The Ruhlman Rules

Cleveland's foremost culinary voice shares his secrets to food, hair and schmaltz

If you Google Michael Ruhlman, it's obvious this nationally recognized, "accidental" food writer's success is really no accident. Ruhlman has made few, if any, mistakes in his career or life. He even manages to pick the best week to go to Florida. It was 74 and sunny in Key West and seven frigid degrees in Cleveland for our phone interview. Whether it's luck or an uncanny ability to always make the right decision, Ruhlman was in Key West — channeling his inner Hemingway — spending his mornings writing. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

According to your Facebook page, I understand you've been cooking for sailors in Key West?

I've been cooking for sailors for a week now and I'm massively hung over, is what I am.

Were they sailors or pirates?

A little of both — they're here for the Key West Regatta. My cousin, Bob Ruhlman, is a big sailor and is competing in the race and I'm cooking for his crew. I write in the morning, in so far as I'm capable — but last night was a rather rough one. I cook in the afternoon. We have dinner in the evening and then we go out. It's been sort of a heavenly scenario for me.

Heavenly indeed, do you have any idea how cold it is here?

Yes, I know — my wife is more than a little pissed that I'm here.

I've detected a certain reluctance when you refer to yourself as a "food writer." Do you dislike being defined by this category?

I actually just published a Kindle single on this topic. I titled it,  "Accidental Food Writer." It's a 35-page essay explaining how I got to where I am. When I started writing, no one set out to be a food writer. It wasn't a category of writing anyone aspired to. My approach has been different. I'm telling people to have sex while roasting a chicken.

My favorite roasted chicken recipe.

Thank you, so much. I hope you use it often. (laughing)

What is the tally of books you've published?

Nine of my own non-fiction and food writing, ten collaborative works with other professional chefs and me as cook and author, one e-book, one kindle single and three apps.

You blog, tweet and are very active on Facebook. How do you feel about juggling all the new media?

I enjoy it but it's a mixed bag. It's very hard. Life has become more fragmented and my brain has become more fragmented. I don't know what I'm losing or gaining because of it. I don't know how it's affecting my work. What would I have produced had there not been twitter to distract me? Or the internet to educate me? Or Twitter to ask questions of people, to get a sense of the zeitgeist out there ... to be able to know what people need and what they want. It's a mixed bag that gets cleared up with a stiff whiskey at the end of the day.

Are you taking a lower tech approach to life while in Key West?

No, I'm still more connected than I would like to be. You can't get away from it, nor do I want to. It's the way I promote my work and sell my apps. I need to keep doing these things to keep money coming in. I've got to keep paying the bills. When Donna and I were a younger, we were always very poor and always frantically worried about money and that sort of fear of poverty never really goes away. Alas. Something self-employed people can identify with — especially writers, and reporters also.

Let's talk about your latest venture, The Book of Schmaltz: A Love Song to a Forgotten Fat. What led you to shine such a glaring spotlight on such a humble ingredient?

Well, I've always been interested in the importance of fat in cooking. And it coincides with America's panic and unfounded fear of fat and their ignorance about what it is and how it can be used. I wrote a book called Charcuterie, which is basically a love song to animal fat and salt — two main buzzwords of American nutrition and cultural fear. It became a bestseller because it was based on truth and people were glad to finally know. I've always had a love of fat. I came to write this book because I always enjoyed poaching duck legs in duck fat. I had known about schmaltz and had been curious about it. So, when my neighbor, Lois Baron, announced at a party she had to leave to make schmaltz because the Jewish high holy days are coming. I turned to her and asked if she would teach me about schmaltz. She laughed at me and said, "Are you kidding me?" I told her that I want to write a book about it. She laughed so hard she started coughing. I finally convinced her I was serious. She was my introduction and guide to schmaltz.

The e-book for iPad is a work of art — the photos, fonts and layout are quite appealing. Can you talk a bit about how that all came together?

Well, I have nothing to do with photography. The pictures are all the work of my wife, Donna Turner Ruhlman. We found a terrific graphic designer, Phong Nguyen, who did a fabulous job. We used all Cleveland people. April Clark in Westlake digitized it. It wasn't just me. It's how these books get done, with a lot of people coming together.

What made you decide to release this book as an iPad app first?

I wanted to release it as an app because, frankly, I wanted to experiment with what apps can do. Apps allow for different things to happen. They change when you tilt the tablet.  We have Lois do a lovely little audio interview that talks about schmaltz. You can listen to it on the iPad. I liked that interactivity and that was exciting to discover and experiment with. I'm always looking at new stuff — I like doing new things, not old things. What's interesting is we were going to introduce it to iBooks for Kindle and for all electronic media. But, we showed a PDF of  'Schmaltz' to (Little, Brown and Company) who was making an offer on a bigger book of mine.  They loved it so much, they said, "We want this, we're going to publish this." I said, "That's done — I've already published it," and they said, "We still want to buy it and you can still publish it electronically." We have the electronic rights and they have the hardcover rights. It's sort of a publishing first, where a publisher has bought a product that was going to be published in another format in the same country.

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