A Q&A with Michael Ruhlman on “The Elements of Cooking”


Of all the things that’ve happened to me since starting my blog, perhaps the most surprising and flattering and ennobling (if that’s the right word) has been the very vocal support I’ve received from one of my food writing heroes, Michael Ruhlman. Before he and I ever made contact, I was a huge fan of his book “The Soul of a Chef” which is a thrilling, page-turning account of his time at the master chef program at the C.I.A., as well as a probing portrait of Chef Michael Symon (who he’d eventually judge on “Next Iron Chef”) and the incomparable Thomas Keller. What makes the book great is Ruhlman’s lack of pretense: he does what a good storyteller must, dissolves himself into the background and allows the story to develop naturally. His clarity, his precision, his deftness have caused critics to label him an “elegant” writer and I think that word is incredibly fitting. He’s got real class–the effortless sort, not the forced kind you see with someone like that sommelier Stephen on Season One of “Top Chef.” He’s also incredibly generous (my grandmother would call him a “mensch”): he’s given me great advice over the past year, treating me more like a colleague than a protege and even turning to me for advice with his own career. All of this has meant a great deal to me in my journey from food writing hobbyist to food writing professional–I couldn’t ask for a better mentor.

Now I’m in the excellent position of getting to share with you my enthusiasm for Michael’s newest book, “The Elements of Cooking.” This book is almost written precisely for me (and probably you): after all the home cooking I’ve done, the cookbook reading and Food TV watching, this is the proverbial “next step.” It’s a cooking school you can put in your pocket and at 242 pages (49 pages of which are essays/instruction, the rest being a glossary) it’s a wildly efficient breakdown of what “real chefs” do and how you can put these classic techniques to use at home. The essentials boil down to six basic categories: stock, sauce, salt, the egg, heat and tools. Master these categories and you’re well on your way to producing restaurant-quality food at home; they’re building blocks that, once put to use, can be (and should be) used over and over again forever.

Michael Ruhlman was kind enough to let me e-mail interview him for the book and what follows is our exchange. I hope it inspires you to buy his book which will, I believe, become a mandatory staple for any passionate home cook.

Hi Michael. I was incredibly impressed by how much you packed into the first 46 pages of your book–the essay portion (the rest being a dictionary)–it’s an incredibly efficient master class in cooking. How did you whittle down such an expansive subject? Was there anything you wanted to include but that you ultimately cut out? How much of what you write here is derived from what they teach at the C.I.A.?

Thanks, Adam. But first, I wouldn’t call the section after the essays a dictionary. It’s an opinionated glossary of cooks’ terms. See “bisque,” for example.

I don’t think I whittled down. Yes, one could write endlessly on stock alone, but the basics are what they are. Or is this your cagy way of trying to tell me I left important stuff out?

And everything is derived from the CIA, which teaches the basics, but my appreciation and understanding of the basics deepened and became more nuanced with every day that has followed, and it continues.

I’m intrigued by the differences between home cooking and restaurant cooking. For example, while discussing finesse on pg. 48, you talk about cooking a wine marinade, straining it, using it to begin a sauce or adding it to the “cuisson” (the cooking liquid) and then say: “Do you really need to go to all this trouble? Of course not. Not if you don’t want to. Don’t give it another thought.” I enjoyed that because, personally, I prefer cooking rustic food at home and eating more refined food at restaurants. Do you feel the same? What kind of food do you cook at home? Is it economically feasible to replicate the “finesse” of fine dining on a regular basis for a family at home?

While you should detect a slight admonition in the “don’t give it another thought,” I do believe that you should cook as you wish at home. It should be whatever you want it to be. For me it’s a way to relax after working that also accomplishes many things. I do think you should know the difference between reducing a wine or vinegar slowly vs quickly, or strained vs not strained. And I agree, part of the pleasure of excellent restaurants is to enjoy the labor of a craft done really really well, to eat things you simply never would at home even if you could.

I cook simply at home. Roast chicken on Mondays, for instance, is a routine. But I always make a jus in the roasting pan (I use a cast iron skillet)–unless I’m tired or pressed for time. And I usually save the carcass and make stock for a soup for a day or two later. There are finesse elements at home, and they are optional. At a restaurant they should not be.

With all this talk of finesse and principles and elements of cooking, do you ever just order a pizza? What are your favorite guilty pleasures? And do you ever “break the rules” when you cook?

