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The Soul of a Chef: The Journey toward Perfection

Overview

With The Soul of a Chef, Ruhlman lays bare the vigorous competition necessary to become a Certified Master Chef at the CIA, a process in which the chef spends ten consecutive sixteen-hour days cooking in styles ranging from contemporary Asian to classical French, under relentless scrutiny. This intense, almost bizarre cooking test - ultimately an attempt to define an objective truth of great cooking - begins Ruhlman's journey into the dark heart of the profession and soul of a chef." "Ruhlman observes, cooks ...
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Overview

With The Soul of a Chef, Ruhlman lays bare the vigorous competition necessary to become a Certified Master Chef at the CIA, a process in which the chef spends ten consecutive sixteen-hour days cooking in styles ranging from contemporary Asian to classical French, under relentless scrutiny. This intense, almost bizarre cooking test - ultimately an attempt to define an objective truth of great cooking - begins Ruhlman's journey into the dark heart of the profession and soul of a chef." "Ruhlman observes, cooks with, and writes about three distinctive chefs of different stripes - Brian Polcyn of the Five Lakes Grill in Milford, Michigan; Michael Symon, a rising star at Cleveland's Lola Bistro; and Thomas Keller, proprietor of Napa Valley's the French Laundry, and, the author argues, one of the best American chefs working today." "Ruhlman attempts to understand what makes one chef, and restaurant, successful and another not; when cooking rises to the level of art; why one should cook in the first place; and what, in the end, is the source of America's ravenous hunger for knowledge about food and cooking.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
To learn what it takes to become a great chef, you can take the rigorous Certified Master Chef exam at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA to cognoscenti). Or you could read Michael Ruhlman's captivating book The Soul of a Chef. This diverting tome chronicles the passage of would-be master chefs through the grueling (and sometimes heartbreaking) requirements of the CIA regimen and provides behind-the-swinging-door portraits of chef stars Michael Symon and Thomas Keller.
Los Angeles Times
....The Soul of the Chef is a lively blend of reportage, reflection and recipes.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this follow-up to his cooking school odyssey, The Making of a Chef, Ruhlman examines what causes chefs to seek absolute perfection. The book is divided into three parts: in the first, Ruhlman observes the arduous Certified Master Chef exam at the Culinary Institute of America, which was the setting for his first book. The second segment focuses on Michael Symon, a rising star at Lola (in Cleveland) who was recently dubbed one of the 10 best chefs in America by Food & Wine. The third is dedicated to Thomas Keller, chef of California's esteemed French Laundry. While Ruhlman's play-by-play descriptions of chefs struggling to cook exactly as Escoffier dictated 90 years earlier can be exciting (and the stories of those who failed heartbreaking), they strongly echo his previous book's account of culinary education. The author fares better in his portrait of Keller's development into an exacting perfectionist. But even here Ruhlman often slips into simply writing about the process of working on The French Laundry Cookbook, to which he contributed the text, or repeating stories that appear in it. Overall this book makes a fine introduction to Ruhlman's writing, but readers of his previous books will be disappointed to find the chef reheating leftovers. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Writer and trained chef Ruhlman (The Making of a Chef) claims to be searching for the essence of what drives a great chef. In 1997, he attended the Certified Master Chef exam at the Culinary Institute of America, the most grueling, comprehensive, and controversial cooking test in America. He observes and interviewed, among others, Bryan Polcyn of Five Lakes Grill in Michigan. Next he moved to Cleveland to report on another star chef, Michael Symon of the Lola Bistro and Wine Bar. The third section of his book concerns Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, called by many the best chef working in America today. Each section of the book is fascinating in itself, especially the introductory section on the Certified Master Chef exam, an ordeal of almost hellish intensity. Unfortunately, his search for "the soul of a chef" is laid over what are essentially three separate pieces. Less than the sum of its part, the book will eventually test anyone's patience for reading page after page of menus and description of nouvelle cuisine creations. An appendix offers a selection of recipes from each chef profiled. Recommended for large public libraries.--Tom Cooper, St. Louis P.L., MO Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Internet Bookwatch
The author's prior Making Of A Chef became a cult classic in 1997; Soul of a Chef is a companion volume further exploring the world of professional cooking, blending an autobiography with insights into what it takes to become a top-ranking chef in the industry. From his experiences with three distinctive chefs to his attempts to understand culinary and restaurant success and failure, Soul of a Chef is a revealing winner.
Anthony Bourdain
Ruhlman sets out to . . . delve so deeply into the hearts and minds of a few select chefs that he may discover the essence of haute cuisine. Amazingly enough, he succeeds -- by turning his investigation into an adventure story . . .
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781483002040
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/13/2014
  • Format: CD
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 5.70 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Mike Ruhlman

