Book Review: “The Reach of a Chef” by Michael Ruhlman

reachruhlmanIn the interest of full disclosure, I have a unique connection to Michael Ruhlman’s 2006 book, “The Reach of a Chef”: I happen to be the “UCLA graduate who worked in L.A. entertainment and also the dot-com world before it burst” on page 81. Ruhlman had visited my Skills I class for several days in 2004, and although I had read and enjoyed his previous book, 2001’s “The Soul of a Chef,” I chose to remain aloof. I didn’t want to become fodder for any anecdotes, especially as I began my very first kitchen class at the CIA. Under different circumstances, I wouldn’t have been so stand-offish, but it seems to have secured my relative anonymity.

In all fairness, Ruhlman actually uses himself for an anecdote in the very chapter in which I’m mentioned, the aptly titled “Waiting for Bibimbap.” As he was trailing my Skills I class to gather information on Chef Roe, who was teaching his first-ever class at the CIA, Ruhlman had also been spending time in Cuisines of Asia with Chef Pardus (a central figure in Ruhlman’s 1999 book, “The Making of a Chef”). On his last day with Pardus, Ruhlman crashed and burned on the bibimbap station, which is a regular routine at the CIA. As long as there are classes in session, I can guarantee that someone somewhere is going down, and perhaps dragging their entire class down with them.

For the most part, however, Ruhlman’s book shifts its focus away from the CIA campus, and explores the new and ever-changing roles of today’s chef-entrepreneur. Ruhlman follows the great Thomas Keller as he plans to open New York’s Per Se, and he also follows Keller’s former protege, Grant Achatz, as he readies to open Chicago’s Alinea. Ruhlman also devotes sections of his book to Melissa Kelly, chef-owner of Primo in Maine, and he also contributes a portion to Masayoshi Takayama, the legendary sushi chef at Masa in New York City.

“The Reach of a Chef” is insightful in its scope, and it provides a thoughtful account of the American chef’s recent rise in stature. Ruhlman does an excellent job explaining how the Food Network has helped to foster this evolution, along with the recent Las Vegas phenomenon, which has allowed many of Amerca’s most famous chefs to capitalize on their celebrity.

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