We have a great place to get excellent pizza nearby (Marrotta’s). I can’t stand Dominoes. But I love to eat cheese puffs, not gougeres but the big fat incandescent-orange ones in cellophane bags.

Dumb question, but I have four chicken carcasses in the freezer with some meat still attached. Do I need to clean the carcasses before making a stock? What’s the best way to make stock from frozen chicken carcasses?

Meat is what gives stock flavor, bones and joints give it body. Put the carcasses in a pot, cover with water and bring them up to heat, slowly. Slowly is the key–it almost can’t be too slow. When it’s near a simmer, you can turn up the heat to get it all the way there–it will take at least an hour and a half or two hours with rock solid carcasses–in order to skim the stock, then turn the heat back to low. Optimal temp for cooking stock I’ve found is below a simmer, when the water isn’t moving much, but the pot is too hot to touch–175 degrees or so. Maintain that heat for four hours, add aromats and continue cooking another hour and strain. What are aromats? Look it up in Elements of Cooking!

Your book embraces the traditions of French cooking, and yet chefs such as Mario Batali often rib the French for being too fussy. Do you think the French are unfairly maligned by chefs such as Batali? Do you contend, as many chefs do, that the French traditional still remains the greatest of all food traditions? If you and Batali wrestled, who would win?

I do think the French are unfairly maligned, but it’s largely their own doing (they’re pretty arrogant about how great they are–often justifiably). The fact is, it was the French who codified the fundamentals of cooking–they weren’t the first to use the fundamentals, they were the first to systematize them, and thereby make teaching them on a wide scale possible. The fundamentals are universal, not French. When Mario’s food tastes good, it’s because he’s used perfect fundamentals. He’s also a really good cook. And, as he’s a cook and I’m a pasty-faced writer, I’d put my cash on Batali in an arm wrastle. Also he’s got about 150 pounds on me.

You based your book on “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. How has learning to cook affected your writing and vice-versa? Do you think there’s a correlation between the discipline that goes into writing well and the discipline that goes into cooking well?

Yes! An issue near to my heart. I began cooking and writing regularly at the same time 4th-5th grade. They are connected some how–though the connections are difficult to get at. Writing about food forces you to pay very close attention to how the food behaves, and so you become a better cook. I can say that learning how to cook at the CIA changed my writing. Before I learned to cook, I couldn’t write a book in four months. But once I’d become a cook, once I realized you didn’t ever, ever, say no to a task, I knew that I could. I wrote making of a chef in four months because that’s when the money ran out. I knew i could do it because I’d learned how to cook. Writer’s block–it’s a bunch of hooey, it’s an excuse to be lazy. Imagine a cook using that logic. Chef: Ordering! One lamb shank! Line cook: Sorry chef, didn’t get to the shank today, had cooking block. So yes, I’ve learned many things by learning to cook.

You are currently starring as a judge on “Next Iron Chef,” and this brings us to the question of Food TV: who on Food TV best exemplifies the fundamentals of cooking? Who’s the worst? Who deserves their own show? Is it possible to learn the fundamentals watching the Food Network?

Alton Brown does a great job of fundamentals, probably the best. Cooks Illustrated second, Sara Moulton used to be great. The worst, handsdown, the Sandra Lee Horrorshow. I think Besh and Symon need a joint show. It is possible to intuit the fundamentals from television but the bottom line is you have to do the work, it’s such a physical tactile sensual act, cooking.

In addition to being a prolific author now you are also a prolific blogger. How do you like blogging? Has anything surprised you about having a blog?

Blogging has been a surprise. I started doing it to promote my books, but I’ve been sucked into the vortex. I love the connection with readers, I love to write about things that matter to me in this casual conversational form. I’d really miss it if I had to quit. It’s addictive. My friend Blake the biographer says, “Michael, that blog is going to destroy you in about a thousand different ways.” And this concerns me. I end up spending way too much time on it.

I thought it was very sweet how you acknowledged your wife and children at the end of your book. Is it difficult to raise children who embrace the same food values that you do in the face of McDonald’s and Lunchables and Lucky Charms and all the other foodstuffs marketed to kids? Do your children cook? How are their fundamentals??

