The Food Lab's Reading List, Day 3: The Making of a Chef

Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt

Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

"You're reading that? He's kind of a dork, isn't he?" my chef asked me one day while I was changing into my whites.

But I like dorks, I thought to myself, though I didn't say it out loud. I just sheepishly slipped my copy of Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef into my locker and headed downstairs to start making chicken stock. If it were today, I'd waste no time defending him.

Ruhlman is a dork, but in the best possible way. The kind of dork that I aspire to be. You probably know him these days as the exacting author of modern classics like Ratio (a book that distills cooking down to its most essential ratios), or as the coauthor of Charcuterie (a more masterful book on the subject has yet to be written) or The French Laundry Cookbook (!). But before he wrote any of those, before he became one of the most authoritative voices in cooking today, he was a young writer from Ohio, with a single book about all-boys education under his belt and an interest in cooking. So, in 1997, he decided to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America and write a book about what it was like.

The Making of a Chef is gonzo journalism at its finest. It's Hunter S. Thompson meets Alton Brown. It's what Kitchen Confidential might have been if Anthony Bourdain were more interested in technique and high cuisine instead of sex and drugs. Is it sensationalized? Of course it is, but only because, to a new cook, the life is sensational. With an earnest zeal, Ruhlman captures the rush of acquiring new skills and having them immediately put to the test.

Despite the exaggerations, he gets so much right. Through his writing, you feel the nervousness all young cooks experience when the fate of the universe hinges on the quality of their shallot brunoise, and the surge of adrenaline that hits every time a perfect plate walks out the door and comes back licked clean. You understand why, after working in kitchens, everyone in the real world seems to move in slow motion, as you catch yourself accidentally saying Behind you! while twisting past strangers in the supermarket.

The Making of a Chef is required reading for anyone who has ever considered going to culinary school, or who wants a feel for what it's like to dip your toes into the profession. You need not be a dork to appreciate his approach. (His follow-up books, The Soul of a Chef and The Reach of a Chef, are fantastic reads as well.)

You can buy The Making of a Chef here.