In an age when we're asked to believe that a cross-section of a cow in formaldehyde is a work of art, it's no wonder many of us who've enjoyed an exquisitely prepared sole Veronique would readily endorse the proposition that the true artists of our era are the great chefs. Indeed, when one considers the skill, stamina and creativity needed to become a good chef, compared with the self-indulgence evident among many so-called artists, one is tempted to say that there are probably more genuine artists in kitchens than in garrets.
Michael Ruhlman, an inveterate foodie, tries to resist the temptation to view cooking as art. (An inveterate foodie is someone for whom the initials CIA summon up not "Central Intelligence Agency" but "Culinary Institute of America.") Ruhlman trained as a cook at that bastion of technique in New York's Hudson River Valley, an experience recounted in an earlier book, "The Making of a Chef."
"The Soul of a Chef" is a continuation of his enthusiastic and knowledgeable exploration of food and the chefs who've made it their passion. This time, he has divided the book into three sections. The first, perhaps the most dramatic, is an account of seven chefs who, at their own expense, have come to the CIA to take the grueling, 10-day Certified Master Chef exam, a test that more chefs fail than pass.
Cooking, Ruhlman observes, is a craft rather than an art because there are objective standards for judging it. The CIA judges know what they're looking for: Are vegetables properly cooked? Is the chicken cooked through to the bone, yet still juicy? Is the consomme clear? Is the pa^te moist?
In contrast to the austere world of the CIA, Ruhlman's next section focuses upon Michael Symon. Fun and flair are the keynotes of his Cleveland bistro, Lola. A CIA graduate (though not a Certified Master Chef), Symon seems to eschew many of the classical techniques, coming up with shortcuts that save time and money. Yet Lola, in some ways the antithesis of the CIA, embodies the same commitment to pleasing the palate.
In the final section, we meet Thomas Keller, chef-proprietor of the French Laundry, a Napa Valley restaurant. Without benefit of a CIA education, Keller embraces many of the same classical precepts. Observing him in action, Ruhlman is tempted to conclude that great cooking just might be an art form after all: "His soups were so concentrated . . . they became more than the thing itself: carrot soup that was the very essence of carrot, a distillation and purification of the carrot. . . . [Y]ou could taste one of Keller's dishes and something inside you would say, 'I see.'
". . . And the reason why this was ultimately so satisfying was its underlying morality: Keller's . . . respect for the food and the life bound up in it."
The main flaw of Ruhlman's book is not that it goes on too long, but that it seems to go on too long: a problem of pacing rather than content. But if not quite a work of art, "The Soul of a Chef" is a lively blend of reportage, reflection and recipes. Whether it's the tension of a chef taking the CIA exam, the rhythm of a kitchen operating in smooth synchrony or the sizzle of meat hitting a pan of hot oil, Ruhlman's writing makes it come alive. And even the gastronomically uninitiated will appreciate the human drama of these chefs working under intense pressure to achieve their goals.