Last Sunday I got to see Michael Ruhlman read from his new book, The Elements of Cooking at the San Francisco Ferry Building.
Michael retold the story of what led him to that particular moment in time. An early love of the cooking and the kitchen, seeing Julia Child on TV, a botched attempt at an apple pie cum pear tart, persistence in getting into the CIA to write a book, meeting a restaurateur in Cleveland who connected him with Thomas Keller of the French Laundry who was looking to publish a cookbook…
He emphasized luck. He was lucky to write a book about the Culinary Institute at a time in this country’s history when Americans were developing a passionate interest in food and cooking. He was lucky to meet up with Thomas Keller at a time when he was merely a “guru among chefs” and not yet an internationally known celebrity chef.
He also emphasized speaking the language. Though he was a writer first, his culinary training and ability to speak the vernacular (and hand gestures) of a professional cook meant he was able to quickly earn their trust, and thus receive greater access for his books.
Michael seemed keenly aware of the impact and importance of blogs on writing and the publishing industry. He asked how many people heard about the reading through a blog (2/3 of the 30-40 people there raised their hands—I’d heard about it through his blog). He only recently started blogging at the insistence of Meg Hourihan, and had already come to accept it as an important part of his life, like a pet that needed care and feeding. A place to continue the conversation outside of his books.
Finally he read a passage from Elements on finesse. A survey of some of those almost unquantifiable and subjective tasks a chef will undertake to make a great dish sublime. I might say to make a great dish art.
I asked a question I’ve been meaning to speculate about on my blog—whether he considers his writing something akin to long-form blogging. Of course the obvious answer is no, given the entirely different demands of blogging and book writing. Namely his goal in writing a book is to create a cohesive narrative, to turn life into something that has an identifiable beginning, middle, and end. Whereas in his blogging he said he doesn’t worry about making sure every “i” is capitalized, let alone the rest.
I persisted though and suggested how reading a book is almost like engaging in this distant, unreachable world. Even if it’s nonfiction, the distance of that world from me, and the perfect encapsulating description of the characters make it indistinguishable from fiction. But when I started reading his blog, it took all these characters I remembered from his first two books books, real people he knew and still had contact with, and imbued them with new life. Updated them. It kind of punctured that artificial narrative ending and continued the story.
That and he really seems to have embraced his inner-chef as of late. He admits that his time at the Culinary Institute changed his life. Though he went on to write non-culinary books (experiences he managed to weave into his recent food writing), it seems like he’s starting to define his life around these culinary pursuits, with gigs at the Food Network, etc. He’s never just writing about someone from that “objective” journalistic perspective, he’s very much a character invested in his own stories, as much as we’re all characters in our own blogs.