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.

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

  1. AG- I don’t know if you have read Ruhlman’s other book, The Making of a Chef, but it is even better written and more exciting than Soul of a Chef (in my opinion). The way he describes life at the CIA and all the things these people have to do will defintely keep you turning pages til the end. I highly recommend picking it up if you haven’t gotten around to it yet. It is great.

  2. Not to pry, but have you and Lisa had a falling-out? Not to pry some more, but your loyal readers beg you to kiss and make up. Lisa is missed (although the ice cream recipes help…)!

  3. Lisa'sNotaVirgin

    One of the former chefs from French Laundry and their master sommelier just opened a restaurant in Boulder. Mad reviews and reservations take months. In Boulder! The home of organic microbrews, tempeh burgers and pot brownies is so on the culinary map. We’re fashionable, Adam! Now come and visit me.

  4. Tex beat me to recommending Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef. He earned his understanding and respect for the people he describes the hard way! And he shares all of it with us in both books.

  5. Yeah, so I was going to recommend “The Making of a Chef” as well. Compelling reading. It inspired me and made me want to enroll at the CIA.

  6. I really liked Kitchen Confidential. Although admittedly it is not so much about cooking and food as running a restaruant.

  7. I really doubt that Ruth Reichl even knows this blog exists, let alone is holding in wait some great review of it. That said, I think you should re-examine your take on her dialogue. Part of what makes a memoir successful is its ability to condense conversations into their essence, so that it takes just a few sentences to write something that may well have taken 30 minutes to say. What that means is that sometimes, in writing, people end up saying things that don’t always sound just like they would have in speech. This is why the genre of autobiography is so different from playwriting. Reichl’s book isn’t meant to be staged, and you shouldn’t criticize her dialogue for what is, essentially, a dramatic quibble.

  8. In defence of Adam and in disagreement with Reese, I say that good dialogue makes a book. I want to be there!!!! I don’t want to get a distilled thought-out discourse, no matter what the worth of the point being made. If I want a scholarly or ‘serious’ discourse about some socio-economic or political or scientific (or whatever discipline specific) point that is being made, it will be made better in a good technical book somewhere. When I read the fiction/light non-fiction genre, I want to be engaged and entertained (and, yes, maybe educated too). But if the point is polemical, I also want it to be made in ‘real time’ as it were, even if the ‘real time’ is a dramatic construct.

    In short, I want to be there. I am not there in dialogue which does not sound real (even if it may not ever be actually spoken that way). The skill of great writing in this genre (memoire) is to put you in the writer’s shoes. I would contend that Reichl’s book is such book in this genre. Adam is right about Molly and Le Cirque – I ‘felt’ like Molly and really wanted that review when Molly reverts to Ruth to be scathing exactly because of how I felt. This is great writing. Stilted dialogue is not. That it happens in the same book is a fact that Adam rightly points out in his review, which thankfully does not avoid a critical stance where he feels it necessay. All power to Adam’s elbow, I say.

  9. Reese, not to quibble, but I think there’s a difference between efficiency and style. I agree she’s efficient, but I don’t think her dialogue pops with truth or energy or humor the way, say, Calvin Trillin’s does. Take this example from “Feeding a Yen”:

    “This marlin is the best,” Rob said. “It’s fantastic.”

    “I think that’s the swordfish you’re eating,” Em said.

    “No,” John said, pointing at his plate. “This is the swordfish.”

    “That’s the shark,” Alice said. “The shark is great. Unless that’s the marlin.”

    If that passage doesn’t tickle your fancy, then I suppose it’s just a matter of taste. But when it comes to dialogue, I think Trillin (and many other food writers, as well as other non-fiction writers) are more skilled than Reichl.

  10. “I really doubt that Ruth Reichl even knows this blog exists, let alone is holding in wait some great review of it. ”

    No need to read past that.

  11. I just read Ruth Reichl’s book this weekend too. I noted in the acknowledgement section, she makes a comment (and I’m sorry, but the book is downstairs and I just don’t have the wherewithal to run down and get it) that the conversations in the book are recounted to the best of her knowledge, not verbatim. Maybe this is part of what makes some of the conversations seem stilted or unlikely. She’s remembering them and editing them as she writes them down.

  12. Read both of these (actually have re-read Soul of a Chef because I enjoyed it so much the first time–and I emailed Michael Rhulman to tell him how much I loved his books and he responded–what a nice guy!) and I agree with your reviews. Also went out and got “Cooking with Mr. Latte” and read it this weekend based on your recommendation. Thanks, Adam.

