Soul Kitchen

Meet Michael Ruhlman, the celebrity chef without a restaurant.

Michael Ruhlman
Michael Ruhlman leans back in a chair in his Cleveland Heights kitchen, a Marlboro Light in one hand and a glass of Laphroaig in the other. For once, the lanky 43-year-old author and chef seems at ease. He's just wooed a first-time visitor with an indulgent homemade meal, and he is obviously relishing the break from his omnipresent deadlines to talk about food and drink for a while. It's about as mellow a midday hiatus as he can imagine, complete with flames dancing in the fireplace and a Chet Baker CD playing softly in the background. Perhaps best of all, it's his excuse to chill, without the nagging fear that he is slacking. The luscious duck and pork belly he prepared for lunch was research, he assures us, and if all goes as planned, the recipes and techniques will soon find their way into a book on sous vide, the art of cooking with, of all things, vacuum-sealed bags.

If it's true that a man makes his own good luck, Ruhlman isn't about to be caught napping, and so far, it's obvious that his hard work, relentless self-discipline, and innate perfectionism have yielded success beyond any reasonable expectations. Less than 10 years after he first stumbled into the food-writing biz --with his candid first-person account of his education at New York's prestigious Culinary Institute of America (1997's The Making of a Chef) -- Ruhlman is providing a handsome lifestyle for his wife and two young children. He's also a fine chef, both by natural inclination and by virtue of his CIA training. He may, in fact, be one of the city's best -- but no way is he going to cook for you. Ruhlman is content to create at his home stove; the closest you will come to tasting his artistry are the words he serves up in his books.

"Michael is easily one of the most respected writers on the subject of food and chefs in America, particularly within the industry," says Anthony Bourdain, a nationally known chef, author, and television personality who is among Ruhlman's closest friends. "He's probably the very best observer and chronicler of the lives of chefs and of the peculiar subculture that is the restaurant business."

But Ruhlman is more than that; he enjoys a life that most foodies would gladly trade their Cuisinarts to taste. He's been confidant and housemate of Thomas Keller, the much honored chef-owner of Napa Valley's French Laundry restaurant. He's tooled around the Nevada desert in an El Dorado convertible with Bourdain. And when Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Manhattan's four-star Le Bernardin, wanted someone to document his search for his inner cook, Ruhlman was his go-to guy. His work has boosted him into the elite world of national celebrity chefs, giving him a connection to the modern American food scene that no other Clevelander can claim.

And it doesn't hurt that Ruhlman is easy on the eyes. Model handsome and slimmer than his publicity photos make him out to be, the 6-foot-4-inch blond pads about his kitchen in bare feet, long legs wrapped in faded jeans, tanned arms sticking out of a rumpled Ralph Lauren Oxford almost as blue as his eyes. It'd be no surprise to find Ruhlman at least a little arrogant and self-centered. On the contrary, he is almost humble, even within the cocoon of his own comfortable home, an expansive 1901 beauty that he has renovated from attic to basement (and about which he's written a book, the 2005 memoir House).

Chalk it up, maybe, to the inherent effects of being an only child. Or perhaps the years of adhering to a solitary writing schedule have dulled his capacity for self-promotion. Whatever the reasons, though, while Ruhlman is gracious and polite, he's a strange amalgam of shyness and professorial solemnity, and almost twitchy around outsiders. He answers questions briefly, often with self-deprecating humor, and he professes constant amazement that anyone would want to know any more about him than they can read on one of his dust jackets.

"What are you going to say about me?" he asks repeatedly. "Just don't bore anyone."

Happily, Ruhlman's culinary know-how has been placed in the service of several lunchtime interviews, which he has agreed to host; for our second meeting, he's roasting a chicken, which he will serve with mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach. Lofty credentials notwithstanding, Ruhlman admits that he never learned how to truss a fowl, and his determined efforts to corral this one's errant appendages and close her gaping orifices are beginning to resemble something from a snuff flick. His long, slender fingers flutter over the chicken's pale skin seemingly at random, trailing kitchen string around legs and wings, until at last the bird is bound to his satisfaction. "Trussing isn't really essential," he sniffs as he finally slides the chicken into the blazing Viking oven. "It's just that an untrussed bird looks sloppy, like a slatternly woman."

