by Ian Froeb
As already mentioned, food writer Michael Ruhlman will be at Viking at 6:30 p.m. to promote his new book, The Elements of Cooking. This slim book offers a handy A-to-Z index of vital cooking terms, techniques and ingredients, with a welcome dash of Ruhlman's own opinions.
The book begins with several short essays on what Ruhlman considers the fundamentals, from stock -- readers of his The Making of a Chef won't be surprised to see his passion for veal stock remains unabated -- to essential tools and books to the ineffable "finesse."
Whether or not you plan to attend the class at Viking, drop by the Borders in Brentwood from 5-6 p.m. to meet Michael Ruhlman, get him to sign your book and chat about food, food blogging, Next Iron Chef, etc. (If you plan to buy the book at that Borders, you might call ahead to reserve a copy. This isn't an "official" Borders event, so they won't have a crate full of copies.)
Ruhlman was gracious enough to answer a few of our questions.
You cite Strunk & White's classic writing guide The Elements of Style as your inspiration for The Elements of Cooking. Could you elaborate on this inspiration? Has there always been need for a book like this? Was it a reaction to any current trends in cooking/eating in America?
There are all kinds of food glossaries out there, and many cookbooks with basics in the back, but there was no comprehensive quick guide to all the things that are really important to cooking. I wanted to put them down all in one place.
The essays that open The Elements of Cooking leave little doubt as to your beliefs about the importance of veal stock and so on. To what extent did those beliefs shape the selection and definition of the terms in the A to Z guide? For example, was it difficult not to tack on your own viewpoint to the paragraph in which you discuss the debate about foie gras?
I thought about it! But that's not a cooking issue. It's an ethical issue, which is not the business of the book. Opinions are. Look at bisque for example.
Bisque: A thick, cream, crustacean-based soup. ...Restaurant menus and contemporary menus occasionally use the word to describe a non-shellfish-based soup such as a vegetable puree. This usage is what H.W. Fowler, a respected commentator on English usage, would have called a slip-shod extension; when bisque becomes a synonym for "thick and creamy," its meaning is diminished; thick, creamy vegetable purees should be called purees; thick, creamy shellfish soups should be called bisques.
Was there anything you learned in researching and writing The Elements of Cooking that surprised you? An element you'd never considered before or came to see in a new way?
It really helped me to deepen my understanding of the basics, and forced me to articulate my own convictions.
Do you think there's something especially transformative -- or, maybe, just different -- about food writing that explains its recent boom, both in print and online? Or is just a predictable result of our increased interest in food?
I truly believe that Americans became disconnected from their friends and neighbors starting in the 60s and increasingly so through the 90s. People are desperate to connect with people. That's why blogs took off, MySpace, etc. Food is a really substantial and nourishing way we all connect to one another.
Speaking of Making of a Chef: If you graduated from the C.I.A. tomorrow, what career path would you undertake?
I'd become a writer! (Or a farmer.) I'd learn to craft something truly fine.
In Reach of a Chef you discussed at length the allure and practice of the celebrity or branded chef. Has being a judge on Next Iron Chef changed your thoughts on the celebrity-chef culture?
Only that it's playing itself out. I think soon, partly because of Next Iron Chef and Top Chef, people are beginning to understand what the work is all about. Next it will be the celebrity farmer. OK, the last convoluted question: St. Louis' food culture has matured considerably in recent years, but the city doesn't receive -- and many would argue doesn't yet merit -- the attention paid to, say, Denver, Minneapolis or Kansas City. Is there any general advice about expanding a city's food culture that you can offer?
Yes! Encourage the chefs who own their own buisnesses -- eat at their restaurants. Make sure people out there distinguish between the chain restaurant and the independent. Big big issue.