Foodie Book Reviews: Michael Ruhlman’s “The Soul of a Chef” and Ruth Reichl’s “Garlic and Sapphires”

Over the past few weeks, I finished reading not one but TWO books filed under “food literature” at Barnes & Noble. The first has been out for a few years, but it doesn’t make it any less relevant or compelling. That book is Michael Ruhlman’s “The Soul of a Chef.” Let’s talk about that first.

The book is divided into three sections. The first is about the certified master chef exam at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), the second is about a restaurant called Lola in Cleveland, Ohio, and the third is about Thomas Keller and his French Laundry. Somehow Ruhlman weaves these three sections together thematically–exploring what it means to be a great chef, contrasting the perfectionism of the chefs at the CIA to the free spirit of Michael Symon at Lola and culminating in the genius that is Thomas Keller.

I must say that my dirty secret habit when it comes to food books is that I start them and I don’t finish them. I still haven’t made my way through Calvin Trillin’s “Tummy Trilogy” or Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” but Ruhlman’s book sped along so quickly my fingers burned. He is a deceptively skilled writer: the book is pleasure to read and all the while he’s operating as an entertainer and an academic. The book makes excellent points about the culture of cooking.

My biggest criticism would be that Part One is too innately exciting to just stick at the front. The pure adreniline rush of following the seven contenders into an exam where “failure is not just possible for these chefs; it is probable” makes the Lola chapter and the Keller chapter feel anticlimactic. Still, Ruhlman seduces us in Parts Two and Three to the point where I began to love the people he was writing about (especially the people at Lola—it’s fascinating to me that Michael Symon’s personality has as much to do with his success as his cooking). The Keller chapter features a quote that’s inspirational for this website: “He learned just about everything by figuring it out himself.” Take heed, everyone: Thomas Keller started out as an amateur gourmet! (I wonder if he owned a red sweater?)

Now for Ruth Reichl:

“Garlic and Sapphires” is the first Ruth Reichl book I’ve read all the way through. Her first book “Tender at the Bone” is very charming but doesn’t produce a gravitational pull the way Michael Ruhlman does–you turn the pages, but there’s no fire in your fingertips. You could very well put the book down and walk away and never look back, which is what I did.

But “Garlic and Sapphires” is different. The book is focused and purposeful: she wants to recount her years as food critic for The New York Times–years that involved elaborate costumes, wigs, and identities. The result is endlessly fascinating.

Reichl is, if anything, a fantastic storyteller. Even having left “Tender at the Bone,” I remember the stories in it well: her mother poisoning the dinner guests, her African-American college roommate that she drifted apart from, the family she befriended in the Bronx. “Garlic and Sapphires” is no different: in fact, it’s better. If you read NYT food reviews, you’ll find yourself glued to the page as Reichl recounts the behind-the-scenes maneuverings that allowed her to write objective, thorough reviews. If you don’t yet know the story of Le Cirque and the review that resulted, you must at least stand in the book store and read the chapters titled “Molly” and “The King of Spain.” They’re two of the best chapters in the book.

Here’s my big complaint and I feel bad making it because it’s easier to criticize than it is to do–I don’t yet have a food memoir or a stint at The New York Times–but, with that said, I think Reichl’s dialogue is frequently awful. This is a problem because there’s so much of it in the book. I am going to try to find you an example. Ok, here’s’ one (from pg. 69) in which she tries to lure her friend Claudia out to sushi:

“Just come with me, once,” I cried. “I’m sure you’d like it.”

“Absolutely not!” she said.

“But the food’s wonderful,” I protested.

“Fine,” she said. “I am certain that you have many friends who will enjoy it. But I am not among them.”

“Look,” I said, desperate, “I make this really great Americanized version of Thai noodles. Everyone loves it. Will you come to our house and at least try it?”

“No!” cried Claudia. “Thai food is filled with garlic. It is not for me. Please, my darling, let me be. After all, it is only food.”

I was suddenly angry. “It is not ‘only’ food,” I said heatedly. “There’s meaning hidden underneath each dish. Why do you think politicians go around munching on pizzas,knishes and egg rolls on the campaign trail? We all understand the subtext; with each bite they’re trying to tell us how much they like Italians, Jews, and Chinese people. Maybe New Yorkers really won’t like bulgoki and chicken mole and sushi, but how are they going to find out if they don’t at least try them?”

I think the point she makes here is excellent. I think the scene is excellent: it’s exciting and tense and pointed. But the language just feels so unlikely! Especially that last part: “There’s meaning hidden underneath each dish.” If anyone said that to me in a heated moment, I’d stare at them like they were nuts. It’s interesting that in the Acknowledgments at the end of the book, she writes: “I have to admit with this book I have taken many liberties that do not follow journalistic principles… I’ve relied on memory for events and conversations that took place a fairly long time ago.” It’s not a matter of getting it right, though, it’s a matter of making it sound right and I think that’s Reichl’s greatest weakness as a writer.

Boy, I hope I’m not burning any bridges! Reichl’s probably standing at her computer now, furious, tearing up the huge feature story they were going to write about this site. “It is not bad dialogue!” she fumes. “There’s meaning hidden underneath each word!”