The peculiar simile still hangs in the air as Ruhlman turns to his Boos cutting board and begins transforming garlic cloves into the finest possible dice for later use in the chicken au jus. His hands are trembling violently.

Ask Ruhlman to pinpoint the origins of his passion, and the conversation quickly turns to his days at Duke University and his friend and mentor, Reynolds Price. A noted novelist, poet, playwright, and longtime professor of English, Price first encountered Ruhlman in the early 1980s, when the sophomore signed up for his creative writing class.

"I began teaching at Duke in 1958, and in all those years, only 15 or 20 young people have come along who were gifted enough to become writers," Price says by phone from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. "Of those, only two or three have gone on to do so, and Michael is one of them. Most of the rest of them just couldn't take the solitude."

Not that Price initially figured Ruhlman for a success. "At the time, he simply looked like a drastic hippie. His hair was long, his clothes were disheveled, and he had this enormously intense and serious demeanor. We called him 'Mad Dog' -- you know, if he bites you, you're going to need some shots. But he certainly could write. He did good work, right from the start."

After Duke, Ruhlman landed a position as newsroom copyboy at The New York Times and kicked around New York for a few years before moving on to Florida. When he finally returned to Cleveland in 1991, it was with a wife, photographer Donna Turner; a job offer from Northern Ohio Live; and an idea for a book inspired by his experiences at University School, a private academy for boys in Hunting Valley.

His research for the book was painstaking and found him spending virtually every day of the 1993-'94 school year on the campus, a grown man among boys, "attending classes, talking with students and teachers, and generally hanging out."

Ruhlman's immersion paid off: When the book, Boys Themselves, was finally published in 1996, it not only garnered positive critical attention from The New York Times Book Review and Publisher's Weekly; it served as validation for Ruhlman's "crazy notion" that maybe he could make his living this way. Perhaps most important, it defined the elements of what would become his MO: exhaustive research, acute observation, first-person reporting, and heartfelt, almost dreamlike prose.

My goal [in deciding to attend the CIA] was both humble and presumptuous: I wanted to learn how to put myself in the service of the potato. This was to me the key phrase, "in the service of," the axis, the unmoving shaft, of a statement with many ramifications. Is great cooking really art? Are chefs artists? . . . Also, I love to eat potatoes.

-- The Making of a Chef

In retrospect, Ruhlman's decision -- to "impersonate" a culinary student, with his true identity as an author known only to the school's top administrators -- was inspired. "Actually, even at the time, I was amazed that no one had thought to do it before," he admits, as his kitchen starts to fill with smoke from the sizzling chicken. "It seemed so obvious. In fact, I didn't want to talk about the project to anyone beforehand, mainly because I was worried that someone else would do it before I did."

(While he reminisces, he keeps one eye on a clock. An hour has expired, so he suspends the conversation to remove the perfectly roasted chicken from the oven, then places it on a cutting board and begins deglazing the pan with water and a splash of Crane Lake. "Let the chicken rest for at least 10 minutes," he intones. "That's very important. The juices are close to the surface after roasting, so let the chicken relax and the juices redistribute themselves into the meat." Meantime, his mashed potatoes, warming in a pan on the stove top, begin to scorch.)

At the time, Ruhlman contends, he had no idea that his CIA studies and the subsequent book would set him on the path toward his calling as a food writer. "Going in, I just thought, 'Hey, this might be cool. I'll pick up some cooking tips, write about it, and then move on to my next book, whatever that may be.'"

He undertook a life-altering experience instead.

"One of the things I had learned from Reynolds [Price] was to always look outward and not to write about yourself. And that was something I always tried to do, until The Making of a Chef. But somehow, learning to be a professional chef was all about changing who I was inside. I couldn't write about the process without writing about myself and about the changes that were going on within me."

In the book, he likens the transformation from struggling novice to skilled professional to stepping onto an airport's pedestrian conveyor belts: "You are walking just as fast as you were, but, suddenly, space and time fly over you at double the rate and with ease."

He emerged from the CIA program as a "real" chef and a more focused writer.

