef books he's collaborated with Keller on The French Laundry Cookbook (the ne plus ultra of coffee-table food porn) and coauthored a book on charcuterie with Brian Polcyn, one of the stars of The Soul of a Chef. Last year he became sort of a TV celebrity himself as a host and judge of the PBS reality show Cooking Under Fire. In other words, he's now an insider--on a first-name basis with the Kellers and Achatzes and Anthony Bourdains of the world--and sometimes he can't help fawning over his friends. "I saw the epitome of Melissa Kelly in the sheep's-milk ricotta, or rather in how she served it," he writes of the chef-owner of Primo, an acclaimed artisanal restaurant on the Maine coast. "The way she smiled and said exactly how she most wanted to eat it herself--it was seductive in the way she said it. She was conveying with her every cell, her love of this fresh sheep's-milk cheese."
Bill Buford is a ballsier writer, narrating the account of his own culinary awakening with a gusto that Ruhlman seems to have misplaced. "If you live in New York City, you will see him eventually (sooner if your evenings get going around two in the morning)," he writes of "Molto" Mario Batali, the American king of Italian cooking. Buford met him by inviting him to a dinner party. "One of my last images is of Batali at three in the morning . . . playing air guitar to Neil Young's 'Southern Man.' Batali was forty-one and I remember thinking it had been a long time since I'd seen a grown man play air guitar. He then found the soundtrack to Buena Vista Social Club, tried to salsa with one of the women guests (who promptly fell over a sofa), moved on to her boyfriend, who was unresponsive, put on a Tom Waits CD instead, and sang along as he washed the dishes and swept the floor."
The former fiction editor of the New Yorker and the founding editor of Granta, Buford ditched the life of letters in his late 40s to apprentice himself to Batali and, later, the "Dante-quoting butcher" of the book's subtitle. (Or at least he appeared to ditch it--in reality he first secured himself a plum book deal.) His story gallops from the kitchen at Babbo, Batali's NYC stronghold, to the studios of the Food Network to the fiefdoms of mercurial eccentrics in England (notoriously foulmouthed chef Marco Pierre White) and Italy (the aforementioned butcher).
Like Ruhlman, Buford weaves together multiple narrative threads. There's the tale of his trial by fire at Babbo--literally, as he burns his knuckles repeatedly trying to brown some short ribs. There's the story of Batali's rise to Food Network fame and the effect his mass-market success has had on his restaurant business. There's Buford's study of the arcana of butchery, an art of which, by volume's end, he's surprised to find himself a master. And there are pages upon pages of inquisitive, articulate side trips into the complicated lexicography of pasta, the mystical power of polenta, and the regional peculiarities of various cuts of beef. The organizing principle is simple: by learning to cook one learns the history of the world--and, conversely, the more people forget how to cook, the more that history is lost.
But more than anything Heat, like The Reach of a Chef, is a book about its author and the transformation food and cooking effects in him. "I had crossed over," says Buford, embarking on yet another trip to Italy. "I was no longer on the outside looking in. I had stopped being an author writing about the experience of the kitchen. I was a member of it."
Becoming an insider isn't as suffocating for Buford as it is for Ruhlman--he's too good a storyteller for that. But both writers have pulled off a neat trick. They've fetishized not just food and its milieu but their own learning processes, turning their personal odysseys into objects of desire. They're both the pornographers and the stars of their own movies. When you're done reading you may lust to don a chef's whites or butcher your own pig, but just as likely you'll find yourself fantasizing about what it must be like to be a well-connected writer hanging out in the best kitchens in the world.