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The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America [Paperback]

Michael Ruhlman
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (144 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Journalist Michael Ruhlman talked his way into the CIA: the Culinary Institute of America, the Harvard of cooking schools. It had something to do with potatoes a grand-uncle had eaten deacades earlier, how the man could remember them so well for so long, buried as they had been in the middle of an elegant meal. Ruhlman wanted to learn how to cook potatoes like that--like an art--and the CIA seemed the place to go. The fun part of this book is that we all get to go along for the ride without having to endure the trauma of cooking school.

Ever wonder what goes on in a busy kitchen, why your meal comes late or shows up poorly cooked? The temptation is to blame the waiter, but there are a world of cooks behind those swinging doors, and Ruhlman marches you right into it. It's a world where, when everything is going right, time halts and consciousness expands. And when a few things go wrong, the earth begins to wobble on its axis. Ruhlamn has the writerly skills to make the education of a chef a visceral experience. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

YAAThe Culinary Institute of America is known as "the Harvard of cooking schools" and many of this country's best-known chefs are graduates. Ruhlman enrolled as a student with the intention of writing this book, which begins as a chronicle of the intense, high-pressure grind of classes and cooking. However, it turns into an engrossing personal account as, his every effort critiqued, the author determines to become a student and not just impersonate one. YAs will enjoy Ruhlman's anecdotes about his instructors and his classmatesYsome of whom are still in their teens. The appendix offers a chart showing the course work for associate degrees. This will appeal to anyone aspiring to a career as a chef as well as to those interested in food preparation, presentation, and the restaurant industry in America.APatricia Noonan, Prince William Public Library, VA
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

After reading this title, boot camp and law school will seem like child's play. Ruhlman enrolled in the prestigious and expensive Culinary Institute of America (CIA) to get both material for a book and a culinary education. However, the drive and commitment required from day one, the demand for speed and precision, the pressure and perfectionism of the job?all hilariously and touchingly told?immediately erase his writer's detachment. But the tale goes beyond Ruhlman's anecdotes; he describes the curriculum with objective detail, so the reader also learns how a chef makes a flawless stock (and repairs a flawed one at a moment's notice), organizes the cooking station, prepares gourmet meals for crowds, and attains excellence and recognition. The short chart at the end shows the course work for the CIA's associate degrees. An enjoyable read, recommended for most collections and required for aspiring great chefs.?Wendy Miller, Lexington P.L., Ky.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

A writer enters the Culinary Institute of America, the Ivy League of cooking schools. Ruhlman (Boys Themselves, 1996) began a love affair with food after an uncle passionately detailed in a letter a potato he'd been served years before at a New Orleans restaurant. Ruhlman entered the CIA with that perfect potato in mind. The CIA, as exacting as the agency with which it shares its abbreviated name, requires students to arrive with a set of freshly sharpened knives and to be familiar with videos such as ``Shucking Oysters'' and ``Calf Slaughter.'' Ruhlman enters the school with some trepidation, particularly as the first day's soup stock is made with 120 pounds of chicken bones. The actual work of cooking is demanding--students get burned, they must begin work at dawn to prepare for lunch, and they are expected to learn thousands of recipes--but few drop out. Cooking represents a measure of both science and excess--one teacher regales them with a mythical meal of ancient Rome: a cow stuffed with a pig stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a truffle wrapped in foie gras; only the truffle was eaten. Students are expected to work in restaurants during the school year, and Ruhlman effectively captures their excitement and exhaustion as they learn about the real world of cooking. But Ruhlman is not as fine with the details as a cook needs to be. He calls a Reuben a grilled cheese sandwich, and his response to a teacher's impassioned lecture on Alice Waters's ethic at Chez Panisse--which he sums up as ``if we screw up the earth, we'll have rotten food''--is needlessly glib. While his insights into his teachers and students are often interesting, the book has little to say about the art of cooking and even less to say about how it all tastes. An attractive mise en place, but one that lacks the simple artistry of that long-remembered potato. -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"[A] well-reported and heartfelt cook's tale . . . Ruhlman communicates the passion that draws the acolyte to this precise and frantic profession. "-The New York Times Book Review
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Michael Ruhlman is the author of twelve books, including The Elements of Cooking and The French Laundry Cookbook. He lives in Cleveland with his wife, daughter, and son and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Gourmet.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Making of a Chef
Part I
Skill Development
Secret Sharer
The bundle waiting for me on the couch had been secured with butcher's string and looked as ordinary as laundry. I tucked it beneath my arm and strode out of the office and through Roth Hall, the main building of the Culinary Institute of America, slipped into a bathroom, and closed myself off in the farthest stall. I removed my sweater and jeans and stuffed them into my leather shoulder briefcase. I untied the bundle, shook out one of two pairs of houndstooth-check trousers, and stepped into them, then buttoned the immaculately white, double-breasted chef's jacket over my white T-shirt. I jammed the extra set of pants into the briefcase along with my street clothes, snapped it shut, grabbed my black overcoat and knife kit, and pushed out of the stall.
I stopped at the mirror. I had not been in a uniform since high school football and I sent myself an ironic lift of the eyebrows, then an uncertain shrug. The figure in the mirror--dressed as a culinary student--looked like me and did not. The figure seemed more a secret sharer. I could not dwell long on this uniformed other self--I had only a few minutes to find K-8, the Skills kitchen run by Chef Michael Pardus.
I hustled down a dark brick corridor--to my right a long, glassed-in kitchen, to my left display cases inlaid into the brick facade. I turned left at Alumni Hall, the main dining room, once the chapel of this former Jesuit monastery, strode past a dishwasher's station, and turned left again. Thefirst kitchen on my left was K-8 and I would arrive, thankfully, a minute or so before two, when this class was scheduled to begin.
I stepped through the doorway and eighteen pairs of eyes cranked in my direction.
Chef Pardus halted in mid-sentence. The seventeen students, already lined at attention along four large stainless-steel tables, two on either side of the room, regarded me curiously. Chef Pardus wore the standard chef-instructor uniform, similar to the students' but with fancy round white buttons on his chef's jacket running up each breast, green and gold stripes along the collar, a green name tag pinned above his breast pocket, and a paper toque that was an inch or two taller than the students'. He was trim, measured about five feet ten inches without the hat, which revealed a few light brown curls kept well above his collar, and he wore wire-rimmed glasses.
"Michael," the chef said. We'd been introduced the previous week, and he had given me course information and homework assignments.
"Yes, Chef," I said. "Sorry I'm late."
"You're number eighteen. I've put you at Table One." He pointed to my spot, smack in front of him at the head of the class. He stood in front of a beat-up, circa-1960 metal desk. Behind him on the board in bright ink marker he had written:
DAY ONE
2# mirepoix 2 tomato concassé 1 sachet 1/2 minced onion
I took my spot and shoved my belongings on the shelf of the steel table.
"Do you have a hat?" Chef Pardus asked.
"They didn't give me one," I answered
"A neckerchief?"
"No."
"You need to have those in this kitchen. I'll call central issue in a minute and see if we can hook you up." Chef Pardus seemed a little annoyed. I was late and my uniform was incomplete.
But I was here, and that's all that mattered now, the physical fact of my presence. This was a physical place.
 
 
I'd made it to Culinary Skill Development One, the first kitchen in the intricately scheduled curriculum at the Culinary Institute of America. It was a move I felt that, in some ways, had been foreordained a decade earlier.
Shortly after I graduated from college and began work in New York City, my granduncle, Bill Griffiths, wrote a letter to me outlining some definitions of art, and in doing so, he described a meal he'd had at Gallatoire's in New Orleans decades ago. "The total meal involved many things," he wrote, "but what I have never forgotten is the potatoes. There were no fancy sauces, no tricky seasonings, no admixture with other ingredients--just plain small cubes of potato cooked in such a way that the surfaces were delicately crisp and crunchy and the inside, rich, smooth, and flavorful. One was simultaneously aware both of exquisite texture and marvelous taste. The lesson it taught me was that the chef hadn't used the potato as a basis for displaying flashy, flamboyant skills, but had placed his skills as an artist in the service of the potato."
I found a fundamental truth in these words and I wrote the last sentence on a three-by-five-inch card and stuck it to the wall beside my desk.
Nearly ten years after my uncle Bill wrote those words to me--faded but still affixed to my wall--I intended to learn how to cook and to write about how one learned. And I hoped to use my uncle's words regarding art and potatoes as a kind of lantern to light my way. I would not strive to learn the sort of stuff being photographed for food magazines, but instead how to make the kind of potatoes Bill had described.
My goal was both humble and presumptuous: I wanted to learn how to put myself in the service of the potato. This was to me the key phrase, in the service of, the axis, the unmoving shaft, of a statement with many ramifications. Is great cooking really art? Are chefs artists? What is wrong with flash and flamboyance? How could the lowly potato become so important in a meal as to be the one thing my uncle remembered decades later?
Also, I love to eat potatoes.
Given these two qualities--the desire to learn to cook and to write about it, with all the notions of artistry, history, gastronomy that inevitably orbit this learning, and a simple and perhaps atavistic love of eating--I hadhatched a plan to attend the Culinary Institute of America, the most prominent cooking school in the country, a food-knowledge mecca. What did they teach here? According to the Culinary Institute of America, what did a chef need to know above all? What was the inviolable core of a culinary education? What were the secrets of truly great cooking?
All this I wanted to know, and I'd come here to impersonate a student. I would learn to cook as though my future depended on it. When I entered Chef Pardus's Skills kitchen I stepped into a new world. I would learn what it took to be a professional chef. I would start at the beginning, and the beginning of Culinary Skill Development was stock.
 
 
"Making stock is one of the primary purposes for being in this class," Chef Pardus said as we began our tour of the kitchen. Our first stop: the steam kettles. The three enormous tanks, each a hot tub for one, were the steam kettles. The three enormous tanks, each a hot tub for one, were bolted to steam pipes and accommodated by two water faucets. Each day, the center kettle would be filled with 120 pounds of chicken bones, 221/2 gallons of water, and 15 pounds of mirepoix, along with bay leaves, peppercorns, parsley stems, and thyme wrapped in cheesecloth and called a sachet d'épices. This combination would yield 15 gallons of chicken stock by the end of class, to be cooled, labeled, and stored before lecture.
"You want to cook stock at what?" Chef Pardus asked.
Several voices called out, "At a lazy bubble." Everyone in the class should have learned this from the video assigned for homework. The library contained about twenty-three hundred videos, some of them made for television by the Culinary Institute--Cooking Secrets of the CIA, a cooking show featuring individual faculty, had recently begun to air on public stations throughout the country--but most were utilitarian, made solely for the students, such as "Making Brown Stock," "Shucking Oysters," and "Calf Slaughter."
"Right, a lazy bubble," Chef Pardus repeated. "A few bubbles breaking the surface every few seconds. Why? Because we don't want to emulsify the fat into the stock and stir up other impurities. We're looking for clarity here."
Chef Pardus squatted at the end kettle's spigot, opened and closed it, saying, "Make sure this is closed all the way or you're going to have wet shoes." He turned the knob on the steam pipe and the kettle began to clank like an old radiator as its jacket filled with steam. Chef Pardus hefted alarge white tub from table to kettle and dumped its contents, forty pounds of beef bones. He pushed the faucet over and turned the water on.
"We're going to blanch the bones first," he said, "to get rid of impurities, mainly blood. The water's going to get a rich, funky, gray color. We'll skim that off and then we'll empty it. In Skills One, I want everybody to make stocks to measure. By Skills Two, you can do this by sight." On an easel to the left of his desk was a large pad of paper with the stock ratios on it--water to bones to mirepoix to tomato. For the first three weeks, Pardus wanted us to measure in order to know how high seven-and-a-half gallons of water rises above forty pounds of beef bones. "After four hours, we're going to add what? Mirepoix, right. An hour before finishing, the sachet d'épices." The stocks would be about 145 degrees when we strained them, he said, and we would cool all stocks--typically thirty gallons a day--to 70 degrees in two hours and to 45 degrees in four hours, as sanitation guidelines require. "But don't worry," Pardus said. "We can go from kettle to cooler in eighteen minutes. The record I think is sixteen minutes."
"Make sure you skim the fat before you cool it," he added. "If you forget, and you're making consommé, your classmates are going to hate you because you dropped the consommé grade by two points."
He introduced us to the ovens. Two banks of ranges ran nearly the length of both sides of the room. "When you come in, make sur...
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