This isn’t a new book—it was first released in 1997, but my nightstand stack is high and I’m not always current. But new doesn’t matter with this story. Reading Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef is a really great “armchair” way to fulfill a lifelong fantasy that I’ll bet a whole bunch of us avid home cooks share—that of attending the CIA, the Culinary Institute of America. There is a short list of really good cooking schools in the United States and the CIA is certainly at the top of that list.
Some time ago, my husband had occasion to go to the CIA to speak to a graduating class of chefs that his company had sponsored. I was so enamored of the CIA that I took off a couple of days of work so that I could go with him. We ate in one of the CIA restaurants the night before, and on the day he was speaking, I was offered a tour of the Institute and I think of it to this day. The first thing I remember is that in front of the main building is a circular drive. On the spring day we were there, the driveway was lined with gorgeous ice carvings that had been made by students in a class and had been set out for display on the driveway until they melted. Anybody who’s ever planned a party and innocently asked how much an ice sculpture would be would know that there must have been about $4,000 worth of ice sculptures melting away that day.
While touring the pastry kitchens, and looking at the wonderful things being prepared, I asked the woman I was with what the average weight gain was for CIA graduates. She laughed and said that everyone asks her that and to my surprise, she said it was only about 15 pounds—so going to the CIA isn’t really any worse that going to any other college and putting on the famous “freshman 15”.
Of course, Michael Ruhlman isn’t too concerned about silly details like that. But he’s written a detailed chronicle of the process, the personal dynamics at play, and the very hard work that is entailed when you sign up to be a chef at the CIA. He had a great idea back in the mid 1990s—as a food writer, he felt that he should know more about what it takes to be a chef—and that this knowledge would better inform him as a food writer. He approached the CIA with an idea to take an abbreviated version of their full course—and write about the experience. Early on in the process, he became so interested in meeting the challenges of the work and the critiques of his instructors that he decided to complete the course—as a chef would—and not abbreviate the experience too much for the sake of expedient writing.
It is good to learn that most if not all of the things that are made in the CIA course kitchens, are used among the four restaurants that are a teaching part of the campus and the curriculum. Stock, breads, pastries, everything…is carted around the campus from classroom to kitchens—the production of quality food on a deadline instilled from the beginning course.
The standards are revealed to be exacting, and the pressure of the classes seems to mirror the pressures of being a chef. He describes the relative strengths and weaknesses of his own work and that of his fellow students—and gives a good picture of why—when we laypeople walk into a restaurant—we can have such a wide variety of experience. The CIA will definitely turn out a competent chef…and then once they’ve ventured out into the culinary world—the art of cooking and the competency at management of a kitchen will determine the kinds of dining experiences that we all enjoy out there in the world.
I think this book is required reading for anyone considering spending the money to go to culinary school. If, after reading you still want to go—you probably have what it takes. In any event, you will have been entertained and interested by this well written and engrossing journey.
The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America by Michael Ruhlman, 2009 Holt Paperbacks
If you would like more information about this book click here: The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America.