I became a hobby cook in fourth grade when, on an ordinary weekday, an only child bored after school, I determined to bake a pie. I’d just seen Julia Child do it on TV. Child, who died last summer at age 91, made an apple pie seem easy and fun. It was the middle of a Cleveland winter, 1972, and we didn’t have a fresh fruit in the house, but I located a can of pears in syrup in a back cupboard and so moved intrepidly into my canned-pear pie.
The pie itself was not worth eating (serious crust problems owing to the soaked fruit), but I’d loved making it, and so would continue cooking, apparently forever. But something else happened at exactly this moment in my tepid prepubescence, somehow entwined with the urge to cook: I began to write stories. The linkage of cooking and writing, which now directs my life, dates to that seemingly innocuous time.
I go out of my way to argue with people that cooking is not an art or is almost never an art. But it is always a craft, just as writing is a craft that sometime achieves the qualities of art — that is, when it changes the way one sees. That these two compulsions, writing and cooking — and they are very much compulsions, acts not entirely within my control — emerged simultaneously in my 9-year-old body and mind suggests to me that they’re connected at the source, that they rise out of the very same spot in the unconscious, are two different manifestations of the same primitive nameless need, a root 30 years old in me that’s the main source of the fruits of my labors.
I write about food and the world of professional cooking. It’s not all I write, but of all my subjects — wooden boats, boys’ schools, heart surgery — food and cooking have provided the most solid and enriching means I’ve found for putting food on our table.
The second transformative change came in 1996 at the Culi nary Institute of America, where I got an actual culinary education. Two decades after my edible but unpleasant canned-pear pie, I learned how to cook for real in a class called Skills — proper stock technique, sauce technique, dry-heat and moist-heat cooking and all that followed from those fundamentals. When I’d finished, I was ready to put that work into words in a book, cooking as story. A half year after that, I was invited to the French Laundry by Thomas Keller, via Cleveland food pro Susie Heller, to write what Keller hoped would be an original kind of cookbook: “I want it to be filled with stories” was his only instruction. The $50 coffee table monster has sold nearly 300,000 copies. I wrote another with Keller, “Bouchon,” and a book with Eric Ripert, another of this country’s marquee chefs, as well as my own “Soul of a Chef.” And now, on the strength of that writing, I’m a judge, of all things, on a television show in search of the next great American chef.
How can I fail by now to wonder at my circumstance? Eating Ripert’s stuffed saddle of lamb (an ode to his mentor Jean-Louis Palladin) while looking out over the verdant Napa Valley, or lunching on slabs of foie gras with grilled toast and roasted chicken at L’Ami Louis, 32 rue du Vertbois in Paris’s Third Arrondissement (maybe the best bistro in the world), are “research” for the books. Traveling first class across the country with celebrity chef Ming Tsai, arguing at 30,000 feet about the French mother sauces and plotting a new book. All in the name of work! What incredible luck! How did this happen?
All of it, I’ve really only recently realized, was foreordained that dreary midwinter day in fourth grade, when a chance turn of the television dial made me Julia’s child, one of legions. Alone in the house, without the distraction of siblings or parents, I made a pie with canned pears, and, ultimately, gave myself up to cooking’s shadow urge to write about it.
Michael Ruhlman, who began his adventures in cooking in the fourth grade, gets his son started even earlier.