Michael Ruhlman is the author of many books, including The Elements of Cooking and The French Laundry Cookbook. He lives in Cleveland with his wife, daughter, and son; is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and Gourmet; and has a highly popular blog at Ruhlman.com.

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Read an Excerpt

Part One

Certified Master Chef Exam (or the Objective Truth of Great Cooking)

Chapter One

Chef Dieter Doppelfeld leads the way to kitchen station four, followed by two men in lab coats with clipboards. Brian Polcyn stands before these men attentive but at ease in a paper toque and chef's whites. He has set his stainless steel table with cutting board, slicing knife, bain-marie insert filled with hot water, and latex gloves.

The day before the Certified Master Chef examination began I arrived at the office of Tom Peer, food and beverage director at the Culinary Institute of America, the nation's most prominent cooking school. Peer was for years the executive chef at the Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh, and he was now the certification chairman for the American Culinary Federation, a trade organization representing tens of thousands of chefs. Peer oversaw the master chef certification program.

This grueling cooking test, simply the idea of it, had completely captivated me, and it would become for me the beginning of a two-year immersion in the work of the American chef and professional cooking. But for a long while I couldn't get to the core of my fascination with the CMC exam. I asked Peer and Doppelfeld why they thought this test was important. Doppelfeld explained that this profession, the profession of chef in America, was relatively young. For most of its history the United States imported great chefs; we did not train our own because we didn't have anyone to do the training; the country didn't even have a cuisine it could call its own or any kind of tradition to speak of, beyond the home ec-style teachings of Fannie Farmer, perhaps, or the worldwide impact of McDonald's-style fast food. Yet in the past fifty years, most noticeably in the past two decades, the culinary scene had exploded. Cooks had become chefs, and chefs had become celebrities. Food magazines proliferated. National and local radio shows devoted to food filled the air on weekends. An entire television network was created to broadcast food and cooking shows twenty-four hours a day. Restaurants were becoming as famous as Broadway shows. And the work itself-once the labor of the lower classes-had become fashionable. Parents, once proud to say that their child had entered law school, now boasted that their child was in culinary school. An industry that was still young, huge and growing ($336 billion in overall food service sales in 1998, $376 billion expected in 2000) needed recognized standards of uncompromised excellence, standards that were acknowledged by everyone. The Certified Master Chef exam aimed to create exactly that.

—Reprinted from The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman by permission of Viking Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Michael Ruhlman. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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Table of Contents

Part 1 Certified Master Chef Exam (or the Objective Truth of Great Cooking) 1
Part 2 Lola 117
Part 3 Journey Toward Perfection 209
Epilogue: It Begins When You Wake Up 321
Appendix 333
Acknowledgments 371
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First Chapter


