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The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America

The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America

4.4 22
by Michael Ruhlman

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"Well reported and heartfelt, Ruhlman communicates the passion that draws the acolyte to this precise and frantic profession."—The New York Times Book Review

Just over a decade ago, journalist Michael Ruhlman donned a chef's jacket and houndstooth-check pants to join the students at the Culinary Institute of America, the country's oldest


"Well reported and heartfelt, Ruhlman communicates the passion that draws the acolyte to this precise and frantic profession."—The New York Times Book Review

Just over a decade ago, journalist Michael Ruhlman donned a chef's jacket and houndstooth-check pants to join the students at the Culinary Institute of America, the country's oldest and most influential cooking school. But The Making of a Chef is not just about holding a knife or slicing an onion; it's also about the nature and spirit of being a professional cook and the people who enter the profession. As Ruhlman—now an expert on the fundamentals of cooking—recounts his growing mastery of the skills of his adopted profession, he propels himself and his readers through a score of kitchens and classrooms in search of the elusive, unnameable elements of great food.

Incisively reported, with an insider's passion and attention to detail, The Making of a Chef remains the most vivid and compelling memoir of a professional culinary education on record.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Beginning with Skills One, where Chef Pardus guides his charges through the complexities of creating a perfect stock, journalist Ruhlman provides an insider's view of the exacting program that many consider to be the best formal training a chef can partake of in this country. In his condensed tour of duty at the attractive, suberbly equipped upstate New York campus of the CIA, Ruhlman spends six months sampling the arduous 81-week regimen the institute employs to both educate and toughen students for the competitive, frantic environment of cooking in fine restaurants. Discerning character sketches introduce the diverse group as the author explores the passion for fine food that makes them pursue this difficult calling. An examination of the curriculum and its philosophical framework is provided along with profiles of the master chefs who deliver this demanding training. The program ends in the institute's restaurants, where recently acquired skills and knowledge are put to the test as students perform everything from menu planning to serving actual customers. Although Jeff Riggenbach's reading is too pedestrian for the occasional comic moments, this audio is recommended for larger cooking collections.--Linda Bredengerd, Hanley Lib., Univ. of Pittsburgh, Bradford, PA
School Library Journal
YA The Culinary Institute of America is known as "the Harvard of cooking schools" and many of this country's best-known chefs are graduates. Ruhlman enrolled as a student with the intention of writing this book, which begins as a chronicle of the intense, high-pressure grind of classes and cooking. However, it turns into an engrossing personal account as, his every effort critiqued, the author determines to become a student and not just impersonate one. YAs will enjoy Ruhlman's anecdotes about his instructors and his classmatessome of whom are still in their teens. The appendix offers a chart showing the course work for associate degrees. This will appeal to anyone aspiring to a career as a chef as well as to those interested in food preparation, presentation, and the restaurant industry in America.Patricia Noonan, Prince William Public Library, VA
From the Publisher
"Any reader who has ever wondered what it's like to be at the center of the cooking maelstrom of a fine restaurant will feel as hurried, harried, sweaty and ultimately as satisfied as a line cook at the end of a long shift with no complaints from the customers." —The New York Times

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The Making of a Chef

Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America

By Michael Ruhlman

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2000 Michael Ruhlman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9574-6


Secret Sharer

The bundle waiting for me on the couch had been secured with butcher's string and looked as ordinary as laundry. I tucked it beneath my arm and strode out of the office and through Roth Hall, the main building of the Culinary Institute of America, slipped into a bathroom, and closed myself off in the farthest stall. I removed my sweater and jeans and stuffed them into my leather shoulder briefcase. I untied the bundle, shook out one of two pairs of hounds-tooth-check trousers, and stepped into them, then buttoned the immaculately white, double-breasted chef's jacket over my white T-shirt. I jammed the extra set of pants into the briefcase along with my street clothes, snapped it shut, grabbed my black overcoat and knife kit, and pushed out of the stall.

I stopped at the mirror. I had not been in a uniform since high school football and I sent myself an ironic lift of the eyebrows, then an uncertain shrug. The figure in the mirror—dressed as a culinary student—looked like me and did not. The figure seemed more a secret sharer. I could not dwell long on this uniformed other self—I had only a few minutes to find K-8, the Skills kitchen run by Chef Michael Pardus.

