In his prior book, "The Making of a Chef", Michael Ruhlman wrote about what its like to attend the Culinary Institute of America and go through a rigorous chef training program. In "The Soul of a Chef", Ruhlman writes about the next step - being a professional chef and reaching for that always elusive standard of excellence. If you enjoyed TMOAC (a good book) and learning about the CIA, you'll enjoy TSOAC even more.
TSOAC is three stories. In the first, Ruhlman sits in and observes seven chefs, and one in particular, as they attempt to pass the ten-day Certified Master Chef examination, a rigorous test with a low passage rate. In the second, Ruhlman tells the story of Lola, a restaurant in his home town of Cleveland, and of Michael Symon, Lola's owner/chef and a rising star in his profession. And in the third, Ruhlman tells the story of Thomas Keller, the head chef of the French Laundry in Napa Valley, which some critics have declared to be the finest restaurant in America.
For the home cook who occasionally fantasizes about being a professional chef, TSOAC will be both stimulating and sobering. Being a chef may be interesting, but its not easy; in fact its damn hard work. The anxiety level created by the Master Chef Exam, the pressure Symon goes through to perform for reviewers and the demand for absolute perfection that Keller imposes on himself are all highly intense experiences - perhaps even to the point of being self-destructive.
Ruhlman is not only an observer, he is also participant in a sort of George Plimpton-like manner. In writing TMOAC, Ruhlman attended CIA classes as a student for a year. Between TMOAC and TSOAC, he worked as a cook for a period of time at a Cleveland restaurant. He knows many of the examiners in the Master Chef exam from his school days at the CIA. He helped out a little in Lola's kitchen. And while he did not cook at the French Laundry, he did spend part of his time there helping Keller write a cookbook. One gets the feeling that Ruhlman may be suffering from an identity crises - "Am I a writer about cooks, or a cook who also writes?", but for the most part his perspective is helpful. There is some enjoyment in hearing Ruhlman describe with some level of experience what its like for a restaurant to hit a rush on a big night, even if he is only a "paper chef".
Towards the end of his story about Lola (Part Two of TSOAC), Ruhlman is having dinner with a group of people that includes a restaurant critic of national repute. Ruhlman asks him whether he ever worries that being a food critic is in the end a shallow and self-indulgent way to spend one's life. The critic responds that he has thought about that and goes on to explain how a cookbook helped unite Italy by creating a common language and suggests that if a single cookbook can have such an impact, then the topic may not be so trite after all. Writing about cooking in America right now involves a subject of potential importance. There is lots of talk about a current culinary revolution, but no one has yet clearly defined exactly what that means. Ruhlman is helping us do that.
In the end, TSOAC is not just a book about a cooking exam and two cooks, its about what cooking and restaurants have become in America. Its a subject that is slowly becoming an important part of America's cultural fabric and, as with any such subject, it needs its commentators. Ruhlman is fulfilling an important role. We can only hope he will not conclude that the topic is too unimportant for further study.