Certified Master Chef Exam (or the Objective Truth of Great Cooking)
Chapter One
Chef Dieter Doppelfeld leads the way to kitchen station four, followed by two men in lab coats with clipboards. Brian Polcyn stands before these men attentive but at ease in a paper toque and chef's whites. He has set his stainless steel table with cutting board, slicing knife, bain-marie insert filled with hot water, and latex gloves.
Ron DeSantis glances at his clipboard and says, "Chef, would you please tell us what you have prepared?"
"Duck terrine," Polcyn answers. "Straight forcemeat with seared duck and shiitake mushrooms."
"And the sauce?"
"Orange-ginger."
Polcyn then begins the presentation, first submerging the terrine mold for several seconds in water simmering on the stove-just enough to warm and loosen it-then upending the terrine mold on his cutting board and lifting it off the terrine itself. Dieter Doppelfeld, who has run this test for the past nine years, Ron DeSantis, and the third master chef judge, Fritz Sonnenschmidt, an authority on terrines, watch silently. Polcyn's movements are unnatural and stiff, almost robotic; clearly he doesn't stand this straight while moving from stovetop to workstation at his restaurant or breathe so audibly. It's harder to drive a car perfectly when there's a cop on your tail.
Having successfully separated the terrine from its mold and pulled on the gloves, Polcyn removes the slicing knife from the bain of hot water, dries the blade. He places his left hand on the terrine, rests the knife on its center in preparation for the first cut, and for a moment holds still.
Polcyn measures five feet ten inches between his laced black shoes and his toque, which conceals abundant, wavy black hair. He is the thirty-seven-year-old chef-owner of Five Lakes Grill, a popular restaurant in the hamlet of Milford, Michigan, forty-five miles northwest of Detroit. He has been cooking professionally since high school and run the kitchens of some of Michigan's finest restaurants. He is a food consultant for Northwest Airlines along with such luminary chefs as Waldy Malouf, Nancy Silverton, and Todd English. He has twice been a guest chef at the James Beard House in New York City. He has appeared three times in the prestigious Bocuse d'Or competition. He once prepared a private meal for twelve for which the host, at a charity auction, had paid twenty-four thousand dollars. But never before in his twenty-two-year cooking career has he been as nervous as he is at this moment, his knife blade paused above this duck terrine, which he has seasoned with a Madeira reduction, inlaid with mushrooms and whole duck breast, and roasted to an internal temperature of 145 degrees.
Polcyn inhales sharply, strokes once through the terrine, once back, and he cannot believe his eyes. The knife has veered right. Polcyn stares at his hands as if they were not his own. The error ensures that the second slice will be slightly thinner at one end as well.
But the interior garnish of the seared duck breast is pink and glistening; he has cooked the terrine perfectly. He places the slices on a white plate, spoons his smooth bright orange-ginger sauce onto the plate, and sets it on the cloth-covered rolling cart for the judges to taste. Each judge samples the terrine and the sauce. Fritz Sonnenschmidt, a man who is very nearly a perfect sphere, asks, "Were you to do this again, what would you do differently?"
"I might have added some pistachios for color," Polcyn says. But other than that, he thinks it's pretty good.
Sonnenschmidt nods and looks to his left, beyond DeSantis, and says, "Chef Doppelfeld?"
"I thought it was very pleasant to eat," Chef Doppelfeld says. "Nice color, nice flavor."
There are some discreet clicks of pencil tips on clipboards. Before leaving, Ron DeSantis, a certified master chef like the others, a Culinary Institute of America instructor, and a former head chef of the United States Marine Corps based in Okinawa, says, "The major thing is your knife skills." He looks Polcyn dead in the eye and says, "You really need to have good knife skills."
"Yes, Chef," Polcyn says. He swallows at the insult and cannot hold his tongue. "Actually Chef, I do have the knife skills. It's just that sometimes they don't come out."
DeSantis leans into Polcyn's face and with quiet menace says, "During these ten days they have to come out."
"Yes, Chef."