I hustled down a dark brick corridor—to my right a long, glassed-in kitchen, to my left display cases inlaid into the brick facade. I turned left at Alumni Hall, the main dining room, once the chapel of this former Jesuit monastery, strode past a dishwasher's station, and turned left again. The first kitchen on my left was K-8 and I would arrive, thankfully, a minute or so before two, when this class was scheduled to begin.

I stepped through the doorway and eighteen pairs of eyes cranked in my direction.

Chef Pardus halted in mid-sentence. The seventeen students, already lined at attention along four large stainless-steel tables, two on either side of the room, regarded me curiously. Chef Pardus wore the standard chef-instructor uniform, similar to the students' but with fancy round white buttons on his chef's jacket running up each breast, green and gold stripes along the collar, a green name tag pinned above his breast pocket, and a paper toque that was an inch or two taller than the students'. He was trim, measured about five feet ten inches without the hat, which revealed a few light brown curls kept well above his collar, and he wore wire-rimmed glasses.

"Michael," the chef said. We'd been introduced the previous week, and he had given me course information and homework assignments.

"Yes, Chef," I said. "Sorry I'm late."

"You're number eighteen. I've put you at Table One." He pointed to my spot, smack in front of him at the head of the class. He stood in front of a beat-up, circa-1960 metal desk. Behind him on the board in bright ink marker he had written:


2# mirepoix
2 tomato concassé
1 sachet
1/2 minced onion

I took my spot and shoved my belongings on the shelf of the steel table.

"Do you have a hat?" Chef Pardus asked.

"They didn't give me one," I answered

"A neckerchief?"


"You need to have those in this kitchen. I'll call central issue in a minute and see if we can hook you up." Chef Pardus seemed a little annoyed. I was late and my uniform was incomplete.

But I was here, and that's all that mattered now, the physical fact of my presence. This was a physical place.

I'd made it to Culinary Skill Development One, the first kitchen in the intricately scheduled curriculum at the Culinary Institute of America. It was a move I felt that, in some ways, had been foreordained a decade earlier.

Shortly after I graduated from college and began work in New York City, my granduncle, Bill Griffiths, wrote a letter to me outlining some definitions of art, and in doing so, he described a meal he'd had at Gallatoire's in New Orleans decades ago. "The total meal involved many things," he wrote, "but what I have never forgotten is the potatoes. There were no fancy sauces, no tricky seasonings, no admixture with other ingredients—just plain small cubes of potato cooked in such a way that the surfaces were delicately crisp and crunchy and the inside, rich, smooth, and flavorful. One was simultaneously aware both of exquisite texture and marvelous taste. The lesson it taught me was that the chef hadn't used the potato as a basis for displaying flashy, flamboyant skills, but had placed his skills as an artist in the service of the potato."

I found a fundamental truth in these words and I wrote the last sentence on a three-by-five-inch card and stuck it to the wall beside my desk.

Nearly ten years after my uncle Bill wrote those words to me—faded but still affixed to my wall—I intended to learn how to cook and to write about how one learned. And I hoped to use my uncle's words regarding art and potatoes as a kind of lantern to light my way. I would not strive to learn the sort of stuff being photographed for food magazines, but instead how to make the kind of potatoes Bill had described.

My goal was both humble and presumptuous: I wanted to learn how to put myself in the service of the potato. This was to me the key phrase, in the service of, the axis, the unmoving shaft, of a statement with many ramifications. Is great cooking really art? Are chefs artists? What is wrong with flash and flamboyance? How could the lowly potato become so important in a meal as to be the one thing my uncle remembered decades later?

Also, I love to eat potatoes.

Given these two qualities—the desire to learn to cook and to write about it, with all the notions of artistry, history, gastronomy that inevitably orbit this learning, and a simple and perhaps atavistic love of eating—I had hatched a plan to attend the Culinary Institute of America, the most prominent cooking school in the country, a food-knowledge mecca. What did they teach here? According to the Culinary Institute of America, what did a chef need to know above all? What was the inviolable core of a culinary education? What were the secrets of truly great cooking?

