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Thursday, September 8, 2011

On My Bookshelf: Michael Ruhlman and Kathleen Flinn

Hello, my name is Krista and I am a reader.

Can I get a collective "Hello, Krista"?

Thank you.  I have been doing a profane act over the last month, cleaning my cookbook shelves.  I have a handful of cookbooks I use all the time, a handful that are mostly aspirational (I'm looking at YOU, Thomas Keller.  No, not you, Ina Garten.  We're still good.  Kisses.) and some that see an occasional use.  In order to make space for newer, shinier cookbooks, I've been culling a few from the shelves.

No, the Keller cookbooks aren't going anywhere.  I still need cookbooks with pretty pictures and things I'm incapable of making.
I also have a shelf of food literature, because sometimes it's as much fun to read about food as it is to actually cook.  I mean, you can read about food at the gym or on a plane, but not so much actually cook in those places.

Cleaning and culling prompted me to re-read a couple of food literature books that are worth recommending to other foodies, Kathleen Flinn's The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry and Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef.  These books make me want to go back to Paris, go to a top-tier cooking school and never become a professional chef.  Simultaneously.

Flinn's book chronicles a year in which she is downsized from her job in London, decides not to return to her native Seattle, moves to Paris to attend Le Cordon Bleu and gets married.  Although the book was published in 2007 before the financial downturn, it rings especially true in these uncertain economic times.  What would you do if you lost your job and could do the thing that most interested you?  In her case, she is reminded by her new beau that she said she always wanted to attend Le Cordon Bleu.  She packed her bags, moved to Paris with a semester of college French and took all three parts of the school's fundamentals course.  Flinn chronicles the extreme difficulty of the coursework, her relationships with her fellow students from far-flung lands and her struggles with the language with humor and the occasional recipe.  It's a fast, fun read.

Ruhlman's book is divided into three parts, the first of which covers the Certified Master Chef examination at the Culinary Institute of America.  The second covers a chef from Ruhlman's hometown of Cleveland, Michael Symon, as he starts his restaurant Lola.  The final section covers the rise of Thomas Keller from teenager to the owner of the famed French Laundry (the book was published well before he opened his subsequent restaurants). 

Full disclosure:  I've eaten at French Laundry and while I appreciate what Keller does, it's not my favorite kind of dining experience--too fussy, and David and I felt like we had to be on our best behavior.  The dining room had a hushed atmosphere that wasn't conducive to relaxing and enjoying the food.  It just didn't feel fun, plus the tasting menu was too much food even for David, and that's saying something.  Ruhlman is downright reverential about Keller, and while I enjoyed knowing how Keller came to be one of this country's most famous chefs, I didn't feel like it merited a hundred pages.

The Michael Symon section is more interesting, if for no other reason as an example of a kitchen that is run more casually than Keller's.  What I take from this section is how hard it is to open a restaurant, please the public AND the critics and produce food that is consistently true to the chef's vision.

But the first section is easily the best.  Seven established chefs spend ten days at the CIA's Hyde Park campus taking cooking tests on specific skill sets from classical French to nutritional to Asian cuisine.  This includes multiple days where they show up, receive a basket of food and have to design and prepare a menu from it within four to five hours.  This section is intense, a real knuckle-biter:  cooking as a high-wire act, or a suspense story.  I've read this book before, but when I reread this section I literally couldn't put it down.  Several of the chefs don't make it through the entire process, but the ones that remain at the end are distinct characters.  I won't spoil the story--you'll find yourself rooting for them.

I'm always looking for more food literature--if you have suggestions, sound off in the comments section.

Not a great photo of my kitchen, and a whole section of wine and cheese books is hiding behind the dining room table.


  1. Love the book reviews! I'll have to add them to my never-ending list. :) I'm currently reading Blood, Bones, and Butter. It's really good so far!!! I recommend that you check it out.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion! That one was on my radar, but I hadn't picked it up yet.

  3. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver is an interesting read.

  4. I love the cookbook shelves! I have my favorites in a bookshelf in the study and the rest in a bookshelf in the garage! I love vintage cookbooks....interested in reviewing and updating some old classics?

  5. I too love shelves and shelves of cookbooks! I collect them with abandon, and like you, I have a few that I return to often. Many of the others collect dust, but I really like knowing that they are there.
    Thanks for the recommendations, I'm always on the lookout for good books!

  6. If you haven't already read it, Muriel Barbery's Gourmet Rhapsody is a feast ;) if you can read it in the original French even better. Also, Farm City is a great read.

  7. Thanks for sharing your reviews! I have added a few to my list of cookbook to add to my library.