The day before the Certified Master Chef examination began I arrived at the office of Tom Peer, food and beverage director at the Culinary Institute of America, the nation's most prominent cooking school. Peer was for years the executive chef at the Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh, and he was now the certification chairman for the American Culinary Federation, a trade organization representing tens of thousands of chefs. Peer oversaw the master chef certification program.
Peer had asked Dieter Doppelfeld to join us; Doppelfeld was an instructor at the CIA and the man who had managed the daily operations of the cooking test for the past nine years. He wore thick glasses and spoke with a mellifluous German accent. Doppelfeld wore chef's whites; Peer dressed corporate.
The Certified Master Chef examination meant different things to everybody who knew about it, the first clue to me that the test had some kind of genuine power. To Tom Peer it was a simple accreditation. "If you want an electrician to wire your house, would you rather have an electrician who was certified or one who wasn't?" he asked. Same thing with a chef; this test meant to certify that a chef had a specific range of skills and knowledge. But for others the test carried a mystique that had less to do with skills than a confirmation of some innate talent. For still others it was a like a mountain scaled, a solo ocean crossing. "There are two dates you never forget," Ron DeSantis told me. "Your birthday and the day you earn your CMC." This from a married man with two children.
Depending where in the industry chefs work, the CMC title can result in a higher salary, and in some circles it is a title of respect. But a large and vocal segment of the industry denigrates the test. There are clearly two camps, the public and well-known chefs who own popular restaurants and the competition-style chefs who teach in schools and compete in food shows. The prominent chef-owners of successful restaurants and celebrity chefs dismiss the CMC test as being out of touch with reality, a waste of time and money, and absolutely without meaning. Some well-known chefs like the idea of the test. David Burke, chef of New York City's Park Avenue Cafe, told me, "I think the test is great. It's got a lot to do with theory and technique that a lot of restaurant chefs never get to learn." But most popular chefs, upon hearing it mentioned, turn their heads as if they'd smelled something nasty.
On its surface the Certified Master Chef exam was plainly a cooking test, the only one of its kind anywhere, one that lasted ten full days and scarcely gave the chefs time to sleep. The chefs had to be great cooks in good physical condition, but they also had to be knowledgeable on subjects ranging from sanitation to restaurant management to tableside service. The goal of this test was to establish an industry-wide standard of excellence in the profession. The main work of the next ten days, though, the reason I was excited to be here, was cooking. I would be observing a long, hard, slightly bizarre cooking test. Ten days of all kinds of cooking styles, methods, and techniques ranging from American cuisine to classical French, charcuterie preparations such as foie gras pâtés and duck terrines, and baking and patisserie-by design all the kinds of cooking that, when perfected, make someone a master chef.
This cooking would be undertaken by six men and one woman who wanted to be called certified master chefs, or CMCs. I expected they'd be pretty damn good cooks, and a little off-center. Who other than the slightly demented would take this test? Each of these chefs had to travel hundreds of miles to the Hudson Valley and spend ten days away from their families and jobs to work really hard in someone else's kitchen. Most of them worked really hard all the time anyway, cooking day and night in their own hot kitchens. But here they would work harder, cooking and taking written and oral tests for days, days that would last twelve to sixteen hours, each under strict observation and mind-bending stress. For this they would pay a "tuition" of twenty-six hundred dollars to the American Culinary Federation. This did not include room and board, books, or equipment. Most of the chefs put themselves up in the Super 8 or the Golden Manor, two motels not known for luxury just down the road on Route 9. Some of these chefs had spent years studying for this test and spent money and time to travel to kitchens in other states to practice. With travel, room and board, and miscellaneous expenses, the cost of the test would be between four and five thousand dollars.
