Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Michael Ruhlman, Superstar

I wanted to like this book.
I like the author: all cute and friendly, showing up everywhere on TV these days. He writes well. And I believe he has learned to cook well.
But when I got to the definition in the photo above, I nearly threw the book down.
Why did Michael Ruhlman even include it in "The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchen"?
OK, a little background. The book, one of those things you're tempted to call a slender volume until you remember that you avoid cliches like the plague, is part essay and part glossary. The essays, on cooking fundamentals such as stocks, salt, even eggs, are pretty good. (Though I don't know many average kitchens that want to cope with 10 pounds of veal bones to make stock.)
The glossary, which makes up about 80% of the book, is just pedantic crap Ruhlman gleaned from his touch-and-go education at the Culinary Institute of America (he attended as a journalist, not a student, but he did take classes).
On page 226 we learn that "Three teaspoons equal one tablespoon." On page 227 we discover that "Three teaspoons equal a tablespoon." Thank you, Michael.
There are definitions for all kinds of French items, techniques, tools. But what home cook even gives a damn what the meaning of "soigné" is? (It's "the French term for elegance and excellence of execution; see 'finesse'".)
Taking baby steps outside the world of French cuisine, he defines "kimchi" but not "paella." "Ceviche" but not "pita."
Several of the glossary entries look like space-fillers. For "bread flour," we are referred to "flour." Yes, ditto for "cake flour."
Oh, and the misspellings. "Liquour." "Wala-Wala onion." No!
It's just a maddening hodgepodge.
Is it useful to you to know that a "lowboy" is restaurant slang for an under-counter refrigerator? Or that "dance" refers to the "elegant synchronicity" of line cooking in professional restaurants? Hell, "dance" in my kitchen is defined as "Get out of my way, this baby is hot!"
I know that Ruhlman is busy building his brand. He's written a cookbook for The French Laundry with Thomas Keller, and helped Eric Ripert with his book-cum-travel junket, "A Return to Cooking" (I hated that book too; gave it away). Ruhlman appears on The Food Network and on his pal Tony Bourdain's show now and then.
This newest book is just another rung on his ladder to superstardom.
He's probably working on a signature tagline right now... but, Michael?
"Bam!" is already taken.


Amelia said...

I have found the best cook books are the ones put out by churches or various clubs. The recipes in them usually call for food that is in most people's kitchen. I certainly do not like to purchase an expensive spice or what-ever to use in a new recipe...knowing good and well the item will be outdated before I use it all up.

Guess I am simple minded - but then I cook simple the raisin pie I made this morning.

cookiecrumb said...

Amelia: And I bet you know the definition of "pie"!
(This is not a cookbook, by the way. I love church cookbooks.)

El said...

Hah! You did have me stumped, mainly because I never thought Ruhlman was a nice man! He's something of a wanker, and a dilettante. (I read his book on his house and just puked.)

And I don't think you're being mean. It's not mean at all to call a spade a spade.

Dagny said...

Now let me get this straight. Three teaspoons equal a tablespoon. OK. I think I can remember that.

dancingmorganmouse said...

Never heard of him and now, thanks to you, I don't think I'll bother. Life is way too short to read bad books (or eat bad food, or drink bad wine, I could go on....)

Liz said...

The only Ruhlman I've read was the book on wooden boats. Maybe he should have stuck with yachts. And I wonder why I don't buy books. ;)

Jennifer Maiser said...

But wait, how many teaspoons in a tablespoon?

kudzu said...

Ah, but praise the Lord, news this week that Emeril is going off the air -- no more "Bam!"...What ever happened to talented, dedicated copy editors? The prose you describe should have been caught before it was let out of the gate...Thanks for your warning -- one more book I won't have to read.

Derrick said...

As someone whose relatively positive review of the same book could be read as fairly negative, I have to note that the book is aimed not only at the home cook but at the restaurant cook. In fact, it may be aimed at the restaurant cook more than the home cook. That's how I understood the marketing copy anyway. The entry for pie still doesn't make for great reference, of course.

Looked at in that light, terms like "lowboy" make more sense.

And yes, I feel the copyeditors did a bum job with the text. I also wish some of the other topics had been researched a bit more.

But there are terms and proportions in there that I can never remember, and it's nice to have one single place to find them. And I thought the essays were pretty good when seen through the eyes of a target market: someone who hasn't thought much about better cooking, but has to cook for a job or who finds himself/herself wanting to step up the craft.

Anonymous said...

Somehow I don't think Ruhlman's target market is restaurant cooks. Having worked in a restaurant, I think I can say with some assurance that most of them don't read. The ones that do already have better books.

Anita said...

hee hee, I guessed right. :)

Sam said...

Applause to Derrick for the best opening first half sentence to a comment ever. I am snorting and giggling at my desk because of it. Mainly because when I read his review a week or two ago I found it exactly the way he has just described it himself.

Mags said...

Meh. I like Bourdain much better anyway.

chilebrown said...

Ruhlman does seem to be everywhere these days. It seems to me, he is cashing in on his 15 minutes of fame. More power to him. I own his book "Charcuterie". It is a bible in my bookshelf.

Jamie said...

That sounds so spectacularly lame. I'll give him a pass for the copyediting problems, since in my experience those can actually be *introduced* by copyeditors. But there's no excuse for half-assed content.

Sean said...

Is "liquour" the British spelling? Oh well, what does it matter -- he's from freaking Ohio!

kudzu said...

A semantic interlude: Reading these posts I became curious about whether there has been a change in style for journalists. Investigating several different sources, I've found that the verb form is copyediting (and may be interchanged with copy editing), while copy editor is two words, as in American Association of Copy Editors. Do a I get a star for my homework?

Anna Haight said...

Not watching television definitely has it's advantages; never heard of him. And won't be buying the book. Thanks!

june2 said...

I thought you were clear without being mean. What's the point of going through a publishing company if they aren't going to protect you from simple mistakes like those?

And most of the kitchen crew in the places I've worked were voracious and eclectic readers, but would probably find a book like this not too useful, so I think his market was meant to be the home chef. It sounds like he had horrible editors.

Derrick said...

Ah, here we go. It wasn't marketing copy that made me think it was aimed at restaurant cooks; it was his sentiment on his blog (whether or not he succeeds in his goal is, of course, a different issue).

From his site:
Every home cook who cares about getting better and every soul who is in or about to attend culinary school. I want all the young cooks who never went to culinary school and have always been nagged by the not-knowing-what-they-missed (probably not as much as they imagine) to buy it. I want every chef to buy it for his or her line cooks. And maybe most of all, beginners—I can't imagine a better starting reference for cooking terms to go along with other food books. I want every professional cook to buy it for the people who cook for them when they're not at work. In short I want everyone who cares about cooking to buy this book.

BTW, cookie, I love the "you're tempted to call a slender volume until you remember that you avoid cliches like the plague" line.

Moonbear said...

I never ever would have guessed, tho I did some puzzling over "bending the rules" and "fiddling". Hmmm. I guess my rabbit ears arent bringing in the superstars.
Some of my all time favorite recipes are from church cookbooks. Sometimes opening three cans, mixing in meat and baking really appeals to me.

cookiecrumb said...

El: Wow! I think you said it better than I did, and more succinctly.

Dagny: No, you got it wrong! It takes two pages to get it right!

Morgan: If Ruhlman has his way, you'll be hearing of him. He wants to ruhl the world.

Liz: Yes, agreeing with you and El, he's too much of a dilettante.

Jen: It's very complicated. You might have to buy the book.

Kudzu: Yeah, I just heard Emeril got canceled! Praise the lord, but I do like the guy just the same.
Gold star for you.

Derrick: I'll answer your second comment here, too. If the book was meant for professional cooks, why is Ruhlman doing the promotional tour of "normal" bookstores? Why is he recruiting bloggers to talk about his book? I will grant that the book is a handy, small reference on some topics, but it's hardly a culinary education.
Anyway. I LIVE for moments when somebody notices my "like the plague" stuff. xxx!

Anonymous: Apparently Ruhlman would have you believe that professional cooks read voraciously. "Please buy many copies of my book!"

Anita: Can't put anything over on you.