Allow me to dig myself out of this hole by saying how much I loved this book, though, by the end. She had me at “Unami.” What’s most brilliant about the book is the way she intercuts each chapter with the actual NYT review that resulted from an experience or a disguise. This tactic proves invaluable for anyone, like me, who attempts to do the same thing—to turn a very specific dining experience into a general, all-purpose review. It’s fun because as you read the review proper and she makes a reference to something specific–the size of the raspberries, for example–you feel like you’re “in the know” because you know the story behind the story. You’re totally in with Reichl.

I actually found myself surprisingly moved at the very end when she begins to question the woman she’s become; how she swore she’d never be snobby or elitist when it comes to food, and there she is name-dropping and harassing waiters. It’s a good cautionary tale but, also, just a good tale and the book’s final moments are lovely and perfect. You feel like you’ve been on a journey–a journey neither you nor I are very likely to go on ourselves. For that alone it’s a book worth reading.

Book Review: Amanda Hesser’s “Cooking for Mr. Latte”

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The best part about studying for the bar exam (and that’s not a sentence-starter you hear very frequently) was reading Amanda Hesser’s “Cooking For Mr. Latte.” The Starbucks where I study at is located near a Chapter 11 book store and one day, during an over-extended break, I ambled over there and perused (as I usually do) the food book section. I was happy to see that “Cooking For Mr. Latte” came out in paperback and since I’d enjoyed Amanda Hesser’s interim reviews at the New York Times I decided to scoop up a copy to read in between practice tests and flashcards.

At first, the chapters were so short as to feel insubstantial. Here I was memorizing the elements of defamation and looking forward to my food book break and when it finally came it only lasted 8 minutes. Hesser’s chapters are extraordinarily short. And compared to the other major food authors–Jeffrey Steingarten, Calvin Trillin–they seem at first glance to be mere trifles, like mini-quiches on a passing waiter’s tray. That’s all very well, but I came for dinner.

Dinner comes in the aggragate. The book builds steam as it progresses. For those not in the know, it tells the tale of Hesser’s courtship with New Yorker writer Tad Friend. They met on a blind date and Friend takes Hesser to the equivalent of a TGI Fridays. He drinks a latte after dinner. This will not do.

What I admired most about this book was Hesser’s fearlessness in portraying herself truthfully. By that I mean she doesn’t always come across as–well–likeable. There are parts where she chastizes her grandmother’s eating habits in Italy or fights with Tad over silly food minutiae. But in the end you feel like you know her intimately, even though the thrust of the book is food. Sounds familiar, no? That’s the basic premise of this website.

The ultimate selling-point, though, is that each chapter ends with recipes and the recipes pertain to what you just read. So when Amanda meets Tad’s mother and his mother cooks a fabulous feast of Ginger Duck (which truly sounds terrific) there’s the recipe greeeting you when the chapter’s over. There are many great recipes in this book that I will attempt for you in the near future.

One of my favorite chapters deals with dining alone. This concept still terrifies me. Sure I’ll eat a bagel or a burrito accompanied only by a New Yorker magazine, but I’ve yet to go out to a nice dinner all alone. Apparently that’s a fine dining right of passage. What I like about Amanda’s take is that she starts out declaring as much–“In the same way that you should get massages and take naps or meditate, you should, everyone should, make a point to eat out by yourself from time to time”–and then falters. Well, her primary destination is closed and then the next spot, Pastis, is “too packed with loud, beautiful people.” Eventually she winds up at Pearl Oyster Bar and has a blissful meal; but I enjoyed the process. Here was an accomplished food writer going through the same bouts of self-awareness we mortals go through. It’s like Michael Jackson singing “You Are Not Alone,” except less creepy.

Like Fox News, I must be fair and balanced. There were parts of this book I didn’t like. I didn’t like some of the food snobbery, like when she goes to Craft with friends and dreads sharing food: “When I go to a restaurant, I do not like feeling as if I’m at a buffet. I like to construct my meal thoughtfully and then eat it. I don’t want to pass plates and I don’t want someone plopping a slab of his skate in my lamb jus.” My reaction? Why not! Amanda’s answer? “It’s disrespectful to the chef, who tries to create dishes that entertain your palate from the first bite to the last.” I don’t agree, though—doesn’t it tell the chef that all his food is so great and you want to try it all? “And it’s greedy. If you must taste other things on the menu, come back another time.” Well then!

Oh but back to the positives—Amanda is great at the closing zinger. All her chapters end on a perfect note. Like for example, when she starts feeling unhappy in the relationship–like she’s becoming her mother because Tad abandons her all day while she cooks and cleans and runs errands, her anger grows and culminates after a dinner party when Tad leaves the dishes greasy. Before the party she asks Tad to put a special bottle of Champagne in the freezer to chill quickly; the chapter’s closing paragraph reads: “The next morning, the dishes were clean but Tad was barricaded in his study. I opened the freezer to find the bottle of Champagne–a Bruno Paillard that I had saved for several years–shattered. It was just how I felt.”

That last example perfectly illustrates Hesser’s gift: she fuses the personal, the emotional and the visceral in short, deft brushstrokes. “Cooking For Mr. Latte” may seem like a light read, but by the end you’ve been to a 37 course banquet. And there’s still room for more.