To review: ten days of grueling work, away from home and family, living in a motel, and spending thousands of dollars to take a test that an important part of your industry openly denigrates. This is simply not something that normal people do. But seven chefs were committed to taking it this year.
The likely result: failure. Failure is not just possible for these chefs; it is probable. Approximately 170 chefs have taken the test since it was first given in 1981. Only 53 have passed it. According to these odds, 2 of the 7 chefs here this year will be standing when the Day Ten mystery basket has been cooked, plated, served, and judged.
So not only did I expect to see close up some fascinating cooking that ranged from classical to modern, truly dramatic sauté and sauce work under pressure, but I figured I'd also be watching unusual souls in a struggle against likely defeat.
"I figured out where you're going to be from," Tom Peer said to me, leaning forward on his desk. "You're going to be from the National Council of Accreditation." When I said I'd never heard of this group, he chuckled and said, "That's because I just made it up."
I would wear a lab coat each day in the kitchen, and Chef Doppelfeld would loan me a clipboard. What my title was and what exactly I was doing for the National Council of Accreditation, I'd have to figure out for myself, Peer said.
In truth, I was a writer and freelance journalist who had asked to observe this odd one-of-a-kind cooking test. No outsider had ever been admitted to it or been permitted the kind of access I'd been promised. (No one had asked before, as far as I knew.) 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.
That I would be undercover had its good and bad points. A common concern dogs any thoughtful journalist: Are you altering the story you're reporting by your very presence as a journalist? This question would be moot since no one would know I was a journalist. My reason for being here, my lie, was to examine the test itself, not the chefs, for the "NCA," so no one would even notice or care that I was taking notes continually. I would have free rein in the kitchens; I could stick my face in their simmering sauces, open the oven doors where rabbit bones were crackling in oil, stand beside the chefs, and learn how to butcher Dover sole, and no one would think twice.
The drawback was that I would have to lie daily, and I was a bad liar. I tended to shake and stammer while lying, certain my sham disguise would be discovered and blow the whole deal.
A small price to pay, however, for what promised to be a thrilling assignment for someone who loves to cook. In Tom Peer's office I asked him and Doppelfeld how it was that so few people could actually pass this test.
Chef Doppelfeld, seated beside me in Peer's office, said, "Failure is usually that of basic cooking principles." All judges would stress to the chefs, and to me, that this test was all about the basics. Did the chefs braise properly? Did they season their food properly? When they were called in to the evaluation room, did they know that their artichoke hearts could have cooked a little longer? There are several mystery basket situations throughout the test; the chefs are given trays of food they have not seen before and have four and a half hours to devise and then cook a four-course menu for ten. Did they use the food intelligently and imaginatively? Was the meal properly cooked, well balanced, visually appealing, and delicious? You start with great meat, fruits, vegetables, and you do what it is your job to do: cook. How difficult is that?
Chef Doppelfeld's eyes enlarged behind his glasses, and he said, "I am not going to put a sea turtle in your basket."
Yet less than a third of the chefs passed this test? Doppelfeld nodded and confided that you could pretty much tell who had a chance and who didn't by Day Five or Six.
"Is it possible that nobody will pass?" I asked.
Doppelfeld nodded, then said with genuine dismay, "If nobody passes, I'll weep."

