I have mixed feelings about Michael Ruhlman’s The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef’s Craft for Every Kitchen.
The Elements of Cooking is one-part opinionated essays about cooking (pages 1-50) and one-part alphabetic encyclopedia of opinionated “essential” elements to cooking. There are things I liked about both parts and other things that bordered on ridiculous. (For example, Sharpie is included in the list of essential elements to cooking. Its definition: “This brand of permanent marker is excellent for dating and labeling food; keep one in your tool drawer along with painter’s tape.” p. 215)
I didn’t realize why I was annoyed by this book until I started reading Ruhlman’s previous best-seller, The Making of a Chef. I haven’t finished that book yet. It is the story of how one is trained at the Culinary Institute of America to become a chef. Only as I read this second book do I realize what the problem is with the first book: I don’t want to be a chef. Therefore, it’s not necessary to translate the chef’s craft for my kitchen.
According to The Elements of Cooking, a chef is a leader, as in the head of a restaurant kitchen, and is firstly a good cook. A cook is what I do aspire to be. I don’t want to be a chef: I don’t want a restaurant kitchen. I want good home cooking for my home kitchen.
Because I don’t want to be a chef, some items on the alphabetic list of essential elements seem a bit ridiculous. I don’t need to learn about aspic (gelled stock), offal (innards of animals), and foie gras (duck liver). I won’t be cooking them in my kitchen. I don’t need to learn the French terms for my macaroni’s cheese sauce. I don’t need to know decorative knife cuts for cutting vegetables. I don’t need to know kitchen terms (for example, commis is a prep cook in a professional kitchen).
However, on the other hand, as a cook, some of the terms, even the French terms, may come in handy if I happen upon a recipe that uses them.
Also, as a cook I found the opinionated essays about cooking incredibly interesting. Those essays are the reason I would recommend this book to the average cook. They make me think about cooking in a different way. I plan on rereading them regularly. Ruhlman included essays on stock, sauces, salt, the egg, heat, and tools of the kitchen.
One book he recommended reading is On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee. This is a scientific explanation of food, from eggs to meat and fish to plants and on. The author has degrees in science and literature so provides scientific descriptions the layman can understand. When I read it, I’ll let you know if that is true.
Ruhlman’s last essay is about finesse. This is where I feel I’ve departed from his main point of his book: I’m not a chef and so I’m not hoping for “refinement” in my cooking. As a cook, I hope to provide fundamental home cooking for my family. However, I suspect Ruhlman is correct to some extent, even for my home kitchen: “The concept [of finesse] rest[s] on a conviction that paying attention to a few small details in any given preparation has an enormous impact on the finished dish and is the final gratification for the cook in his or her pursuit of excellence” (p. 46).
While I’m not looking for approval of my food as a restaurant chef or even as an amateur chef in any sense of the term “chef” and I’m not vainly pursuing excellence (perfectionist though I am), I think a reward to my efforts at cooking will be a gratifying and edible supper every night with my family, recognizing that there is always room for improvement.
I recommend Ruhlman’s book to the family cook only half-heartedly. The essays are excellent. The glossary of terms is a bit over-the-top. Overall, it’s great to get you thinking about food, but only with a few tablespoons of salt.