"What I realized after completing the program was how many food writers had no basis for what they were writing about. They didn't really know the basics of cooking, and so they were missing out on all the great stories."

Before long, Ruhlman was delivering the great stories in national publications such as Gourmet, Saveur, and Food Arts, and piecing together a plan of attack for a second book about chefs and cooking that would ultimately become his best-known work to date.

By the summer of 1997, Ruhlman's creative juices were flowing, but his finances were still a mess. As he waited for The Making of a Chef to come out and tried to interest a publisher in a new proposal, the newly minted chef supported his family by taking a job as a line cook in the kitchen of Sans Souci, a top-rated Mediterranean restaurant in downtown's Renaissance Cleveland Hotel. "Those days were just nerve-racking," Ruhlman says. "I was very depressed about how hard [writing] was and how little money I was getting for it, and how I was going to make this writing thing work."

At the same time as he was toiling in the hotel kitchen, Ruhlman decided to introduce himself to Susie Heller, a well-connected culinarian who owned a restaurant and catering business in Chagrin Falls called Stix. He was stunned to discover that Heller was immersed in a mouthwatering project of her own.

"We talked a little about what I was up to and where I was headed," he later wrote, "and she said these words, words that had that soprano lilt of hers . . . but that sounded in my ears like a kettledrum: 'I'm doing a book with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, and we're looking for a writer.'"

What they had envisioned was an opus that would be as much about Keller's extraordinary artistry as it was about recipes, one that expressed his philosophy as much as it captured his cooking style, and they were searching for an accomplished author to pen it. Ruhlman couldn't believe his timing.

"I don't think I actually stood on the seat and waved my arms, but I do recall that to my surprise, my hand had risen involuntarily into the air," he later wrote. "'Hello, call on me! Here I am! Exactly what you're looking for!'"

By December 1997, The Making of a Chef hit bookshelves, Penguin Books bought Ruhlman's latest proposal (for an insider's look at the pursuit of culinary perfection, which would become The Soul of a Chef), and The French Laundry Cookbook got the go-ahead from Heller and Keller. Ruhlman set off for Napa Valley, where he spent three intensive weeks living in Keller's home, shadowing him in the restaurant, and attempting to capture the nuances of the man's inimitable genius. "Providence had intervened and carried me aloft clear across the continent," he wrote of the experience. "This was it. I was here. I'd penetrated to the very core of the profession."

Published in 1999, The French Laundry Cookbook -- huge, artful, and beautifully photographed -- went on to win national kudos as one of the most dazzling and insightful celebrity-chef cookbooks ever. It sold more than 300,000 copies, "an extraordinary number for a $50 coffee-table cookbook with impossible recipes," Ruhlman says. And as word of its importance spread, so did Ruhlman's reputation.

"It was truly amazing. It hadn't been more than four or five months since I finished writing The Making of a Chef, and suddenly, I'm going out to write about the best restaurant in the country. It was just a gift from God -- divine intervention, as far as I'm concerned."

With the success of The French Laundry Cookbook -- and his indelible connection to Keller -- Ruhlman was becoming a commodity among celebrity chefs. When Tony Bourdain -- executive chef at N.Y.C.'s Brasserie Les Halles, television personality, and tattletale author of Kitchen Confidential -- needed help with a project, the iconoclastic culinarian looked to Cleveland.

"Bourdain had reviewed [The] Soul of a Chef for The New York Times and liked it," Ruhlman recalls, "so I wrote him an e-mail, and then he wrote me back, and then, when he wanted to get his show [2000's A Cook's Tour] into the French Laundry, he gave me a call.

"He said, 'If you help me get in there, I'll fly you out to California and we can have dinner.' So that's how it happened, and we became friends."

Ruhlman's relationship with Bourdain continues to be a source of amusement and amazement. "He's a goddamn freak of nature," Ruhlman says, shaking his head and laughing. "He's so entertaining." Just last fall, the author joined Bourdain on a Las Vegas episode of the chef's new Travel Channel show, No Reservations. Together, they ducked into a dive bar to guzzle "ass juice" with the locals, engaged in a fearsome paintball battle for Cleveland's honor, and almost incidentally evaluated the fare at several high-profile Vegas restaurants.