This grueling cooking test, simply the idea of it, had completely captivated me, and it would become for me the beginning of a two-year immersion in the work of the American chef and professional cooking. But for a long while I couldn't get to the core of my fascination with the CMC exam. I asked Peer and Doppelfeld why they thought this test was important. Doppelfeld explained that this profession, the profession of chef in America, was relatively young. For most of its history the United States imported great chefs; we did not train our own because we didn't have anyone to do the training; the country didn't even have a cuisine it could call its own or any kind of tradition to speak of, beyond the home ec-style teachings of Fannie Farmer, perhaps, or the worldwide impact of McDonald's-style fast food. Yet in the past fifty years, most noticeably in the past two decades, the culinary scene had exploded. Cooks had become chefs, and chefs had become celebrities. Food magazines proliferated. National and local radio shows devoted to food filled the air on weekends. An entire television network was created to broadcast food and cooking shows twenty-four hours a day. Restaurants were becoming as famous as Broadway shows. And the work itself-once the labor of the lower classes-had become fashionable. Parents, once proud to say that their child had entered law school, now boasted that their child was in culinary school. An industry that was still young, huge and growing ($336 billion in overall food service sales in 1998, $376 billion expected in 2000) needed recognized standards of uncompromised excellence, standards that were acknowledged by everyone. The Certified Master Chef exam aimed to create exactly that.
Had it been successful? Only in part, it seems. Some in the industry valued the credential. If a chef worked in a country club, a culinary school, research and development, or as a corporate or institutional chef-and many, many thousands did-the title might mean a salary increase of ten thousand dollars or more. But some in the industry criticized the test for rewarding culinary competition-style chefs, chefs who do not cook to feed but who cook to compete. To support their claim that the CMC test is irrelevant, celebrity chef-owners needed only ask what Charlie Trotter, voicing the view of most restaurant chefs, asked: "There are some great certified master chefs, but how many of them run successful restaurants?" (About 7 percent.)
Others noted that the test was not available to enough chefs to make it valuable. How many chefs would be willing to spend ten days of their life this way? How many would be willing and also be able to afford it? What if they were from a country outside the West? Some of the best chefs in the country, arguably, were neither American nor French but brought to America the cuisines of their homelands: India, China, and other non-Western countries. How did this test serve them? So perhaps the sheer low numbers of those to whom the test was available rendered the test irrelevant or scarcely relevant.
Yet for all the good arguments to dismiss this test, my fascination remained. While the reasons at the time were not immediately clear, the facts were these.
In February 1996 I entered Skill Development I at the Culinary Institute of America, a writer in student attire, in order to learn what the most prominent cooking school in the world said one had to know in order to be a professional chef and to write a true story about learning to cook professionally. One year later, having begun that first day by mincing an onion and having finished nine months later by working grill station at the school's final restaurant, I shipped off the manuscript. Then I sat in my room bereft. This couldn't be the end. I was still empty, and ravenous. Indeed I'd just started. I'd come to the Culinary looking for the knowledge to cook, but when I left, I found I didn't have that knowledge. I thought I did. But I didn't.
What I did have, though, were tools to learn the rest. I had some basic information about how food behaves under specific circumstances and, more important to me, information about how the human personality behaves under those same circumstances. This after all was why cooking mattered. It had less to do with filling your stomach or pleasing your mouth than with connecting yourself to something more powerful and extraordinary than sensual gratifications.
Don't ask me what! At the time I didn't know. But I knew it was out there. I hadn't moved my wife and daughter five hundred miles to a cow town for a year to learn how to make a superlative brown veal stock. I'd thought this was so, but after writing about the learning, I realized, again, that I needed to know how to make a superlative brown veal stock in order to learn the rest. What was the rest? I didn't know! But I meant to find out what it was and why cooking was so obsessively important. That was why I hustled to finagle a magazine assignment to get back to the CIA to watch this extraordinary cooking test. There was something here.
All America, it seemed to me, was busting at the seams to learn more about cooking, announcing its own passions and beliefs with fire and brimstone volume, dead passionate to eat at great restaurants, devouring celebrity chef cookbooks, filling supermarkets, from their own need, with products once unheard of there-Asian pears, taro roots, fresh morel mushrooms; would it be long before one could find fresh foie gras nestled between the Perdue chickens and Long Island ducks at the local Stop 'n' Shop? All of it, I understood, America's ecstatic clutching and cooking and feeding, was an attempt to fill its soul, each passionate cook's attempt to connect himself to a world that was receding through the computer screen of his home office, receding in the rearview mirror of his Jeep Cherokee sealed tight as a space shuttle from the atmosphere outside. America was cooking and eating, yet I knew this cooking and eating were merely the scratching of ghost itches on amputated limbs.