They know the values we have and share them, and they’ve never ever asked for fast food, simply have no interest in it. But getting to eat a diverse diet is hard. James, 8, subsists primarily on simple starches and frozen peas and chicken breast and hamburger. My daughter Addison 12 exists on microwave popcorn and rice with a simple soy ginger sauce I told her how to make. But there is hope. James likes to crank the pasta machine when I make the fresh stuff (Addison won’t touch it because she doesn’t like the egg taste). Addison often makes the pea pancakes in J-G’s 4-star cooking at home, and they’re excellent–but she’s such a girl, terrified of the heat, puts on goggles and long gloves. James won’t touch the pea pancakes, of course, even though he loves peas. We eat together almost every night but I usually make between two and three dinners.

Your book gives great advice about kitchen equipment–distilling it all down to just five basic tools. What about pantry staples? What’s important to have in the cabinet and in the fridge?

Tasty olive oil, which goes on/with so many things, a couple of good vinegars–a sherry or red wine vinegar and balsamic. Always have a lemon nearby. My favorite dried spices are cumin coriander and cayenne. Cinnamon and nutmeg on the sweet side. Kosher salt of course and peppercorns. And that’s all i need.

Where do you do most of your food shopping? How important is organic food and/or local food in your family?

There’s a family run grocery store I use–they’re pretty good about sourcing stuff if you ask. Pork is an issue though. Still really hard for folks to get good pork. It’s very important but it’s also a struggle given the busyness of daily life. It’s tough to eat local in March in Cleveland.

I noticed you weren’t included in the new “Last Supper” book and even though it’s the most obvious question on the planet, I must ask for my last question: what’d be your last meal? And what five people from history would you invite? What music would you want playing?

My last meal is easy–a perfect steak frites (fries cooked in beef or duck fat), an enormous Zinfandel. As we never know when the inescapable catastrophe of death will strike, I try to have this meal whenever I can.

I’d invite the heavy hitter philosophical/religious folks: Buddha, Jesus (but maybe for after dinner whiskey since I don’t think either was a big eater), Socrates (he’d be in to the zin, yes!) and I’ve always wanted to know what Fitzgerald and Hemingway were like (though not together). I’d like to meet my great great grandfather, Carl Spamer, who came over from Germany and settled in Ohio in 1866–I’d like to know why he came, what was he thinking and what did he expect?

Music would start with Dave Matthews solo (with martinis before the steak, he’s a foodie and wine grower I hear), Yo Yo Ma would come in during dinner to give his take on the Bach cello suites, and then Bill Evans would show up for the postprandial single malts and Miles would join him for a song or two and then cryptically disappear.


12 thoughts on “A Q&A with Michael Ruhlman on “The Elements of Cooking””

  1. What a great interview! I was reading it drinking my morning coffee and I had feeling there were three of us sitting in a coffee bar, talking, jocking… great! Great job AG!

  2. I must agree Sandra Lee Show is horrible — opening a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese and sprinkling 39 cents worth of parlsey on it is not cooking nor culinary. Please for the love of Julia Child someone get her off the air.

  3. Thank you, Adam, for the interview. I discovered you and MR through the NICA blogging and I agree with you that his writing is skillful and wholly lacking ego. His sense of humor puts one at ease. I’m looking forward to reading his books.

    You could not have chosen a better mentor.

    And in reading both blogs, I recognized that MR’s writing food blog debate probably sparked your own post about being a critic. I see your dilemma much better now. You have great writing and personal instincts. Thank you for sharing both with us!

  4. Adam,

    1st time poster here. LOVED your book (hurry, write another!), LOVE your blog, love comparing my NIC thoughts with yours every Monday morning over a cup of coffee. :)

    Totally enjoyed today’s email interview with MR – fabulous!

    And to “lrfraser” – thank you for starting my day with a good laugh: “Please for the love of Julia Child someone get her off the air.”

  5. Great interview! I’m dying to get this book. Soul of a Chef brought me to tears. MR has got it right – cooking is a sensual act. Loved the “Writers block” story.

  6. Great piece, this book is in my amazon shopping basket as we speak. I thought his points on chicken stock were great and just wanted to add a great way I just discovered to do it – the slow cooker. It really does maintain that perfect temperature and there is no skimming. Set it up, go to bed and wake up to beautiful stock. So simple.

  7. Thanks for the awesome interview! I plan on ordering your book today and can’t wait to read it.

  8. I wondered if I was the only one who thought that Sandra Lee show was horrible! Why in the world does it NEVER seem to go away?!?!

    Also, great interview! I really enjoyed the Last Supper answer and am looking forward to reading your new book.

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