The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, by Michael Ruhlman. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. 370 pp. $18 (paperback).

Michael Ruhlman entered the office of Tom Peer, food and beverage director at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. “I figured out where you’re going to be from,” Peer said. “You’re going to be from the National Council of Accreditation.” When Ruhlman said he never heard of it, Peer chuckled and said: “That’s because I just made it up” (p. 7).

Ruhlman had been granted permission to observe and later write about a Certified Master Chef examination. The exam is a grueling ten-day experience that leaves participants little time to sleep. Passing it requires mastering a wide range of cooking styles, methods, and techniques. More precisely, it requires demonstrating that mastery under very strict observation and an always-ticking clock.

In part because of its difficulty, few take the test. And few pass it. Indeed, as of the writing of Ruhlman’s book, out of the approximately 170 chefs who had taken the test since 1981, only 53 had passed (p. 7). And this, Ruhlman explains, is why he must be from the fictitious National Council of Accreditation.

The people who ran the test worried that if I simply roamed the kitchens as a journalist, asking the chefs intimate questions and then writing down their answers in my notebook, I might distract them. The test is hard enough as it is without their having to endure someone who is nosy by profession. Also, they didn’t want any chefs fretting over the possibility that I might broadcast their failures all over the country. (p. 7)

So Ruhlman, in effect, operated undercover at one of the most grueling cooking tests in the world. His retelling of that experience is one part (out of three) in The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, but it is so good it could be a satisfying book in itself.

In terms of psychological demands and requisite skills, passing the test is as difficult as completing a Navy SEAL training camp. And Ruhlman’s telling of it is engaging and dramatic. The stakes are high for the would-be master chefs. The challenges require them to use their creativity and skills to the fullest. And the judges are severe. They have clear standards, standards that are as objective as they are exceptional, and they critique deviations from them mercilessly.

Ruhlman’s reporting and story telling are magnificent. He recounts the chefs speaking in distinct voices, planning and acting in their own unique ways, and striving with great ambition for success. He selects telling details, zooms in and out with purpose and power, and artfully conveys the atmosphere and intensity of the test with communicative skills akin to the cooking skills of the chefs that pass it. Ruhlman does not say that a moment is intense; he says, “The air feels about two hundred pounds per square inch” (p. 89). He does not say that the kitchen is quiet; he says it is “so quiet you can almost hear the steam rising off the consommés” (p. 91).

Such descriptive writing is the norm throughout A Soul of a Chef. For example, Ruhlman devotes the second part of the book to the kitchen of Lola, a popular restaurant in Cleveland run by Michael Symon. He describes Symon as a “big, rumbling, hilarious fullback of a chef”—and shows him to be about as far removed from the buttoned-up seriousness of the exam’s judges as you can get. . . .

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