Thoughts on the book Soul of a Chef

(Here are my remarks to the class of incoming first year students at Case’s Share the Vision program held in Severance Hall which featured the common reading book Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman.)

They say that two things in life are inevitable – death and taxes. To this, you have to add a third and that is that at you will have to serve on many committees. Most committees, even in universities, tend to be routine and boring affairs but one of the best committees that I have served on for the past two years is that which selects the common reading for the incoming class and which this year selected the book Soul of a Chef. The reason that I enjoy this particular committee assignment is that I love books and reading, and this committee brings together students and staff and faculty who share that interest to talk about books and ideas. This exercise is what lies at the heart of a university. So you never have to twist my arm to get me to serve on this committee.

Having said all that, I must say that when this book was first selected, I had some personal misgivings about it. Let me explain why. How the selection process works is that any member of the university community is welcome to nominate books, so we get a huge number of nominations. Of those, some are immediately eliminated for various practical reasons that I won’t go into but that still leaves a lot of books remaining. Of course each person on the committee cannot all read all the books that make the final cut, so each person selects a few books to read and reports back to the committee on their merits. We then compare notes, whittle down the list even more, and then make the final selection.

I did not select Soul of a Chef as one of the books that I would personally read. It deals with material that is of no real interest to me. Food to me is largely just a means of sustenance and little more. The world of high cuisine is not my world. In fact, I have never ever even eaten in a fancy restaurant and have no real desire to do so, except as a curiosity, and only if somebody else is paying the expensive bill. I rarely ever cook and when I do no one else wants to eat what I make. I have no ambitions of rising to the level of being even a mediocre cook. So the book basically dealt with a world that was completely foreign to me and which I had no real desire to enter.

But I went along with the choice because the students on the committee were very enthusiastic about it and I respected their judgment. But now I had to read the book. How do you set about reading a book that one is unenthusiastic about? When I flipped open to the very first page, there were already three new words, cooking terms that I had never heard before in my life, which was also kind of discouraging.

It then occurred to me that the situation I was in was a reversal of the typical teacher-student roles. Usually, it is the teacher who selects a book and is really enthusiastic about it, while students are completely baffled as to what is so great about it, groan at the choice, and wonder how on Earth they are going to work their way through it. Those of you who had to read Moby Dick for high school English know exactly what I am talking about. The teacher excitedly announces that you are going to read the greatest novel in American literature and then hands out what initially seems to you like 500 pages of very small type of a textbook dealing with the whaling industry, a subject about which you never had the slightest interest.

So I told myself to follow the suggestions that I give my students when I assign a book for them to read and know that they may not be as enthusiastic as I. Rather than simply read the book and absorb all of it, I tell them to read it with an attitude, with the following four questions in mind, and to focus on those parts of the book that provide answers to them. The four questions are:

1. What is the author trying to convince me of?
2. What is the author assuming that I already think about the topic?
3. Was the author successful in getting me to change my mind?
4. Does the book provide any insights to things that I care more about?

Reading a book with this kind of attitude makes it much more enjoyable because then you are effectively engaging in a dialogue with the author, and sure enough I became very engrossed in the book that I had been initially hesitant to read. It also helped that it is a far easier read than Moby Dick.

So here are my answers to those four questions.

1. What is the author trying to convince me of?

It seemed to me that the author was trying to make the case that being a chef was very demanding and requires one to be very tough, both physically and mentally. There was a macho, even sexist, strain to being a chef that was revealed in the book, especially the first part where the cooks were taking the certified master chef exam. Recall the sole woman who was tearfully eliminated early on. Basically the author was implying that it takes a ‘real man’ to be a chef.

2. What is the author assuming that I already think about the topic?

It seemed to me that the author was assuming that the reader thought cooking was a pretty wimpy activity, a hobby, a pastime, something that anybody could do by just picking up a cookbook and following a recipe.

I will address question 3 after I discuss question 4 about the relevance to things I care about.

4. There were other important educational lessons from the book that relate closely to the academic experience you will have here at Case:

1. Many times students complain that what they learn in class is not related to “real” life. You would think that training to be a chef would not be like this, that it would involve only making real dishes that people eat. But in the certification exercises, I found it interesting that the training of chefs involved having students master highly contrived dishes that they would never actually make as chefs, but which were meant only to develop specific skills that would come in useful in actual cooking situations.

You will find the same thing in college. If you take an introductory physics course, you will study the behavior of blocks sliding down inclined planes and do a lot of problems about them. Here is a secret. No physicist really cares about blocks sliding down planes. The only reason we ask students to study this type of problem is because it is a very good method of learning important basic physics principles that can be applied in real situations.

Often you need to learn things that are artificial and contrived because they highlight important basics that you can then use for real-life complex problems. Many of the things you will do as students may seem arbitrary (just like the timed tests and the pressure that is put on the chefs) but they have a deeper purpose that may not be apparent at first.

I admit that this can be irritating. Following strict rules can seem tiresome especially when you see experts breaking the very rules that they tell you to follow. You too may want to rebel and break them. But great chefs break the rules only after learning all the rules, because only then do they know what rules to break and when, and what the consequences are. Michael Symon is quoted as an example of someone who knows how to break cooking rules to good ends. Professional physicists are also like that.

