My Year in the C.I.A.:Infiltrating the Foodies

The Making of a Chef , by Michael Ruhlman. Henry Holt and Company, $27.50, 305 pages.

Several years ago, I had a meal of a lifetime at Marc Meneau’s three-star restaurant, Auberge à l’Espérance, in Vezelay, Burgundy. We began lunch with fried Marenne oysters topped with caviar and went on to morels cooked in truffle juice followed by cromesquis, little breaded balls that squirted melted butter, foie gras, marc and truffle juice into the back of your throat when you bit into them. After a flawless piece of turbot roasted with onions and truffled poulet de Bresse, I could eat no more. When the waiter set a large bowl of chicken soup before me, I almost burst into tears. He was unmoved. “The chef says you must try this.”

There was no argument. But with the first mouthful, I felt that I had discovered a whole new food. (Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once wrote about a Prince de Soubise whose steward ordered 50 hams and when asked for an explanation, the prince replied that he only needed one for the table; the rest were for his stock and his brown sauce. I don’t know whether Mr. Meneau used 50 chickens for the stock for his soup, but never had I tasted anything like it.)

Michael Ruhlman understands the concept of a good stock and goes straight to the point in The Making of a Chef , a memoir of a year he spent at the Culinary Institute of America. “I rented our home in Cleveland, moved virtually everything we owned into my father’s house, and transported my wife (a photographer who had paying clients in the city we were leaving), our daughter (not yet ambulatory) and myself 500 miles to a one-bedroom garret above a garage in Tivoli, N.Y., a town with a ‘1-to-1 human [to] cow ratio.’ I had done all of this, I eventually realized, in order to learn how to make a superlative brown veal stock.”

Mr. Ruhlman is not a chef, but a writer. He enrolled himself at the C.I.A., a residential college devoted entirely to cooking in a former monastery on the banks of the Hudson River in Hyde Park, N.Y., to learn the elements of what makes a great cook. There he began his training with Skills 1 (stock making), finishing at the final kitchen, the American Bounty Restaurant, where students act both as cooks and waiters.

While I love cooking and have always been fascinated by restaurant kitchens at work, I have never for a moment felt the urge to become a chef. I couldn’t take the hours, for a start. Chefs and line cooks typically work six days a week, usually on 10-hour shifts and longer, often going from dawn till midnight. Depending on when their restaurant is open, they may not see their families on Christmas, Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day, and if their day off falls on a Monday, they don’t see much of their children. Not surprisingly, they have a high divorce and burn-out rate.

As for working conditions, they have certainly improved since George Orwell was a dishwasher at the Hotel George V in Paris 54 years ago, but Orwell’s description in Down and Out in Paris and London will sound familiar to anyone who has ever cooked in a restaurant. “The kitchen was like nothing I had ever seen or imagined-a stifling low-ceilinged inferno of a cellar, red-lit from the fires, and deafening with oaths and the clanging of pots and pans. It was so hot that all the metalwork except the stoves had to be covered with cloth. In the middle were furnaces, where 12 cooks skipped to and fro, their faces dripping sweat in spite of their white caps. Around that were counters where a mob of waiters and plongeurs clamored with trays.… Everyone seemed to be in a hurry and a rage. The head cook, a fine, scarlet man with big moustachios, stood in the middle booming continuously. ‘ Ça marche deux oeufs brouillés! Ça marche un chateaubriand aux pommes sautées !'”

But in recent years, despite the physical toll of this kind of work, the number of people wishing to become professional cooks has increased dramatically. When Ferdinand Metz, the current director of the C.I.A., arrived in 1980, the food revolution was already under way in America, and a chef’s profession was no longer a blue-collar job; it was glamorous. Chefs became celebrities; they appeared on TV and were profiled in glossy magazines.

Enrollment at the C.I.A. is now double what it was 25 years ago. It has an operating budget of $65 million and numbers between 8,000 and 10,000 students a year in its undergraduate and continuing education programs. “While it has never been known for creating legions of cutting-edge chefs and its graduates are often criticized en masse for thinking they know more than they do and demanding more money than they’re worth, the C.I.A. is nevertheless called the Harvard of cooking schools,” writes Mr. Ruhlman, who goes on to list some of its famous graduates: Jasper White, Waldy Malouf, Chris Schlesinger, Dean Fearing, Susan Feniger, Rick Moonen, David Burke and Todd English.

At the C.I.A., full-time students study for 30 weeks in seven different kitchens, after which they do an externship in a restaurant or hotel. Then they return to learn baking and pastry, wines and menus, restaurant planning and law, after which they move back into the kitchen for the final chunk of their degree, which concludes with 12 weeks in the school’s four public restaurants.

Mr. Ruhlman’s memoir is immersed in cooking details-how a hollandaise differs from one day to the next and why, how to debone and stuff a chicken, how salt draws the concentration of protein to the surface of meat. “Protein is what caramelizes; if the salmon had a good deep caramelization on the grill without being overcooked, it had been salted before cooking.” He is taught how to season pasta water properly. (And you thought you only had to throw in a little salt!) Even the club sandwich is a challenge. When students had assembled the different elements of the sandwich, they had to put in 240 toothpicks. “The most important part,” writes Mr. Ruhlman, without a touch of irony. “They’ve got to go straight down through all the layers. If they don’t go straight down, the knife catches them and pulls the sandwich apart and the toothpick gets cut in half, and whoever eats that half will not be a happy camper. The science of doing a club sandwich is really, really important.”

He asked Eve Felder, the chef who taught “Garde-Manger” (the station serving cold food such as canapés, salads and sandwiches) if great cooking was innate or could be learned.

“I believe cooking is a craft,” she replied. “I do not believe it’s an art.” But she went on to add that anyone can be trained to cook, provided “the passion is there.”

Mr. Ruhlman’s book is obsessive, sometimes dizzyingly so, and if you are not passionate about cooking, this may not be your cup of tea. But if you are trying to decide whether you are C.I.A. or even chef material, it might set you straight.

One of the cooks at Le Bernardin, when Eberhard Müller (now at Lutèce) was chef, told Mr. Ruhlman someone once made the fatal error of putting a little chicken stock base into the restaurant’s lobster stock because he couldn’t get the taste right. “There was 10 gallons of this stuff, and we added a tablespoon,” he said. “Eberhard tasted it and said, Who put base in this stock ?” Needless to say, if you have a stock cube in your kitchen, The Making of a Chef is not for you.