Seriously, how could I not? With the title The Soul of a Chef, I didn’t much care what was in it. And the thought that this might truly be a serious exploration of spirituality in the professional world of the kitchen … the possibility was enough.
This is not Ruhlman’s first literary stirring of the pot. In fact, those who’ve read his previous books — most notably The Making of a Chef — will note some repetition. Still, you can’t sniff at Ruhlman’s energy or insight, and certainly not his writing style. This is a good read!
As the title promises, Ruhlman sets out to discover what it is that lies at the soul of a great chef. What it is that motivates, energises and inhabits such a person? What is it about his spirit — and Ruhlman’s focus is clearly on the male experience — that propels him to become the best in an all-consuming and unforgiving profession? Most importantly, where does the obsessive and relentless drive for perfection come from?
In pursuit of answers, Ruhlman spends eight days observing the self-selecting group undergoing the gruelling Certified Master Chef (CMC) exam at the Culinary Institute of America. He follows this with extended observations of Michael Symons of Lola in Cleveland — one of the rising stars of the American culinary world — and the internationally renowned Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in the Napa Valley.
In the end, Ruhlman is defeated by his own intentions. I’m not sure he even understands what he means by that slippery word ‘soul’. Still, he has done far more and far better than me! And along the way he does provide significant insights into what makes these unusual beings tick. Perhaps it’s his exploration of the work of Thomas Keller that provides the greatest promise. Keller, a self-described (with tongue in cheek) ‘Buddhist monk in search of perfection,’ is undoubtedly one who embraces his profession as a spiritual practice and his movement toward excellence as a pilgrimage of meaning.
There is much here that adds a new depth to the appreciation of great chefs and the contribution they make to the world. I recommend it!