2. What may seem trivial or irrelevant to a student can, to the expert, be an important sign of understanding. This was the case of the student crying after failing buffet on page 59. To us, a buffet may seem trivial but not being able to handle it was considered a big deal by the examiners. Things that seem like petty details can contain deep subtleties.

3. Sometime students think that the only kinds of objective judgments that one can make are those to numerical problems on multiple-choice tests. Assessments of essays are thought to be subjective and thus inferior. But the reality is that all assessments are judgments and that expert professionals in the field can often make precise and consistent assessments of things that we might think are purely subjective and opinion. You might think that whether a dish is good or not is largely opinion, just like whether a painting is good or not. But experts in those fields can make surprisingly precise and consistent judgments. For example, Brian gets scores of 62.82 on classical cuisine and 62.55 on mystery basket (p. 115). OK, going to the second decimal point is a bit over the top, but the fact remains that the examiners had little difficulty is agreeing as to the quality of the dishes and rating it on a 100-point scale. The main difference in judgments between cooking and something that appears more objective like physics is that in physics, the judgments that need to be made are buried more deeply and not as easily visible to students until they get to the more advanced levels. But they are still there.

4. When teachers set high standards, it is usually meant to challenge students to reach excellence, not to cause them to fail. Teachers in college are sad when their students fail to do well, just like the examiners were sad when the chefs dropped out at various stages of the exam. Very, very few teachers delight in deliberately failing students and such people do not belong in the teaching profession. Most teachers want their students to succeed and delight when they do so, but at the same time want to ensure that students are challenged so that they grow.

5. The final insight that I got is that the key to success in any thing in life is discovering some aspect of the task that you want to do really well and using that as a gateway to other things. In the case of Thomas Heller, it started with his obsession with making a perfect Hollandaise sauce (p. 266). In repeatedly trying to perfect it, he realized that he wanted to be a chef and used that as his entry point.

Of course, you may not agree with me on any of these answers. That is the beauty of books. They do not have a unique meaning, even to the author. A writer of novels tells of how his book was assigned as a high school text and as a result he would occasionally get phone calls from students who had tracked him down. The students would say that their teacher wanted them to write about what a particular passage means and they thought that the author would know the ‘real’ answer. He tells them that he does not know what it means any better than they do.

All knowledge is obtained by taking the words that are ‘out there’ in books and other sources and combining them with our own life experiences to construct our own meanings. This is why the discussions that you have in seminars and with your friends and companions at other times is so important to learning, because that is how we best figure what we believe and what books are saying to us. If your experience at Case ends up as a four-year long in-depth conversation about ideas with other students and faculty, then you have got a real education.

For the third question, was the author successful in convincing me to change my mind? All I want to say is that while reading the book, especially the first part dealing with the grueling certification exam, Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket kept coming to my mind. The first half of that film dealt with the brutal and grueling training that new recruits to the marines undergo.

So I guess the author did manage to persuade me that being a chef required real toughness.


  1. Theodora says

    OUR common book was “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynmann.”

    It might interest you to consider cooking in terms of physics problems, as my husband does (to my great irritation when I am cooking and he points out all the mistakes I’m making because cooking is really physics — I notice that he never refuses to eat). For example, when frying fish, why should you throw one piece of fish into the oil at a time?

    Excellent comments on putting yourself in the students’ place, though.

  2. catherine says

    I’m truly aghast, and a lot of other descriptors, to learn that “The Soul of a Chef” follows the choice, last year, of “Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, an extended profile of the life, ideas, and work of Dr. Paul Farmer and others who share his vision of health care for the world.

    Of all the books they could have chosen – there are several that address Hurricane Katrina and the non-response to this event, several more that update our knowledge on Iraq, the 9/11 Commission, Guantanamo, the conservative conscience (there is none), etc., and numerous volumes on one or another aspect of science in today’s world – how did this choice even get into the first draft?

    I’ve never understood the need to write about food. I understand enjoying a good restaurant, if it’s not expensive, but the whole critique of restaurants (sometimes entire magazines) and prose style that has grown up around eating and drinking is, to me, really reflective of a well-off Western culture. You’re much more accepting than I am.

  3. says

    the journey toward perfection: a status report

    On Sept. 1, I posted a blog entry about the speaker at Fall Commencement, entitled food for thought. In it, I discussed speaker Michael Ruhlman’s words, both during his speech and in his book, which was assigned as a common reading for all entering fir…

  4. says

    “The Soul of a Chef” is a great book for anyone who is interested in the culinary feild. The book tells the story of Michael Ruhlman. He is in persute of becoming a certified master chef. The book is divided into three sections. The sections include the taking of the exam, working in a restaurant, and making a trip to California to visit a famous restaurant. I really liked the book, because it gives me an inside look at the whole experience of becoming a master chef. I plan on earning a bachelor degree in culinary arts while I am in college. This book was suggested for my culinary history class. Eventually, I plan to become a master chef and I now have a better idea of all the work that goes into that process. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes to cook or is interested in becoming a master chef.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *