Much of my holiday gift shopping involves books, and this year each cook on my list is getting a compact little compendium of kitchen wisdom called "The Elements of Cooking." Written by one of my favorite authors, Michael Ruhlman, "Elements" is a departure from his best-selling narratives like "The Making of a Chef" and "The Soul of a Chef" or cookbooks like "Charcuterie" and "The French Laundry Cookbook."
I've been sitting here trying to write some lines that would whet your appetite for this elegant little book, but I cannot escape the fact that Anthony Bourdain has, in the introduction, done a better job than I ever could:
Eight essays on vital, primary concepts like stock, sauce, salt, eggs, heat and tools...and an absolutely rock solid definition of every term professional chefs should know as a matter of course after years of working in professional kitchens; now you will learn them easily and concisely -- without burning yourself, cutting yourself, or having your ass kicked in the process.
Ruhlman was en route home to Cleveland from a month-long book tour when he took a few moments to answer my questions.
CE: The book's impassioned first chapter on the importance of well-
made stock has almost -- almost -- convinced me to take on the
making of veal stock. Do you swear on your love of Cleveland that
"It's no more difficult than chicken stock"?
MR: Absolutely. Though don't buy ten pounds of bones, just two or three will do. Buy a veal breast at the grocery store and have them cut it up; it's
perfect for veal stock.
CE: One of my most-loved cookbooks is the stunning "A Return to Cooking," your collaborative work with chef Eric Ripert. The recipe for snapper with caramelized and braised shallots on a puree of fresh cranberry beans is an entire cooking lesson captured on a few pages,as are so many of the other recipes. If Eric suddenly phoned and said he was coming to Cleveland for a brief visit, what would you cook for him?
MR: Pork belly, of course!
CE: I've read nearly all of your books but my favorite is "House: A Memoir." Having survived several long and gut-wrenching remodels of a 1910 so-called "summer cottage," I raced through "House" on an empathetic surge of I'm-not-putting-this-down-until-I've-reach-the-end. One of the many delights of the Cleveland episode of No Reservations was the glimpse inside your home. Are there still rooms that need work? Certainly the kitchen looks spectacular. And, if you'd known at the beginning what you do now, would you still have undertaken this project? And would your wife, similarly knowledgeable, have agreed, fled or murdered you in your sleep?
MR: While the kitchen and my office are splendid, the living room looks
half like a living room, half like a studio and half like an office,
something you'd find in NYC in SoHo. The guest bedroom fireplace and
hearth are still bare concrete; must tile it this winter! Our bedroom is
bare and unfinished. But all in all I feel like a king in my house
and would not change any decision we've made. Donna may at any moment
come to her senses and murder me in my sleep.
CE: I was intrigued to read that you "started writing at age 10 and have written something almost ever day in the ensuing years." I've also read that while a student at Duke you studied with Reynolds Price. (When I was a Duke I never had the courage to take one of his courses: a major life regret). Early next year Duke celebrates Price's 50 years of teaching. What specific impact did he have on your writing?
MR: You missed a great opportunity to study with Reynolds--that man is connected to the source. His impact on my writing? Were it not for him, I'd never be able to make a living at it, and so I'd long ago have had to cut my throat. He taught me how to sit down and do the work. I wasn't very good, and he gave me the tools to keep working at it until through stubbornness I figured it out.