Michael Ruhlman, author of the new book The Elements of Cooking, recently spoke with SAVEUR about why he believes American cooks need a remedial course in culinary fundamentals. For an in-depth look at some of our editors’ favorite tips from Elements, click here.
You write that you set out to make Elements a glossary of culinary principles and practices equivalent to the classic Strunk and White writing manual The Elements of Style. Why do you think there have been so few books like this published until now?
I honestly have no idea. I think it’s just where we are in our culinary development as a country. Maybe it’s because we’ve never had writers who’ve had a culinary education.
As cooking has become more a form of entertainment, have people begun to view the fundamentals as the boring stuff?
You know, I was responding to the vacuum without asking why there is a vacuum in the first place. America’s culinary tradition really began after the age of refrigeration. And having no real culinary tradition, we didn’t pass down those basics.
What the culture of food as entertainment does do is train people’s attention on an area of cooking that I don’t think is as important or meaningful or valuable as the fundamentals and everything that comes from them. Unless you know the fundamentals, then you can’t really appreciate what those so-called genius celebrity chefs are doing. The only reason Grant Achatz can do what he does is that his fundamentals are so sound. Auguste Perron is an awesome cook, and I’ve talked to Jeff Cerciello at Bouchon, who staged at El Bulli when it was a conventional restaurant, when Ferran [Adria] was just beginning to sit around thinking of crazy ideas. It’s the fundamentals that are like a key to the locked door.
But you’ve worked with plenty of “genius” chefs yourself, Thomas Keller among them. Is this book your penance for contributing to the culture of superstar chef worship?
[Laughs] That’s interesting, but the answer to that is no. The reason I did this is that the best chefs have always been fanatical about the basics of cooking. Had I not worked with all these chefs, I would’ve always thought, Geez, there’s something they know that I don’t know. But the fact is what I found out when I was writing The Soul of a Chef and_ The French Laundry Cookbook_ was that Thomas Keller was not just following the fundamentals; he was taking them to extremes. When I realized that, I realized, Oh, my God, there’s something really important to these techniques.
So, would it be pointless for someone who doesn’t know the fundamentals to pick up the Bouchon cookbook?
No, it’s not pointless. In fact, because they don’t know the fundamentals, they’re forced to go to the Bouchon cookbook. They can’t improvise. Until people understand the fundamentals, they’re not really cooking; they’re just assembling.
Is there just one way to learn to cook? Can you learn from reading a book?
You have to actually do it. There are people who have taught themselves, and there are many more who have learned under a singular chef that way, and there are increasing numbers learning through schools. It all depends on the person and the type of person you are. You can teach yourself how to cook to some extent, but then there’s a point when you want to progress faster and farther than your own brain can take you.
It sounds as if you thought cooking were a craft in the old sense of the word, where apprenticeship is the best method.
Yes, cooking is a craft, not a science or an art. In fact, I think anyone who calls it an art is a poseur. I just want to be clear about that because it was a big deal with my publisher. The original subtitle they came up with for the book was “Translating the Chef’s Art for Every Kitchen”, but I said, You can’t have me saying that, because I don’t believe it.
Cooking is a physical thing. You actually have to do it with your own hands and work with the product because it is so nuanced. You’ve got to read about it, go do it, and go do it, and go do it again. Paying attention after each time and noticing the small differences, that’s how you learn to cook. It’s all about the senses. The reason some chefs are so good is not that they have some taste genius or imagination; it’s that they’ve done it more. They’ve been at it longer and paid attention better while they were doing it. I mean, Judy Rogers—she’s roasted a thousand legs of lamb. And she’s a smart cook, she’s paid attention. She’s said, Hmm, why is this one different from yesterday’s? Or, This one went up from 90 degrees to 120 degrees way too fast—why did that happen? You’ve got to roast a thousand legs of lamb to get really good at it.
What books, if any, do you use as cooking references?
I list 15 books at the end of Elements that I recommend, including Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking and Joy of Cooking. But mostly I go to cookbooks for ideas. For instance, say I want to make a sausage out of lamb scraps, but I don’t want to do a merguez or pair it with the traditional garlic and rosemary. I’ll go to cookbooks to see what a chef paired with lamb and think about that to make a sausage. I love to cook from the Bouchon cookbook because I think the recipes are just so solid and good, but I almost never cook from recipes. They provide ideas about the ways food comes together—they’re inspiration.