  13. The Soul of a Chef was the first food book I ever read. I picked it up for the section about Thomas Keller because I was currently obsessing over The French Laundry Cookbook, but I fell in love with the entire book. Definitely a great read. I’ve been meaning to pick up The Making of a Chef, and it looks like I definitely need to check it out based on the recommendations of the other AG fans.

  14. just to throw in my two cents (not that anyone asked), the reason that reichl’s dialogue probably seems especially ham-handed is -not- the content of the dialogue itself (and i would argue with you here, AG, that the ‘meaning underneath’ part you particularly take issue with isn’t so ridiculous in real-life conversation), but in her tendency to go overboard with the speech verbs — ‘cried,’ ‘protested’ — and in further descriptors — ‘heatedly’, ‘desperate’. there’s a rule about this somewhere. you’ll notice that trillin’s much more effective by leaving the speaking tone implied in the dialogue itself. reichl just makes the exchange very awkward by beating a dead horse. so to speak.

  15. amateur.

    i didn’t care for “soul of a chef.” in fact, i found ruhlman’s writing to be rather elementary… sorry… but glad you liked it.

    can’t wait to read “garlic and sapphires.” i have been crawling through “tummy trilogies” as well…


  16. I recently finished Comfort Me With Apples and I’m not sure why. I didn’t like it after about the first third. Reichl, in that book anyway, is a beotch! She cheats on her husband multiple times, walks out on her friends holding a massive restaurant bill her newspaper was supposed to take care of, steals men from her friends — is just in general a person I didn’t want to get to know memoir-style. Her descriptions of food in “Comfort Me” were similar a lot of the time – she would eat something and it would “pop” in her mouth, explode or something. All exciting food does this, apparently.

    And she was always lying about knowing more than she did – pretending to be uber-sophisticated when she was really just a Bohemian from Berkley, as she claimed. It was like wanting to be both things – a famous food critic and a humble foodie from the backwoods simultaneously. I wanted her to be real.

    The only thing I liked about this book was when she would write about a situation and tie it to a recipe, like when she was making crab cakes at the co-op in Berkley or eating tons of garlic with Bruce Aidells and Alice Waters. At the end of the book, she drops the food descriptions entirely and spends several chapters talking only about her almost-daughter, Gavi, who she adopts illegally from a Mexican woman who subsequently returns: legal battle ensues. She repeats for two chapters, “I won’t give up my baby.”

    That (long! sorry) rant finished, though, I can’t say I wouldn’t read Garlic and Sapphires. I agree she’s not good with dialogue, or sometimes even description, but I think if she stuck to her JOB and not her LIFE it would be easier for me to swallow.

  17. Adam, I just finished Garlic & Sapphires; it’s just been released in Australia and I agree entirely with your comments on the dialogue. It just felt a bit trite and fake in sections. Also, I was amazed at how it would take up to 5 visits to a restaurant to determine what star rating she would give, and yet her review in the NYT was so vague about the dishes! No more than a mention of what was in the dish and a general description of whether it was good or not. The restaurant reviewers in Australia include much more detail about each dish, which makes me really curious about how restaurant reviews are structured around the world.

    Yet, having said that, I really did enjoy reading this book. It’s the perfect thing to read on a long plane flight, which is where I did it.

    PS – the sales assistant at the Books for Cooks shop where I got it also recommended both books by Michael Ruhlman, so they’ll be my next purchase.

  18. I too wrote about this book at my site,

    I am not sure I got the same vibe on the dialogue. I agree, she’s an excellent story teller, and the other book you reviewed is new to me, I shall check it out.

    I find my interest in food is getting expensive with cookbooks and now books about eating, cheffin;, etc. But good stuff.

  19. I loved ‘Garlic and Sapphires.’ It inspired me to start my own food blog… which got me reading other blogs, leading me to your wonderful site.

  20. It’s funny that you liked Garlic & Sapphires better than her other memoirs. I felt quite the opposite. I actually read all three of her memoirs back to back in one week. I absolutely loved “Tender at the Bone” and “Comfort Me With Apples,” but felt “Garlic” was missing something. I thought that it was hoaky and not as interesting as the former two. But we all have our own opinions on these things. If I could recommend food lit it would have to be Laurie Colwin’s “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking.” Those two are incomparable to anything else. Also Bill Buford’s “Heat” is extraordinarily entertaining.

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