Sam: You're good at reading between the lines. Bravo to you and Derrick.

Mags: I hope Bourdain comes here and reads my blog. :-)

Chilebrown: I will grant you, Charcuterie is a great book. Co-written with a chef who knows how to cure meat.

Jamie: It's like when Norman Mailer tossed off a shitty book because he needed some alimony money. (Or was it Kurt Vonnegut?)

Sean: Ruhlman is a cheap drunk! He passed out filming an episode with Bourdain. At the table, they could hardly get a quotable sentence out of him.

Anna: His presence is larger in books than TV, but damn, I think he even wants a movie.

June2: The editing wasn't the worst part. The worst part was finding an acquisitions editor who would green light this garbage.

Moonbear: Ah, yes. "Unit" cooking. A can of this, a bottle of that and a bag of... Fritos! Stir and eat.

Jamie said...

Cookiecrumb - Just one shitty book from Norman Mailer? Heh.

And Kudzu, stop copyediting my copyediting. ;-)

(Honestly, I'd love it if any one of my clients used a stylebook as written. They all use their own super special invented styles "based on AP," "based on Chicago," etc. Not that that makes my life difficult or anything.)

Dagny said...

Two pages? No, it only takes one really good elementary school teacher to get it right. Because that kind of stuff is covered then. ;-)

KathyF said...

You should be mean more often.

Tana Butler said...

This will not be a blistering retort.

I am enjoying the book—which he sent me himself—very much, as a home cook who likes learning the context for fundamentals. Since I could never afford to go to cooking school, I like that someone is laying down that groundwork for me.

I like Michael Ruhlman's writing, anyway: I like his voice, the way he notices details, and if that makes me a sycophant, well, let me sign my contract.

I have met him in person, and I can say that he is clear, kind, and has a great deal of light in his eyes. Wanker? I don't think so. He's kind, well-mannered, and is soundly on the side of the environment, politically.

What harsh comments, y'all. I don't have a problem with Cookiecrumb's critique (though I disagree with lots of it), but is a gangbang really that much fun?

Oooooh, I spotted a typo on page 31, so you definitely should not buy or read this book.

Different strokes, I guess. But he's not a wanker: I know plenty of those.

peter said...


cookiecrumb said...

Tana: I knew (hoped) I would hear from you. Thank you for your side of things. You're not the only one who thinks the book is a useful addition to the home cook's kitchen, and I totally understand that there are lots of good bits of information there.
I sort of sum it up as "a book you can watch Gordon Ramsay with and understand the jargon."
I appreciate you not blistering me. xx

Peter: Hah! Stop it!

Ed Bruske said...

Micheal Ruhlman has written some great books about chefs, food and the craft of cooking. He has a unique voice, a valuable perspective. Alas, he has a family to support as well. Even the best don't hit a home run every time at the plate. Caveat emptor.

chilebrown said...

You think Mr. Ruhlman will make the market tomorrow? I am wondering if Cranky will. Cranky fire up the bicycle and we will buy you coffee and any sweets you want. It is going to be cold as a mofo. I know Cookie will be under the covers. See you at the market. Peace,Paul

cookiecrumb said...

Ed: Well, fortunately I didn't emptor the book. I got it out of the library. :D

Chilebrown: I got my hair washed. See you in the morning.

Kevin said...

I largely concur with your comments, but I can see the book as being valuable to a new cook. It's just not a book that tired old kitchen slaves like us need.

Derrick said...


I agree, surprisingly, that attacking typos can be seeing the trees instead of the forest. Unless a sentence is unclear (the description of quatre epices), does it matter that someone let "Duck and goose is" slip through the editing process (confit)?

Well, probably not. But if you're going to proclaim from the heights that your book is the spiritual descendant of The Elements of Style, shouldn't your editors make sure that your text actually implies that you read Strunk & White? I don't blame Ruhlman for the typos and shoddy sentences. (I do, however, for missing information. I noticed last night that "bechamel" tells you how much flour and how much milk, but not how much butter. Of course, the answer is in "roux," halfway across the book. I know the answer, but does the target reader?) But I think his editors did him a disservice.