Communing With Cooks Who Braise, Brand and Shill

To Michael Ruhlman, dining at a four-star restaurant is akin to a religious experience. “The meaning of life could be

To Michael Ruhlman, dining at a four-star restaurant is akin to a religious experience. “The meaning of life could be found in an onion,” he writes in his new book, The Reach of a Chef, “and the battle of a busy restaurant service could deliver you to an altered state of being—equal parts grace and shame—in fact, to a kind of parallel existence without any relativity regarding the speed of light, for me a new universe.” The chef, therefore, is more than just a cook. Mr. Ruhlman, not one to mince words, repeatedly calls chefs “monks,” but it’s clear that he considers them even more exalted: They are the high priests, mediating between the divine and the people.

Mr. Ruhlman is the author of several books about food and the restaurant industry, including The Making of a Chef (1997) and The Soul of a Chef (2000), in which he led readers into the kitchen by telling of his time attending classes at the Culinary Institute of America and writing about the lives of top cooks. But much has changed in the decade since Mr. Ruhlman became an initiate. The best chefs, once content to spend 16 hours a day chopping shallots, have become bona fide middlebrow celebrities, and diners are more likely to see them on television than at their own restaurants. Las Vegas, the very symbol of sin, has become a culinary “Gomorrah.” Even Thomas Keller, whose restaurant the French Laundry helped revolutionize American cuisine, has changed tracks. Mr. Keller, Mr. Ruhlman’s hero and collaborator (they’ve written two cookbooks together) and a living saint if there ever was one, left the Napa Valley for Las Vegas, New York and the ambiguous commercial world, lending his name to signature lines of knives and porcelain. “The chef has left the kitchen,” Mr. Ruhlman says. What he really means is that the priest has left the altar.

The Reach of a Chef is divided into five parts, each revisiting subjects from previous books. Mr. Ruhlman returns to the Culinary Institute of America, where he finds an unnervingly touchy-feely atmosphere. (“I expected it to be really hard core,” one student tells him. “I’ve been a little disappointed.”) He dines at the restaurant of Mr. Keller’s protégé, now schooled in the cutting-edge techniques of the New Gastronomy, and finds himself spritzing the taste of shrimp cocktail into his mouth. He meets a woman who’s driven five hours to see Food Network star Rachael Ray, whose singular talent is to turn pantry staples into a decent dinner in under 30 minutes. He watches in awe as Masayoshi Takayama, perhaps the last great chef of the “artist-monk” tradition, slices a piece of mackerel. And, throughout, he returns to Mr. Keller, whose strange path from cook to brand name stands for the trajectory of the industry as a whole.

Mr. Ruhlman’s loyalty lies with the great chef who’s vulnerable to a fickle public unable to recognize the profound difference between a Thomas Keller and a Britney Spears, between pure genius and commercialism. “Are we in danger of burning out on chefs,” Mr. Ruhlman asks, “of suddenly turning on them, shouting that they have no clothes on, and dumping them in favor of the latest pop idol or sports giant?” The peril in the transformation of chef from maestro-cook to brand manager, as Mr. Ruhlman sees it, is not so much to the diner as it is to the chef’s soul. “I’m losing my balance,” Mr. Keller confesses. If a man spends more time hawking porcelain than chopping shallots, is he still a chef? What exactly is a chef, anyway?

To Mr. Ruhlman, that’s an existential question, and it motivates his book. He doesn’t begrudge these chefs their wealth and fame. After all, he thinks they’ve earned it after torturously long days of intense, demanding work. And, as he points out, the days when the star chef touched every plate are long gone. He even tries to suggest that the branding of the chef is good for the average diner. “Few in the industry doubt that one of the ultimate effects of the celebrity-chef phenomenon is in part an increased awareness among Americans of where their food comes from, an awareness that has resulted in an increased availability at our grocery stores of organic or sustainably farmed produce, farm-raised chickens, and grass-fed beef,” he writes.

Still, he wanders through the once-familiar landscape with the slightly bewildered air of Rip Van Winkle. Is shrimp still shrimp if it’s found in a mouth spritzer? Is the future of cuisine really Rachael Ray’s “meatza” with cornbread-mix crust? (“I can’t watch Ray’s shows without grinding my teeth,” he writes.) Does Wolfgang Puck have more in common with Ronald McDonald than with Alain Ducasse? Is Alain Ducasse himself still a great chef? And—that question again—what exactly is a chef these days? “I’m not a chef anymore,” Mr. Keller tells Mr. Ruhlman. “And it breaks my heart.”

It breaks Mr. Ruhlman’s heart too. He writes as someone who cares deeply, not only about how finely the foie gras terrine is sliced, but also about the state of the church. He is, quite simply, an exuberant fan of the chefs he writes about—and yet he also wants to claim for them an enduring place in popular culture. The result is sometimes awkward. Covering territory that once seemed sure, Mr. Ruhlman, like Mr. Keller, loses his balance.

The narrative is an engaging and sprawling tour of the industry, concerned with everything from how to cut carrots properly to the economics of running a four-star kitchen. Michael Ruhlman writes with brio, passionately recounting every detail of every meal—and, seemingly, every conversation—in relaxed prose peppered with “gonna”s and “gotta”s and energetic punctuation (“flaxseed?!”). The ostentatiously casual style can grate, but his generosity is infectious. He loves his subject, and it’s impossible to begrudge his enthusiasm. His faith in the restaurant industry may be shaken, but his faith in great food, and great cooks, is not. And the onion, with its mystical powers, he reminds us, is not going anywhere: “We’ve all got to eat.”

Louisa Thomas is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.

Communing With Cooks  Who Braise, Brand and Shill