Ruhlman's preppy good looks offered the perfect foil for the skinny, strung-out-looking Bourdain. But while the two made it a point to trade jabs with each other throughout the show, Bourdain's off-camera respect for Ruhlman could hardly be more heartfelt.

"He can drink like a champion, to no apparent ill effects, takes a ball-busting like a hero, and gives it back double," Bourdain says, "and as much as I've tried -- mightily and persistently -- to lead him astray, he remains, I'm afraid, a deeply moral, decent man. Why I hang out with him, I . . . just . . . don't . . . know."

(The No Reservations incident also illustrates what an incestuous little community the culinary inner circle really is. Turns out, Bourdain's Vegas adventure began as an assignment from Gourmet; you can read all about it in the October 2005 edition. As for the article's references to a mysterious "Mr. Black," Bourdain's anonymous dining companion? That would be Ruhlman, of course. Then, as a bonus, turn to page 78 and check out "Love to Love You, Baby." It's a profile of Emeril Lagasse, the biggest celebrity chef of all time, penned by none other than Ruhlman.)

Last spring, Ruhlman also appeared on the small screen as host and judge on the PBS reality show Cooking Under Fire, along with celebrity chefs Ming Tsai (of Boston's Blue Ginger) and Todd English, whose empire includes nine restaurant concepts in cities ranging from New York to Tokyo. The show pitted a crew of unknown chefs and wannabes against one another, Survivor-style, with Ruhlman and his fellow judges deciding when, and on whom, the axe fell.

"The chef fraternity is a creative, close-knit community," says executive producer John Rieber. "And with his background and perspective, Michael is sort of looked on as 'the professor,' someone who can highlight the elements of [culinary] success and failure, in an almost scholarly fashion. He is held in such high regard, he was a natural, and he has an empathy that spoke both to the aspiring chefs and to the audience in a way that neither Ming nor Todd could do."

Up next for Ruhlman is the May release of his 11th book, The Reach of a Chef, a look at the extraordinary commercial impact that celebrity chefs like Keller and Emeril have had on attitudes toward food and dining. At the same time, his first book on cooking may find new life in Hollywood: Ruhlman sold a screenplay he adapted from The Making of a Chef, and writer-director-producer Richard LaGravenese (The Horse Whisperer, The Fisher King) has expressed interest in directing it.

"I don't get too emotionally invested in the screenplay," Ruhlman shrugs. Nonetheless, ask him whom he would choose to portray himself in the movie, and he fires back a ready response: "I'd actually enjoy Danny DeVito," he says with an impossibly straight face. "He's a great actor, and he's a hell of a lot funnier than I am."

As Ruhlman's reputation flourishes, he remains in high regard among Cleveland's top culinarians too. "He's pretty amazing," says fellow CIA grad Michael Symon, chef-owner of Lolita and the soon-to-reopen Lola Bistro, widely considered among Cleveland's best restaurants. "If I have food questions, he's the guy I turn to. He's so knowledgeable and well traveled -- more than I will ever be -- and he's such a perfectionist."

Symon and Ruhlman met in the mid-1990s, when the author was preparing to ship out to the Culinary Institute and Symon was shaking up Cleveland dining at the Caxton Café. "He spent several months with me in the kitchen, doing preliminary research," Symon recalls. "He wanted to talk about the school and get his feet wet before he went to New York." They remained friends, and later, as Ruhlman prepared to write The Soul of a Chef, he chose Symon, along with Keller and Michigan chef-restaurateur Brian Polcyn, as the focuses of his story.

Amid this entrancing tale of what goes on in the mind of a professional chef, there are also very recognizable bits of Cleveland. Want to know how Symon and his wife and partner, Liz, scraped together Lola's start-up funds? It's in there. Or how Cleveland food-service expert Stephen Michaelides helped forge Lola's national reputation? That's there too -- along with other telling tidbits that may have you jumping up and shouting, "Hey! I know that guy!"

Today, while Ruhlman will gladly sing the praises of local chefs like Symon, Parker Bosley (of Parker's New American Bistro), and Doug Katz (Fire), he has little good to say about the overall caliber of the Cleveland scene. "Like the economy, we're about 10 years behind," he says, contending that Cleveland lacks a sufficient number of diners sophisticated enough to encourage chefs to experiment.

