Robyn's Reviews > The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection

The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman
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's review
Jul 21, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: culinary, nonfiction, bookcrossing, given-away
Read from July 21 to 23, 2012

Half-Price books again.

Overall, I'd say this would be a better book if Ruhlman had titled it something like "Mastery in Culinary Craft, Three Essays", instead of pretending there was any sort of continuous thread leading him from one project to the next. These were not unified at all. Ruhlman clearly selects great projects, because I keep reading his books even though the man drives me crazy (and not in a good way). I'd never pay full price for anything he's written, though.

Finished Part 1: Certified Master Chef Exam on 7/21. Less of this was about Ruhlman, who is usually so self-centered that he drags the story behind him like a dead weight. There was one short bit where he actually stopped bothering to attend the Exam, apparently because the whole thing wasn't about HIM! He's not cooking, nobody is evaluating him, nobody would notice if he weren't there, so he just doesn't go to some parts. It's ten days in which he has to do nothing but take notes and observe, and he couldn't keep his focus? I was really surprised that Ruhlman focused so hard on Brian Polcyn, because I actively disliked him. I wanted to like him, and if the story were being told about him in his life away from the Exam, I might have. The few paragraphs relating to his family and his restaurant made him seem like a much nicer guy than every single other word written about him. As it was, I continued to read while hoping he would fail. I wanted Lynn to do well, not because she's female and not because she'd be only the second woman to pass the Exam, but because she seemed like such a genuinely nice person. And I wanted Steve to pass, because again he seemed so nice, was clearly working hard, cared about the people around him, and seemed from the start to have the necessary skills and thought processes. But Brian? I didn't want his attitude rewarded with a pass. For results (view spoiler).

Finished Part 2: Lola, on 7/22. I think I would have enjoyed this section, because I am somewhat familiar with Chef Symon and think he's a great guy, except that Ruhlman didn't write much about either Symon or Lola. Oh, on the surface it seems as if he did. You get a complete menu listing, watch the process of selecting a new menu, see three separate nights at the restaurant, two important for publicity and one important for finances. But in truth, this section goes nowhere and is always returning to its real focus: Ruhlman himself. A chapter about Chef Symon and his background, then a chapter about Ruhlman, his CIA experience, and his chef snobberies. A chapter about Symon having local news present, then a chapter about Ruhlman and how he looks down on Symon's food for not being sauced (ending in a few pages about James Beard, much of which is how fat he was). A restaurant critic comes, and Ruhlman looks down on his ethics before being grateful for the man essentially giving him permission to be--as Ruhlman himself self-identifies--shallow and self-indulgent. He "can't help but be judgmental" of Chef Symon's not being as neat as Ruhlman wants in the plating of a dish. This section has no arc, meanders and doesn't get anywhere, and seems just an excuse for Ruhlman to espouse, once again, his snobbishness. There is plenty of story to tell when it comes to Chef Symon and Lola. Practically none of it is told here. (P.S. John Mariani's name and words do not need to be in italics. He is not a god. Nowadays, he's really not terribly important, most of the press he gets is when he's complaining about some chef or another not treating him as he thinks he should be treated.)

On to Part 3: Journey Toward Perfection! Should be interesting, as I'm very familiar with Keller and The French Laundry. Fortunately, only chapter one of this section (and the book's epilogue) is another All About Michael Ruhlman. Unfortunately, the entire rest of Part 3 is a rehash of The French Laundry Cookbook. There's nothing new here. Even the tiniest anecdotes (a customer, who works at another restaurant but will soon be working at TFL, brings his mom back to look at the kitchen after they eat, she whispers that it's like a watchmaker's shop. This is the entire story, and it is included both here and in TFL Cookbook. The rabbit story, which was my favourite part of TFL Cookbook, is practically word-for-word here) are just repetitions.

Epilogue: I completely disagree with Ruhlman's conclusions, I think he's got it exactly backwards, actually.

As to the actual writing quality, I've seen it said that Ruhlman describes food well, which covers up his poor writing skills. I have a hard time determining whether he's a strong writer, because the paperback editions of his books have such shitty editing. So many typos and technical writing errors, which editors should catch if the writer can't. ("...he says, nodding and smiling, knowingly. When you ask him his last name, he says, 'It means saddlemaker in Russian,' and smiles knowingly." Really? A knowing smile twice in 19 words?) ("Henin, a sturdy, fit man, a veteran of a dozen high-end kitchens and a former instructor at several culinary schools, is currently a consultant for Yosemite Concession Service, which handles the food for the park system and Ahwahnee Hotel there, was born during World War II in Lyons, France, the gastronomic capital of the Western world." That sentence is so poorly structured, at the very least it needs a "who" stuck in somewhere.) I loathe when a writer switches from present tense to past tense without cause, and Ruhlman does that in the beginning of Part 3. All past tense, then suddenly a new paragraph starts (not even a new section, just a hard return) and it's present tense. This actually happens a lot in Part 3, where Ruhlman goes from reporting what is meant to be happening right now to telling the story of what had happened...except both are things that happened in the same conversation. If Grant "says" something just before he "said" something else, there's a problem.

As I mentioned in my review of "Making of a Chef", if you don't already have a grounding in culinary arts or haven't read much food writing, you will be often lost. Do you know what a sautoir is? Because Ruhlman won't tell you, but he'll expect you to understand why Brian Polcyn didn't want to use one for his spaetzle. Know that Lutèce was a restaurant, and what type? What shape a quenelle is? What a lowboy is? You'll be skimming a lot if not, because Ruhlman doesn't explain. This makes for a faster (and, honestly, more enjoyable) read for those of us who do know, but I can't imagine it's fun for those who don't.

Oh, and they've got to take the Bourdain quote and Detroit Free Press blurb off the cover. Don't know what book they read, but it wasn't this one!
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Nikki You really don't like the writer, so this is more a review of him and less of the book. I think he got the Epilogue exactly right. I agree that he is pretentious but then all writing about food is pretty pretentious. Who are some food writers you like?

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