It was for me, anyway. And so I learned to make that basic brown stock. Once I knew how to make it, I not only realized how much more there was to know about food and cooking, but also sensed the fundamental importance of studying the work of professional cooking, to know the people who had been at this work all their adult lives. Somewhere in them was the answer to why cooking well was so fundamentally important.
Three months after finishing my narrative of learning to cook, I had returned to the Culinary to witness a test that claimed both to measure and to evaluate the basics, from which all truly great cooking originates, and to acknowledge or deny absolutely one's abilities as a chef. A range of cooking was performed over a short period by a variety of chefs; a search for the soul of a chef and the importance of great cooking might begin here. It became the beginning of a journey that led me to the kitchens and work of three outstanding but very different chefs, each of whom was distinctly American and, moreover, helped define what the American chef was, helped define the profession in this country, the work and the food.
The reason why the CMC test gripped me and proved the perfect place to begin my search for the soul of a chef at last became clear: It attempted to define the truth of great cooking.
I came to understand that all the varying impressions and thoughts about this test-from chefs who dismissed it out of hand as irrelevant, to those who revered it, to those who feared it or despised it-were only impressions, perceptions. Each described a reflection thrown off by a different facet of what I suspected might be a diamond. The very fact that the test existed was a claim that something solid and valuable and unchanging happened here.
But the idea that a few people could evaluate a chef's food, its creativity, its originality, and measure it objectively, evaluate it, compare and contrast its various attributes in order to render a final unarguable verdict about how good or bad this food was, and this chef was, was both intriguing and ludicrous. Imagine, say, a Certified Master Poet examination in which poets from around the country-not the celebrity poets and commercially successful poets such as Maya Angelou and Rita Dove, but rather the academics tucked away in towers teaching college English, the poets struggling with their work in virtual anonymity, publishing only in small regional journals-converged at one school and, under great stress and unusual conditions, were told to write poetry, in various styles and with unusual constraints of time and method, that would be evaluated by their peers. Their peers, master poets (but not the likes of Robert Pinsky or Richard Wilbur) would read this work, discuss it behind closed doors, critique it before the master poet candidates, and then, with absolute authority, render the verdict: "You are now a certified master poet" or "You are not." Those deemed unworthy would return to their obscure toil diminished in the eyes of their family, their colleagues, forced to admit they do not do master poet work, that they are and always will be mediocre poets.
Of course this is not ultimately what the CMC test does. Poetry is an art form. Cooking is a craft. (Oh, I know how the foodie blowhards-and even a lot of chefs-love to talk about food as art! But I'm sorry, noodles spun into towers and designs on plates with different-colored sauces do not equal art, so don't talk to me about food as art or chefs as artistes.) As with any craft, there were artful levels and shared standards of excellence. The test's very existence implied that great cooking, cooking at so-called master chef level, was not art, was only craft, the result of physical skills that were consistently measurable and comparable from one chef to the next. The Certified Master Chef exam aimed to set an objective standard of great cooking that existed regardless of this or that person's own taste and preferences, something that you could not do with an art such as poetry. Here one sought an objective standard of cooking that was true for all chefs no matter who they were, where they cooked, or how or why or whom they pleased or offended. This was cooking as Platonic form. Culinary essentialism. An objective standard. A truth.
This I wanted to see.
Peer and Doppelfeld had reiterated to me that this test measured "knowledge acquired over a period of time." But there was something more to their claims, something a little presumptuous, but maybe true. Fritz Sonnenschmidt claimed that he was a master chef as soon as he finished his apprenticeship in Germany; it was only a matter of learning the requisite skills and acquiring the knowledge. CIA president Ferdinand Metz, who had conceived and created the test, noted that only one person who had ever retaken the test after failing had passed, hinting that the Master Chef exam measures something innate. The way these master chefs spoke about the test suggested that there was a good deal more here than basic cooking principles. The unspoken claim by all of them was that you are either master chef material or you are not. You either have it or you don't, and if you don't, no amount of study and training can change that. When chefs earned their CMC, they were merely fulfilling what had been in them to accomplish all along. The Certified Master Chef exam measured and confirmed an inner greatness.
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