All this I wanted to know, and I'd come here to impersonate a student. I would learn to cook as though my future depended on it. When I entered Chef Pardus's Skills kitchen I stepped into a new world. I would learn what it took to be a professional chef. I would start at the beginning, and the beginning of Culinary Skill Development was stock.

"Making stock is one of the primary purposes for being in this class," Chef Pardus said as we began our tour of the kitchen. Our first stop: the steam kettles. The three enormous tanks, each a hot tub for one, were the steam kettles. The three enormous tanks, each a hot tub for one, were bolted to steam pipes and accommodated by two water faucets. Each day, the center kettle would be filled with 120 pounds of chicken bones, 22 1/2 gallons of water, and 15 pounds of mirepoix, along with bay leaves, peppercorns, parsley stems, and thyme wrapped in cheesecloth and called a sachet d'épices. This combination would yield 15 gallons of chicken stock by the end of class, to be cooled, labeled, and stored before lecture.

"You want to cook stock at what?" Chef Pardus asked.

Several voices called out, "At a lazy bubble." Everyone in the class should have learned this from the video assigned for homework. The library contained about twenty-three hundred videos, some of them made for television by the Culinary Institute—Cooking Secrets of the CIA, a cooking show featuring individual faculty, had recently begun to air on public stations throughout the country—but most were utilitarian, made solely for the students, such as "Making Brown Stock," "Shucking Oysters," and "Calf Slaughter."

"Right, a lazy bubble," Chef Pardus repeated. "A few bubbles breaking the surface every few seconds. Why? Because we don't want to emulsify the fat into the stock and stir up other impurities. We're looking for clarity here."

Chef Pardus squatted at the end kettle's spigot, opened and closed it, saying, "Make sure this is closed all the way or you're going to have wet shoes." He turned the knob on the steam pipe and the kettle began to clank like an old radiator as its jacket filled with steam. Chef Pardus hefted a large white tub from table to kettle and dumped its contents, forty pounds of beef bones. He pushed the faucet over and turned the water on.

"We're going to blanch the bones first," he said, "to get rid of impurities, mainly blood. The water's going to get a rich, funky, gray color. We'll skim that off and then we'll empty it. In Skills One, I want everybody to make stocks to measure. By Skills Two, you can do this by sight." On an easel to the left of his desk was a large pad of paper with the stock ratios on it—water to bones to mirepoix to tomato. For the first three weeks, Pardus wanted us to measure in order to know how high seven-and-a-half gallons of water rises above forty pounds of beef bones. "After four hours, we're going to add what? Mirepoix, right. An hour before finishing, the sachet d'épices." The stocks would be about 145 degrees when we strained them, he said, and we would cool all stocks—typically thirty gallons a day—to 70 degrees in two hours and to 45 degrees in four hours, as sanitation guidelines require. "But don't worry," Pardus said. "We can go from kettle to cooler in eighteen minutes. The record I think is sixteen minutes."

"Make sure you skim the fat before you cool it," he added. "If you forget, and you're making consommé, your classmates are going to hate you because you dropped the consommé grade by two points."

He introduced us to the ovens. Two banks of ranges ran nearly the length of both sides of the room. "When you come in, make sure your oven works. Students don't light pilot lights. We have someone come up from maintenance. If you do it wrong it will blow you across the room." He crinkled his nose and grinned. "It's kinda scary. You lose all your facial hair."

He then addressed the burners and cast-iron flattops, particularly the latter: "You don't always know if they're hot. If this were hot," he said, feeling for heat, then pressing his palm to the black metal, "my hand would probably stick to it. These get very hot, and you'll need to use tinfoil rings to regulate the heat when you've got a lot of pans going."

Chef Pardus returned to the beef-stock kettle, which had begun to steam. Behind him, taped to the wall, a giant piece of paper read:

A great stock is judged by






"A lot of blood is coming out," he said, peering into the enormous kettle. "As soon as it comes up to temperature it's going to turn gray."

Chef Pardus continued the tour of the kitchen, moving clockwise past the ranges to the sinks, three basins for hot soapy water, hot rinse water, and cool water with sanitizing fluid. The sanitation steward, a position that changed daily, was responsible for keeping them clean, not easy when eighteen people are making béchamel sauce. Before leaving the sinks he said, "Please help everyone out here if you're not completely in the weeds. You'll get a lot more out of this class if you're not here washing pots all night."

The food steward, the other position assigned daily, and the sanitation steward were responsible for making sure people helped out. "They are second in command," Pardus said. "They are the sous chefs in this kitchen. If they ask you to do something—if anyone asks you for help—you don't say, 'I'm too busy, I have a headache, my dog ate it, I lost it in the sun.'" He paused, scanned our faces. "You say, 'O.K.'"

We passed the ice machine, which faced the huge maple cutting boards we would be using; passed the dry storage, where food that didn't need to be kept cold was located; and then went to the cage, which was the size of a large closet and filled with stock kettles, food mills, china caps and chinois, ladles, skimmers, colanders, Robot Coupes, and one giant ladle that we would use for shoveling steaming bones and vegetables out of drained stock kettles. He held or pointed to each item. "This is a solid spoon," he said. "This is a slotted spoon. This is a perforated spoon." He alternately held up the slotted and solid spoons. "In some places they call this a female spoon. They call this a male spoon. If you're working with a guy who spent his formative years in Nazi Germany, he may start yelling, 'Give me a female shpoon, give me a female shpoon!' And you better know what it is. But—it's ancient history. We don't use that term here, but you should know what it is."

He held up bain-marie inserts, hotel pans, and spiders.

Sensing that the large, carbon-encrusted roasting pans he'd put in the oven earlier were hot, Pardus pulled two tubs of veal bones from the reach-in, to the right of his desk at the head of the kitchen. The bones had been delivered Friday and sat for the three-day weekend. He smelled them, turned a few in his hands, scrutinizing them. "These are a little off, but I think they'll be O.K.," he said.

Adam Shepard, a tall thin student with a narrow face, sharp nose, and dark hair, asked, "Is this a flavor issue?"

"Yeah, we're talking flavor here. We're going to be cooking it so we don't need to be worried about any residual toxins, like, I don't know, staph toxins. It would just have an off odor."

He removed one hot pan from the oven and poured Wesson cottonseed oil from a large white jug into the pan. "It's the cheapest oil you can buy. We use it only for this." He dumped half the tub of bones in. They hissed as they hit the oil. "You want an even layer, not stacked. Why is that?"

"So they caramelize evenly?" one student asked.

"Well, yes," the chef said. "But you could get that by turning them frequently." He waited. "The reason is that the bottom and top layer would caramelize but the middle would sweat and release liquid, and the liquid would form at the bottom of the pan. So instead of a good fond, you'd end up with a crust of blood and coagulated protein. Don't try to squeeze eighty pounds of bones into three pans."

The final stop on the tour was the pot room, filled with sauteuses, sautoirs, marmites, sauce pots, rondeaux, and plastic two-gallon stock containers. He held up a sauté pan with sloping sides and asked for its name. "Sauteuse." He held up a pan the same size but whose sides were at right angles to the bottom. "Sautoir."

Chef Pardus returned to his desk and said loudly and with finality, "This is your kitchen for six weeks. Keep it clean."

It did seem to me a fine kitchen, spacious and bright. It measured thirty-seven-and-a-half feet by twenty-six feet. The two Hobart reach-in coolers—one for the A.M. class, one for the P.M.—at the head of the kitchen included an exterior digital read of the internal temperature. The reach-ins faced one end of a long bank of Garland ranges comprising three sets of four burners alternating with three large flats above six separate ovens. Across the kitchen were the Wolf ranges, seven burners lined side by side, behind which were seven flattops. This side also contained the deep fryer, which remained empty and covered for all but one day of this class. Two industrial extension cords hung from the ceiling. There were three separate sinks, one just for cooling stocks, as well as a giant ice machine. Even the cutting boards were substantial, three inches thick and weighing, I'd guess, twenty-five pounds. You had to use both hands to carry them to your station.

A kitchen like this costs about $330,000 to equip. There were thirty-six others scattered throughout the Culinary.

Chef Pardus instructed us to distribute chairs around the tables and we sat at our stations. "I'm Chef Pardus, but if you see me at Gaffney's or wandering around Woodstock, call me Michael. I graduated from here in 1981. I got my bachelor's in, I don't know what it's called, management and hospitality, something like that, from Johnson Wales—boo hiss, boo hiss." He smiled. Johnson & Wales University, while not devoted solely to the culinary arts, is among the Culinary Institute's biggest competitors. "I began teaching here last July."

Michael Pardus, thirty-seven years old, had spent much of his cooking career in high-end French restaurants and had watched most of them go under as the appeal of French restaurants faded. His last position had been executive chef of the Swiss Hotel in Sonoma. He loved northern California, decided that was where he wanted to end up, but he didn't want to be cooking fourteen hours a day. Not far from him in St. Helena, the Culinary Institute of America's new facility called Greystone would soon be opening. There, he decided, was his future, and he began a long-range plan to earn a teaching position at the Culinary's West Coast campus, built within a nineteenth-century winery and serving only professionals in the food industry. The first step was to apply to his alma mater in Hyde Park seventy-five miles north of New York City on the banks of the Hudson River. The school gave him a shot at the chef's practical, then offered him a job; he packed his car and headed east. He intended to show the administrators at the Culinary that he was willing to do anything to earn a position at Greystone.


Excerpted from The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman. Copyright © 2000 Michael Ruhlman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael Ruhlman is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Elements of Cooking and The French Laundry Cookbook. He lives in Cleveland with his wife, daughter, and son and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Gourmet.
Michael Ruhlman is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Making of a Chef, The Elements of Cooking and The French Laundry Cookbook. He lives in Cleveland with his wife, daughter, and son and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Gourmet.

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Making of a Chef 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
At first, this author might seem a bit nutso, but you have to admire his determination, to uproot his family just to get the story. On further reading, it's the gourmet's ultimate dream, being able to "audit" the full Culinary Institute oif America's (CIA) course. The story as such is straightforward, coming-of-age, education-of-a-pro stuff, with professors with personality, students with personality, tasks with personality. This author then shows us his personality, his passion for pitch-perfect technique, and his own obsession(s) with stocks and sauces -- the basis for all classic cuisine. This is a wild, fun ride, interesting and wondrous.
slovich More than 1 year ago
A recommended read by the CIA, I found this book to be insightful and enjoyable. The author writes well and is the book is interesting to read. The book articulates the work ethic required to have a career and not just a job...and this extends beyond the culinary arts.
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scintron5 More than 1 year ago
I read this book after I graduated Culinary School. I absolutely loved the book. It reminded me of why I went to culinary school in the first place. Michael Ruhlman is an amazing author, and this book is a must-read for culinary hopefuls.
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pennstater0315 More than 1 year ago
I'm starting at The Culinary Institute of America here in about 2.5 weeks and this book was on the recommeded reading list. After reading it I am now even more excited to be attending this prestigious institute. If you are thinking about attending the culinary make sure to give this book a read first. It goes very indepth into the program and gives you an idea of what you're getting into.
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emmajeanne16 More than 1 year ago
Nice book for anyone contemplating culinary school. Although a bit outdated at this point in time it still provides insight on the inner workings of the CIA. Enjoyable read for anyone who has a passion for food.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute is a revelation to food-lovers and aspiring cooks of what goes on in a professional kitchen. Immersed in the Culinary Institute for six months, Michael Ruhlman effectively translates the cook's jargon of technique and skill into a language that everyone can understand. Ruhlman also touches upon the essential qualities beyond the cook's passion for food: consistency, curiosity and the capacity to evolve.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ruhlman's delightful account of his days at the CIA dismayed me only because I can't be there now! Reading this book I could smell the consomme as the 'raft' floated to the top and feel the refreshing coolness of the bake shop. The Making of a Chef was an easy and fun read for anyone interested in the Culinary Institute of America. It gave me a better idea of what the school is like than the information session that was held in my home town!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was utterly, totally fascinating. I was a cook at a seasonal conference center for 4 years, learning as I went along. I can totally relate to this book. As well as writing about the culinary school, Ruhlman also writes about the chefs and students, so the reader really gets involved in this wonderful book. If you have any interest in cooking, read this book. It is a book you will want to read again and again!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago