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The Reach of a Chef: Professional Cooks in the Age of Celebrity
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105 of 110 people found the following review helpful
on June 27, 2006
Yet another impeccably researched and insightful exploration of the world of chefs from Ruhlman, one of the very very few non-chef writers who "get it". His look at previously written about subjects--and what's happened to them in the strange new world of "chef branding" and multi-unit expansion--and the terrible lure of Vegas is thoughtful and on target. Chefs who famously never open up to ordinary journalists are remarkably candid with Ruhlman.

While thoroughly entertaining for anyone interested in food, cooks and restaurants, this book should also be a standard text in Culinary schools. This is the world that well known and respected chefs who "made it" on the strength of their cooking abilities will live in the future.

My only criticism is the dismaying lack of profanity and bile. Ruhlman in person is a viciously funny bagful of venomous snakes. Had he allowed a little more of his infamous Dark Side to leak into the text I, for one, would have been happier. C'mon, Ruhlman! A chef with a SAG card?!! That should be a red flag to a bull!Kill, kill Faster Faster!!

In spite of his good natured, Cleveland-born even-handedness, another stellar performance. I plan to give out copies for Christmas.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 2, 2006
We are in the midst of deep upheaval in American cooking. The Food Network, the explosion of cookbook publishing, the overnight blossoming of the culinary travel genre, and the celebrity chef phenomenon all mark our new interest in the culture of restaurant food, if not in food per se. The extent of this food-culture is startling. No longer is French cooking the domain of a few big-city Europeanized gourmands. It's everywhere. Heck, even some of the ten-year-old girls on the soccer team I coach spend water breaks yacking about their favorite food shows. My nine-year-old, when I asked what she wanted for supper recently, answered "Grand Aioli". It's downright nutty.

So we should gratefully welcome cook/food-writer Michael Ruhlman's excellent new attempt to make sense of it all. He is almost uniquely situated in the celebrity-food world to give us a clear snapshot of what's going on. This book is a series of vignettes of the hectic lives and workplaces of an impressive list of chefs and food-show stars. Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain, Wolfgang Puck...even no-brow pom-pom girl Rachel Ray, among several others. Ruhlman's question to them is: what is your role? Haven't you left the kitchen now that you're on TV and being interviewed and promoting your books and traveling from coast to coast to open new restaurants? The answers are fascinating, and reveal more about the business of being a culinary star than any other book I've read. And what a strange, kinetic, exhausting, adrenalized world it is. I felt exhausted just reading about Thomas Keller's schedule.

If you're curious about the explosion of the food culture, this is a great primer. It's well-written, anecdotal, entertaining, and riveting. I highly recommend it as summer reading whether you love food or simply love watching it on TV.
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50 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2007
This summer I finally got around to reading Michael Ruhlman's books on the art of cooking, and those who seek to do it professionally. Now I have reached the third book, which expands upon the idea, and takes a deep look at how the recent culinary boom is affecting how all of us eat today.

Ruhlman looks at the current phenomena that surround cooking, one of the most mundane tasks around. These days, food is very big business indeed. Flip on the television and not only are there instructional shows on nearly every sort of cuisine and course, but competition shows where the content ranges from sublime to just plain stupid, reality shows that have a famous chef or two wandering the world in search of new tastes and cultures, or watching another famous chef come in and revamp a dying restaurant. If that's not enough, visit any retail store or megamart and you have various celebrities pimping -- I mean endorsing -- cutlery, cookware sets, books, spices and even processed foods. You can't escape it, and I suspect that the wave is only going to get bigger as time goes on.

This phenomena, known as 'branding' in the industry, is what makes chefs become super-famous and gets them rich. Most chefs can only dream of this, and most of them slave away in kitchens, working themselves into early retirement -- being a chef requires hard physical labour, and stamina, and most can't last beyond their fifties. It certainly has brought about changes in the American culinary scene, as Ruhlman shows in his book, increasing the average home cook's awareness of just what is good food, and the fact that yes, you can indeed do it at home.

Ruhlman focuses in on several chefs here, with Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Melissa Kelly, Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, and a surprise that takes it all, and blows it right out of the water. Most of the stories here focus on how they turned into superstar chefs, and their struggle to get to the top. Some of these chefs don't give a damn about the stardom, they just want to do the very best that they can. Unfortunately, this can mean barely breaking even, as we see in the story of Melissa Kelly, and her struggle to provide organic food in its best form. Others have that entertainer quality that defies the odds, and turned them into mega-chefs, with very lucrative television shows, product lines and cookbooks.

It's here, I freely confess, that my natural tendency to sneer comes into play, and my hackles rose as I read. There's something in me that gets suspicious when someone gets fame, but they really don't have the talent or the training to back it up. I can respect Emeril even though his show makes me wince with the theatrical nature, he knows how to cook, he's worked the line and he knows what he's doing. True, it's entertainment at its most hokey at times, but he's done more to bring cooking back into the American household.

Then there's Rachael Ray. Ruhlman shows her meteoric rise from being a buyer for an Albany NY supermarket, her talent for selling something and the fact that in the space of a few short years, she has managed to make to the top. But -- and it's a glaring spot that those who have cooked professionally notice -- she's not a chef. Oh, she throws stuff into pans, and she opens cans and packages and has a line of cutlery and cookware, all in bright day-glo orange -- but there's something false underneath all that giggling, sweet-girl personality. Ruhlman tries to be objective in his depection of her, but there's a hint of infatuation there too, and it was this particular chapter that almost caused me to fling the book at the wall in disgust.

We follow along as Ruhlman describes restaurant openings, famous names, and finally, the restaurants that inhabit 10 Columbus Circle in New York City. Some of the biggest and best names in cooking have opened here, among them Thomas Keller's Per Se, where he's working hard to keep the perfection going that he made so famous with The French Laundry.

And then, I got the surprise, and it redeemed the book for me.

Beside Per Se there is a little sushi place. It's unremarkable, and the chef inside virtually unknown unless you have mega-bucks, and love Japanese food. Inside is Masayoshi Takayama. To dine there is an exercise in attention and the wonder of just how good very fine food can be. It's small, with ten seats at the hinoki wood sushi bar, and several tables beyond that. Expect to drop at least 350$US per person when you eat there. But what sets it all apart is this:

If Masa isn't there, the restaurant doesn't open for the day. Period. He doesn't write cookbooks. He doesn't sell knives. What he does is make food, exquisitely crafted mouthfuls that are presented with respect and all of the passion that he can muster.

And it's here that I found the deciding point. Sure, you can train others to fill in for you, you can open restaurants with your name on them across the country, do television, sell product, write cookbooks and make a bundle. But if your cooking lacks the urge to do the very best, it's going to show to the diner. Eventually you get lazy, sell out, let your ego rule, and down you go, propelled by hubris.

I'll be honest. I don't mind shelling out for a cookbook by a chef that I respect, or taking a hard look at a product that they suggest. And I'm willing to shell out big bucks for a really fantastic meal. Ruhlman carefully skates along that thin line between praise, and gushing, slipping a few times in places. After all, he is writing about his own bread and butter here. Despite his evocative writing, and breezy style, this book really bothered me in places. While he certainly tries to keep the feeling of his previous two books on chefs and fame going, this one didn't seize my imagination the way the other two did.

I'll leave it up to other readers to decide if they like it or not. I only found a few chapters of the book interesting, and it lacks the intensity of what it is to be a professional cook. It's a gossipy, name-dropping book, and frankly, it's a dud at the end, with the only exception being when he discusses Masa. Beyond that, I would suggest it only as a cautionary tale for those who want to be culinary stars, and what it really costs for that fame.

Somewhat recommended. Three stars.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
`The Reach of a Chef' is Michael Ruhlman's third major journalistic investigation into the world of American culinary practice and personalities and his tenth book, which includes four important cookbook collaborations, especially the highly successful collaborations with the philosopher-king of American cooking, Thomas Keller and the king of New York fish cookery, Eric Rippert.

This book is a logical next step after his essays on culinary education, `The Making of a Chef', and basic levels of achievement in the American culinary universe, `The Soul of a Chef'. This investigation explores the techniques by which the successful chef / owner expands their reach beyond the single restaurant and turn their reputation into a marketable brand. An ancillary object of this essay is an examination of culinary celebrity.

His primary subjects are virtually all the major stars of the American culinary scene, including Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Keller, Eric Rippert, Jean-George Vongerichten, Charlie Trotter, Jasper White, Daniel Boulud, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Rick Bayless, Patrick O'Connell, Norm Van Aiken, Grant Achatz, Melissa Kelly, and Rachael Ray.

The last name may not seem to fit into the same group as the others, and in some important ways, Rachael does not fit the mold that created Puck, Lagasse, Keller, Flay, and Batali. But, with regard to the matters addressed in this book, she is as much of an archetype as all the others. Like Martha Stewart before her, Rachael is turning her name into a BRAND based on accomplishment in the culinary world. Ruhlman even goes so far as to say that Rachael may be the first `brand' which has the impetus to overtake Martha at her own game.

The bookend's for the book's presentation of its theme is an insider's look at the recent opening of Thomas Keller's New York fine dining restaurant, Per Se, on the fourth floor of the new Columbus Circle Time Warner center. If this book does nothing else, it reassures us that Keller's kind of devotion to quality is rewarded by both critical and commercial success. I won't keep you in suspense the way Ruhlman does, Per Se comes out of the gate with four shining stars from the all powerful restaurant reviewer of `The New York Times'. And, the highest score was not given grudgingly. The reviewer bewailed the fact that his last visit on which his review would be based would be his last time eating at Per Se for quite some time.

Just as I always appreciate it when cookbook authors give fair mention to other cooks on which their work has been based, Ruhlman enhances the pleasure of his read by making several citations from fellow culinary journalists, all of whom are at the top of my list, with Ruhlman, of favorite foodie reads. Leading the pack is Tony Bourdain, a good friend of Ruhlman who, as Ruhlman puts it, is quite smitten with Thomas Keller's accomplishments. One merely has to read Bourdain's chapter on the French Laundry in `A Cook's Tour' to understand his abject hero worship. Close behind, in a very important role, is New York Times food columnist and editor, Amanda Hesser. Present as the model of restaurant critic extraordinare is Ruth Reichl, presently editor in chief of `Gourmet' magazine.

The one thing Bourdain and Hesser have most in common is distaste for the style of Emeril Lagasse. Hesser's main claim to fame in Ruhlman's world is a long and very critical essay in `The New York Times' on Emeril Lagasse which dissected his TV show cooking in painful detail. Oddly, most of Emeril's harshest critics among his colleagues and culinary journalists seem to be softening. Part of this may be due to the fact that his popularity among his audience has peaked and may be falling off just a bit. Part of it may be due, as Norm Van Aiken has said, to the fact that Emeril is really a very talented chef and his restaurants are quite good, and Lagasse had to go through all the tough times that every other successful chef / owner had to face. It is certainly due in part to the fact that Lagasse in person is totally cordial, as when he warmly greeted Bourdain, his worst critic this side of Hesser at an affair. Ultimately, I believe Emeril's mellowing among his colleagues is due to the recognition that modern culinary TV has brought huge numbers of average Americans into the kitchen to enjoy cooking, and it is Emeril, not Julia Child who fostered this trend.

The nature of the trend is even clearer when we examine the career and style of Rachael Ray, whose primary attribute is that of very effective culinary cheerleader. She essentially says that if anyone really wants to get into food TV, they should not be studying cooking, they should be studying TV journalism and production. To me, the most illuminating aspect of this trend is the fact that the thing I like most about Jamie Oliver's shows and books are the way he communicates a love of food and cooking without the hokey Americans' exclamations and neologisms.

For those of us who really enjoy reading about the culinary world, this has been a red letter period, as bad boy Bourdain has also just come out with a new book, `The Nasty Bits' covering much the same ground, but from a much different perspective. Ruhlman, for example, does not confess to Bourdain's description of Ruhlman's staggering around a Las Vegas casino floor wanting a little cash advance from fellow journalist and roommate Bourdain.

For those whose taste in culinary writing stops when the recipes disappear, this may not be for you, but for all who are really interested in what goes on behind the scenes, this book is for you. The only thing I missed was some discussion of Bob Kinkead's movement to support local instead of chain restaurants.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
As the co-writer of the bellwether of gourmet culinary tomes, "The French Laundry Cookbook", author Michael Ruhlman has written an eminently readable book that should satisfy any foodie. His focus is rife with possibilities as he explores the development of the celebrity chef. What Ruhlman gleans with carefully gathered insider knowledge is the advent of the chef as an entrepreneur rather than an artisan, a trend that has been discernible for the past decade. This has a lot to do with the success of the Food Network and related lifestyle programming, but also playing significant roles are writers such as Ruhlman and Anthony Bourdain and the simple fact that perceived exotic ingredients are now available at local supermarkets.

The author accurately tracks the rising commercial value of the celebrity chef through not only a comprehensive visit to the Culinary Institute of America (where he examined how a chef is trained in a previous book) but also studying a number of renowned chefs with whom he seems to know quite well. Unsurprisingly, he focuses on Thomas Keller, originally of The French Laundry and more recently, of Per Se of which he shows the daily operations in illuminating detail. As a point of comparison, Ruhlman looks at Keller's Time Warner Building neighbor, the most-expensive and possibly the most sublime sushi chef in the world, Masa Takayama, who owns the exclusive Masa where premium prices are charged for what seems to be the most original sushi concoctions. Operations could not be more different between the two restaurants.

Ruhlman also looks at the new breed of chefs through two contrasting personalities. The first is Keller's brilliant protégé Grant Achatz, a technically-oriented creator of futuristic-looking foods, who set up the deluxe Trio restaurant in the Chicago area. No less stellar is Melissa Kelly, who is presented as a back-to-basics American chef who makes art out of home-style dishes like pot roast and roast chicken. She has followed Alice Waters' example of using fresh ingredients at Primo in Rockland, Maine and recently opened restaurants in Tuscon and Orlando in conjunction with the Marriott.

Perhaps the most interesting sections look at the breakout stars at the Food Network, especially Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray. Both have reinvented the concept of the celebrity chef to include extensive cookware lines, a growing library of branded cookbooks and hosting duties on multitude of TV shows that are aired on a daily basis. Lagasse has gone further by opening up nearly a dozen restaurants under his name, while Ray has received sponsorship from Oprah Winfrey to host a daily lifestyle talk show in the fall. It brings up the intriguing question as to when these celebrity chefs stop teaching cooking and become multi-hyphenated conglomerates.

The fascinating evolution of the culinary industry is in good hands under Ruhlman's microscope. He obviously loves his subject, as his enjoyment comes off the pages in enthusiastic prose. He also is a proactive participant in these restaurants, a fact that provides instant credibility to his observations. In the end, the book is not really a scathing expose of egos running amok - as is clear in several passages of Bill Buford's "Heat". Instead, he brings to light the changing role of the chef and an in-depth profile of those who have achieved success whether it is the end game for them or a means toward broader spheres of influence.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2007
I've become quite a fan of Ruhlman's writing, having first read his "Soul of a Chef" three years ago -- I couldn't put it down, and I continue to read it once a year. Hungry for more, I found "The Making of a Chef" at my local library, which I enjoyed, but the book (his first on the subject) definitely felt like he was still finding his culinary-literary feet. When I learned of "The Reach of a Chef," I was positively giddy and snatched up a copy. It was fun being reintroduced to the world of Keller, learning about the author's experiences with Bourdain and Ripert, and discovering seasonal Maine cooking at Primo, but ultimately I was disappointed: "Reach" doesn't capture the same refined emotion and passion as "Soul" by any means.

But perhaps it's just an accurate reflection of the subject -- how far does a chef's reach extend in America? The vast majority of our cooks aren't fascinating stars like Keller, Symon, Polcyn. They are instead the mediocre, spotlight-seeking Cat Coras and Rachael Rays who slither into our living rooms.

Like the over-commercialized culinary world, "Reach of a Chef" is crowded and a bit confused. Choose Ruhlman's superb earlier works for a more satisfying read.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2007
Michael Ruhlman has been our companion and guide as we've been the guides for our son, a recent graduate of the CIA's Culinary Program. Back when we were reading "The Making of a Chef," our son was working lowly jobs in local restaurants. By the time we were reading "The Soul of a Chef", he was working for his first CIA grad, Paul Trujillo, who just happens to have been in Ruhlman's first class and is mentioned in this book. Ruhlman opened the door to this fascinating school, Trujillo told us that our son had the talent and drive to succeed in this demanding school, and a truly outstanding CIA grad, Chef Eric Erway, became our son's mentor at Job Corps. They all paved the way for a crazy kid to find out what he was really made of.

This book is so rewarding on so many levels. Other reviewers have written eloquently about the chefs we meet in this book. For me, though, it's the return to the CIA that is most personally significant. Through this book, we get to see the school through an older man's eyes, one who knows how to ask even better questions. We can see how the CIA has evolved along with the profession. Most of all, though, we get to enjoy what I believe to be the evolution of Ruhlman's writing itself. The maturity he brings to this book is most evident toward the end - don't miss it!

All I can say is "thank you, Michael Ruhlman" for continuing to shed light on this fascinating and confusing profession as our son wends his way through the journey of becoming a chef. He just started the Baking and Pastry program. Can't wait to see what comes next!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2008
When Ruhlman sticks to descriptions of the working of a restaurant kitchen, the food, and the chef, his writing is engaging and compelling. Unfortunately he has a tendency to lapse into discussing his own feelings about cooking and how profoundly his life was changed by writing about it, and when he does this he gets pretentious and repetitive. In his 2 previous book on the subject, Making of a Chef and Soul of a Chef, this was also true but in Reach of a Chef there is so much of it that it made the book hard to get through. How many times can you read about how veal stock changed his life before gagging? It also seems like he was lacking material and so added large sections that simply rehashed the material in the 2 first books, like a review in case you hadn't read them. Overall, about half of this book was interesting, new material; the rest wasn't even worth the time it took me to skim through.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 5, 2007
The author's obituary, when eventually written, will start "Michael Ruhlman, whose signature work The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute chronicled his time at the Culinary Institute of America..."

That was a breakthrough book that essentially invented the genre of the 'meticulous examination' (as the 'Booklist' review calls it) of the chef as a profession. 'Reach' is Ruhlman's third in that series. He's really a great writer - as meticulous in his detail-gathering and writing as his chefs are in their cooking. You get to see that guys like Thomas Keller succeed not because of some fluke, but because of years of hard work, talent honed by that work and an obsession about details. Ruhlman's talent, in turn, is that he's able to convey that to his readers. The Newsday blurb on the book gets it right: "I'm sure [Ruhlman is] a pretty good cook himself, but I would urge him not to give up his day job, because he's a terrific writer."

Exactly.

You also get the feeling that chefs trust and open up to this author because he has their respect - he went through the Culinary Institute with the express purpose of writing the book that would become 'The Making of Chef.' Now that's a commitment. The results are some fine moments of introspection - Ruhlman notes that with enterprises the size of Keller's, "(t)he chef had moved out of the kitchen permanently. Or could, if he or she wanted to, and ultimately would have to, even if he or she didn't want to, simply from the physical limitations in a physically grueling job."

Asked to comment on that, Keller wistfully notes "I miss the people. I'm sad. I miss being in the kitchen with them...I'm not a chef anymore and it breaks my heart."

It's revelations like that one - superbly transcribed and framed by the author - that make 'Reach' such a compelling read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
That question is perhaps the major leit motif of Ruhlman's latest work. "Reach" spends significant time revisiting the CIA instructors and classes that Ruhlman wrote about in "Soul of a Chef", noting the "wussification" (my word) of current students vs. those from just a few years ago.

Ruhlman makes the point that the CIA is no longer simply about cooking, but also about the restaurant business. And the restaurant business is no longer simply about food. It's now about celebrity and riches.

Despite this premise being threaded through the vignettes Ruhlman presents at restaurants such as Primo, Per Se and Alinea, as well as insider's views of Emeril and Rachael Ray, when Ruhlman gets to discussing the incredible Masa, the superficiality of any student designing a path toward celebrity seems an empty pursuit.

The yin-yang of presenting Keller's Per Se story right before Masa's is genius on Ruhlman's part - and that the two restaurants are next-door neighbors in NYC is all the more amazing.

At the end, we're left perhaps with a little more respect for Ray, a bit of sadness for Keller, a desire to drop $430 at Masa and a curiosity as to where Grant Aschatz is headed next - perhaps right past Ferran Adria as the most compelling working chef today.

It's a great read. I'm in the business, but I think even those who aren't but just like food will love this book.
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