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Carte du Jour, with Michelle Wildgen
From the palate of Michelle Wildgen, Tin House Magazine’s executive chef editor, comes our new monthly look at food writing.
Recently I began to realize that I will never cook professionally. I suppose I ought to have pieced this together sooner, given that in 37 years I have never held a cooking job or even been compensated in anything but possibly inflated thanks for my cooking. Also, I have a tendency to cut myself in spectacular and avoidable ways. But what can I say? It was nice to imagine that maybe in a different, less rigorously ten-fingered world, I might have been successful as a cook.
Part of the reason I accepted the death of this little dream was the time I’ve spent reading and re-reading Michael Ruhlman’s series on the craft of professional cooking: The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America; The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection; and The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen. They may have killed my hopes, but they’re just fun to read, dammit, so I can’t hold it against him.
The first book,The Making of a Chef, follows Ruhlman as he matriculates at the CIA and sets about learning firsthand what’s involved in a culinary career. The Soul of a Chef profiles different chefs to examine the various approaches they take in running their restaurants, and The Reach of a Chef depicts the new celebrity version of the chef’s life, the one that’s less about your kitchen garden and far more about international outposts, branding cookware, and scheduling Food Network appearances.
The fascination of these books comes from a number of sources: the vivid flashes of Ruhlman’s classmates and teachers at the CIA, the range of restaurants created by the chefs he profiles, and, for the food-obsessed, the ongoing discussion of a subject dear to my heart: how to prep, how to cook, how one fails in the kitchen and how one succeeds. But what it comes down to is the sheer pleasure of books about a workplace that is specialized and insular and a little off the wall, surrounded by mystique even as the actual practice of it is grueling, repetitive, and poorly paid.
Reading these books I began to understand just how random my own cooking was, how uneven my onion dice and how often I didn’t bother—just didn’t make the effort!—to, say, achieve the kind of sear I’d wanted on a piece of beef. I knew how to do it, but I just mucked along and called it good enough. And if there is one thing Ruhlman’s profiled chefs cannot abide, (nor, it becomes eventually clear, Ruhlman himself), it is cooking that is not methodical, that is ill-conceived or random, as mine tends to be. As you look through Ruhlman’s ongoing output, you realize that cooking—which may have originally been an interesting project but maybe one of many—has overtaken the man’s professional life. He writes about charcuterie and cooking ratios, he coauthors cookbooks, he authors his own. In that first book, The Making of a Chef, I think you can actually see the unfolding of an obsession that has continued to play out for years. Maybe this is what I like the most, the sense of an inside look not only at a career but at the writer himself, and the surprising intimacy of the fact that the reader may have glimpsed the turn in the path at about the same moment the writer does.