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Chicagoist Grills: Author Michael Ruhlman

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Feb 27, 2007 4:00PM

2007_02_MR.gifWith the investigative chops of the most seasoned journalist, the narrative flow of a master storyteller, and more than his share of kitchen skills, few are as opinionated or as knowledgeable about the rise of the celebrity chef as Michael Ruhlman. In addition to contributing to the New York Times, Gourmet, Saveur, and Food Arts Magazine, the James Beard Award winner is probably best-known as the author of the “chef’s trilogy.” 1997’s The Making of a Chef was an engaging account of Ruhlman’s studies at the Culinary Institute of America (completing the course). Three years later the follow-up, The Soul of a Chef looked at the lives of three very different professional chefs, including his good friend Thomas Keller of Napa Valley’s world-renowned French Laundry (with whom he’s authored The French Laundry Cookbook). Last year’s The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen took a deeper look at the influence of the celebrity chef in the information age, a la Emeril, Rachael, and "Iron Chef." Food porn addicts without access to cable might also know Ruhlman as the even-keeled voice of reason between alpha chefs Ming Tsai and Todd English on PBS’ “Cooking Under Fire.” On top of all that, he’s also quite the entertaining blogger who’s more than eager to give up the reins to an Anthony Bourdain now and then for an incendiary rant.

“The Making of a Chef” is also the title of Ruhlman’s discussion with Alinea’s Grant Achatz this Sunday at Steppenwolf Theatre. Achatz himself is a different type of celebrity chef – the kind that doesn’t cash in on his success plugging toothpaste or scouring powder. We tried to get Ruhlman to show his hand for Sunday. He said, “I prefer to let the discussion form organically. Grant and I will sit down, talk, and see what develops.”

Following the jump, we have our own questions for Michael Ruhlman.

Chicagoist: So what’s your take on the whole molecular gastronomy movement?

Michael Ruhlman: I’m skeptical. And even though I like what Grant is doing, I maintain that skepticism. I think that it can be that it lowers food and cooking to the level of “boys playing with toys,” as opposed to plying a trade.

And I hate foams, which are a standard of that cooking style. Foam is something you avoid when you’re swimming in a lake.

C: So where does Chef Achatz succeed where others fail?

MR: What makes Grant’s food valuable is that it’s still fundamentally grounded in traditional technique. The food tastes really good. What Grant adds to the mix is an intellectual component.

C: Could you compare and contrast Achatz’s style with that of Thomas Keller?

MR: Grant wouldn’t be who he is without what he learned at French Laundry. At French Laundry, everything is about focus. You have a ring of sauce; inside that is another flavor, inside that is another one. Keller perfected a balance that, to me, resembled a long camera lens.

Alinea’s plates are like a landscape. Having mastered (Keller’s style), it makes sense for Grant to bring that approach to what he’s doing now.

C: He also seems to be paving the way for a new type of celebrity chef. What are your thoughts on that?

MR: I admire Grant for not doing “Iron Chef.” That’s not who he is. He’s just uncommonly smart about his decisions. He truly is in the first rank of top chefs.

It’s easy to accept offers to do more media. Ultimately, you need to drive more traffic to your restaurant. Plus, the attention feels good. It’s nice to be adored. Some chefs do let it go to their head, and lose sight of what made them successful in the first place. Look at Rocco Dispirito. Now he’s pitching cars. It's the latest example in what I like to call the "great chef tragedy."