"To do the hellishly hard work of opening a restaurant, just to have to serve huge portions of broccoli, mashed potatoes, and steak? It just isn't worth it for a cutting-edge chef," he scoffs. "It's a process of education, of course, and people like Michael, Doug, and Parker are great educators. But until we get more sophisticated palates here in Cleveland, we're not going to have great restaurants."

Yet as casually as Ruhlman fires off his gloomy assessment on eating in Cleveland, he follows up with concern that it not be interpreted as a slam against his hometown, to which he is unabashedly devoted. In fact, his 2005 memoir, House, is nothing if not a 243-page love song to the importance of having roots. He's clearly tired of having to justify his choice of residence.

"Look, I could have lived anywhere I wanted to," he says, "but I moved back here because I love this town." He pauses then, to gesture out the kitchen windows and toward his shaded yard. "Here, I'm surrounded by the smell of the rain on the sidewalk and the leaves and the change of seasons and the gray -- I love the gray -- and it lets me know who I am.

"And even though my dad being here is a huge reason I came back, I just like Cleveland. There's a richness to my life that I gained by returning to the place where I grew up, and that's something I could never find anyplace else."

As successful as Ruhlman has been at food writing, he has been constantly drawn to craftsmanship and the pursuit of perfection in other areas. That's what led him to delve into projects that have taken him far beyond the scope of food, most notably in his 2001 book Wooden Boats: In Pursuit of the Perfect Craft at an American Boatyard and 2003's Walk on Water: Inside an Elite Pediatric Surgical Unit. Ruhlman calls that book, about Cleveland Clinic cardiac surgeon Roger Mee, his most challenging -- and most rewarding -- undertaking to date.

"I was just fascinated with the stresses within that workplace and how they shape you," he says. "Who do you become when you open up babies' chests and hold these little hearts in your hand every day? What does that do to you? So I hung out with [Mee] at the Clinic every day, starting at 8 a.m., for 18 months, attending conferences, watching surgeries, talking to parents and nurses and other doctors, just to try and figure it out. It was a pretty steep learning curve, but it was a wonderful experience."

From Reynolds Price, his mentor at Duke, Ruhlman learned a fundamental lesson: "If you're going to write, you must simply sit down every day and do it," Price says. Today, even with 10 books, numerous national magazine articles, and another book on the way this spring, Ruhlman still writes as if his life depends on it, rising at 5:30 a.m., juggling numerous projects at a time, and constantly wrestling with the fear that someday, somehow, he might have to get a real job. As he describes his schedule, he stares deeply into a glass of his "house wine" -- the dirt-cheap Crane Lake Cabernet Sauvignon, found on the bottom shelf of your neighborhood grocery -- and then sighs. "It's hard as hell to be a professional writer. And the idea that I might not be able to pay the bills or send the kids to school -- it's a constant terror."

Still, stretched out in his chair and comfortably sated, Ruhlman declares that he will confine himself to food writing. "I can do it well, it comes easily to me, and I've developed knowledge that it would be foolish not to make use of."

His newest book, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, came out in November. Between that project and his current preoccupation with sous vide technique -- the process calls for vacuum-packing meats in plastic, then cooking them at low temperatures in a hot-water bath -- he's riding a home-cooking high, promulgating a DIY approach to dining almost as a route to inner peace.

"In a world where we are increasingly distanced from our neighbors and the things that matter, and are increasingly isolated from one another, food is a way back to that connection," he says earnestly. "That's why we've become so adoring of our chefs. They have become our magicians and our artists. If people could just learn to prepare good food at home, that would be half the battle."

Ruhlman, however, will continue to be the celebrity chef who cooks only for his family; the written word will remain the world's sole insight into his passion. "Cooking well -- and eating well -- and the interest it generates is important," he maintains. "It's a necessity. What I'm doing is just taking a basic human need, like sex, and trying to give it the reverence it deserves."

And in the meantime, if Tony Bourdain wants to go out and score some ass juice, Ruhlman will be there at his side.

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