What I Learned from the CIA
As I mentioned when I read Michael Ruhlman’s The Elements of Cooking, I’ve also been reading one of his other books about food, The Making of a Chef. This book is Ruhlman’s behind-the-scenes look at what a “culinary education” entails, particularly what it takes to earn a certificate or degree at the CIA (the Culinary Institute of America).
I have become very interested in cooking and what makes a “good” cook. What does it take to be a “chef?” About one-third of the way through this book, I began to realize that I never want to be a chef: it does not sound like fun.
However, as I read about what a chef must learn, how a chef must prepare each day before the restaurant doors open, and how to approach each day in the kitchen, I began to think differently about food and cooking.
Here are some concepts that I appreciate better now (I listened to the audio book, so I can’t give page numbers):
Mise en place
Ruhlman defines this in The Elements of Cooking as “literally, ‘put in place’…the kitchen term for your setup, the gathering and preparation of all the tools and food you need to complete the task at hand.” In The Making of a Chef, Ruhlman discusses his time in the “Skills” kitchen at the CIA, learning to cut and prepare food. He discusses the time he spent working in the restaurants of the CIA, where he spent hours preparing his mise en place before the restaurant opened its doors and he actually began cooking. While I certainly don’t care how I cut my carrots, I was impressed with the time that was always given to make sure everything was ready to go before starting the grill or turning on the stove. As Ruhlman pointed out, if you have everything together before you begin, and you are familiar with the cooking plan (or recipe), then everything will fall into place when you begin cooking. If you aren’t prepared, then things could fall apart and you’ll find yourself “in the weeds.” “If you are prepared, ye shall not fear.” (Even nonfiction cooking memoirs are inspirational!)
Cooking is a series of problems—solved.
I loved this concept, and it really is true:
- My chicken burned on the grill; what do I do differently next time? (I always burn chicken on the grill)
- My ____ tastes boring; what do I add?
- This sauce isn’t thick enough; how do I thicken it?
- I’m out of ____; what do I substitute?
- My _______ is [insert problem]; what did I forget?
I find myself wanting to solve the problems before they are unsolvable. (One chef in the book suggested that any food is fixable unless it is burned. Then you’re out of luck. You can’t un-burn it.)
What does it take to be a good cook? Basic understanding, passion, and balance.
I loved how balance was an essential part of being a cook in one chef’s equation. The chef told Ruhlman that those chefs that worked too much and didn’t do anything else really were not the best cooks. In my case, I think being a “good cook” is realizing that “good” is not the same as “perfection” and “cook” is not the same as “chef.” My family doesn’t need perfection, and they don’t need a chef. They need a mom and a wife who happens to prepare dinner every night.
President Metz (president-chef of the Institute) never eats anything he cooks without a critical “eye.”
I like the concept of being critical of my own food; if cooking is a series of problems solved (as discussed above) then I need to recognize the problems in order to improve on them. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to always eat critically. I’m not a chef; I expect to take some days off!
When we put food on the table, we make a value statement. … Your own values and your own standards: that is all.
I think this is the crux of my goal in cooking. I want to be able to put food on the table that I feel good about. I will cook to my standards, accepting the fact that I will take “days off” from caring and critiquing what I put in my belly.
This memoir is very different from the last Ruhlman book I read. In some respects, I recommend this book over The Elements of Cooking. Elements is a reference book for the more-confident cook. It is above me in some ways. This memoir, on the other hand, is a delightful look into the world of professional cooking—and what makes the difference between a good cook and a professional cook. It helps me think about cooking in a completely new way. I think any home cook, any waiter, and any semi-professional cook could benefit from this inside look at cooking for the food industry. I needed that, probably before I read Elements. Now that I’ve read The Making of a Chef, I feel I should go back and reread the essays in the beginning of Elements. There is a lot to being a cook! Understanding the elements behind it is just part of it.