[Interview] Michael Ruhlman

Speaking at the beginning of Pigstock Traverse City 2013

Ruhlman Speaking at the beginning of Pigstock Traverse City 2013

Michael Ruhlman is a respected food writer and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Recently he took time to chat with us about his upcoming dinner at Forest Grill, his collaboration on the books Charcuterie and Salumi with Michigan chef Brian Polcyn, and his latest book Egg. (You can purchase Ruhlman’s new book at Amazon)

Q. So you’re on a book tour for Egg?

A. Yeah I’ve been on the road for a while now. … It’s pretty much over now .. I’m moving on to the next project.

Q. What next project do you have in the works?

A. I’m working on series, single subject cookbooks focusing on technique. The first one will be how to roast and then we’ll move on to braise. So that’s what I’m working on now. …

Q. I’m a fan of several of your books, Ratio and Twenty. They are great and I know our readers are fans of your books as well.

A. Well, thank you.

Q. I had a couple of Egg questions, you’re probably done with the egg puns of course. With the egg flowchart, it was an inspiration for that book. Can you walk through the process for creating the flowchart?

A. Well it was kind of a manic sort of experience. When I was doing Twenty I was choosing 5 recipes to illustrate each technique or ingredient. When I got to Egg, I thought, “God, How do I even begin to choose”? What can’t you do with an egg? And so I started, I thought OK let’s think about this …you can cook it in the shell, you can cook it out of the shell. If you cook it in the shell, you can cook it hard, medium, or soft, you can cook it Sous vide. Out of its shell you can cook it out of the shell, you can poach it, you can bake it, you can fry it, then you can blend it and cook it that way. And then I realized you can separate it. Then an explosion went off across the landscape of my mind all the things you can do with an egg. Then I got my wife Donna, Donna you gotta help me write this out. I knew it was going to be long so I got this roll of parchment out and unrolled it on the table and by the time we were done we had all these ways you can use the egg. We had a 5-foot-long scroll of parchment paper and that was my book proposal.

Q. You took that to the publisher then?

A. Yeah I thought of a recipe that illustrated each one of those things and put the recipe name down and that was it. And they recreated that in the back of the book. That was really cool.

Q. I saw one of your blog posts was all about Fed Up, which really interested me. I’m a fan of the movie. Do you have a few recommendations on how to get kids into the kitchen?

A. Cook with them, have them there cook with you. Do fun stuff like make pasta, make things that are cool for kids. … Do easy things. For instance, the first thing I ever made was a potato and onion frittata. They’re really easy to do. A fourth-grader can easily handle that. And when they’ve seen what they’ve done, at least for me it was a revelation. It was cool that I made something. I would just include kids in the cooking process, show them that it’s not work and that they can create something that isdelicious.

Michael Ruhlman, Brian Polcyn, and Christoph Wiesner talking mangalista at Pigstock Traverse City 2013

Michael Ruhlman, Brian Polcyn, and Christoph Wiesner talking mangalista at Pigstock Traverse City 2013

Q. Do you have a particular egg that you like best, like a chicken, or a duck, or a quail? Is there a go-to one that you use for certain things?

A. There’s not a huge difference except in size of the egg, duck eggs have a really rich yolk that is relatively light if you really want a rich dish, duck eggs are great things to use. Quail eggs are cool because of their size. For the most part I go for what’s available and what’s available is usually chicken eggs.

Q. Are there cooking techniques with other types of eggs in (the Egg book) too or do you just focus on the chicken egg?

A. I have a quail egg recipe and a duck egg recipe. Poached duck egg on a duck confit hash. But other than that I stick to eggs that are commonly available to everyone. Every cuisine in the world except veganism uses the egg.

Q. The egg is quite an amazing product.

A. It’s a miracle of nutrition, economy … deliciousness and utility.

Q. Are there any common mistakes the home cook makes when they’re cooking eggs that you find that you want to point out or have a tip?

A. People overcook eggs, especially scrambled eggs. They dry them out and cook them over too high heat. The most important thing to know about eggs is the more gentle the heat, the more tender the egg. And if you recognize that you can have really delicious scrambled eggs, baked eggs. That’s the main mistake, they use too high heat. Sometimes you want high heat, like a high heat fried egg … but for the most part you want a delicate egg.

Q. Your book Charcuterie inspired chefs and home cooks and it’s been referenced a couple different times by our readers. How did you end up teaming up with Brian Polcyn?

A. That happened because of a New York Times article I wrote about the certified master chef exam.

Q. Was that “Soul of a Chef”?

A. Yes exactly all the stuff that was in there I was reporting to the New York Times. I took copious notes; they eventually they killed the story. And then it went to Food Arts and then the story won a James Beard Award. Which is nice. I realized I had a second book idea after the Making of A Chef. I came up with a second. I had all these notes from the CMC test. Michael Symon had just been named one of the 10 best chefs in the country. I was working with Thomas Keller so I knew I had the pieces for an entire book. It was at that test, the CMC, I met Brian, I connected with Brian, we just immediately connected. I loved how articulate and funny he was — he’s very smart about food. And it’s rare, chefs are physical people, they tend to do this work because they work with their hands and they like the physical work so they aren’t necessarily articulate. Brian happened to be very articulate. And he’s a good teacher. I knew he did charcuterie so when I wanted to do a book on charcuterie I gave him a call and he said, “Sounds like fun.”

Q. And the rest was history, right?

After seeing the CMC test, after your work on Soul of a Chef, working with Brian, observing so much of the CMC test, what’s your opinion on the current trend of the celebrity chef? Have we given the public an unrealistic view of the chef?

A. I think we tend to glorify chefs, in a kind of I don’t know why for the wrong reasons. My hunch is our food is making us sick as you know. And when something you need to survive starts making you sick you become obsessive about it but because food is all around us, because it’s so available and something you need to survive makes you sick. But because the food is all around us, because it’s so available 24/7 you’d never think food is a problem. We didn’t think when we started the Food Network and started glorifying chefs.

People were talking about how sick it was making us. Yet we didn’t quite sense the problem so we put our focus on, rather than the food, onto chefs because they are the ones that have the information. Food is magical and magic requires a magician. We focused on the chef, made them celebrities but I don’t think we understand the work that well. Much of my work has been trying to explore the actual work of a chef. And that’s what resulted in Soul of a Chef and translating a chef’s work and craft in the kitchen. I think what chefs do is admirable and some of them work incredibly hard at what they do. I admire them enormously and want other people to truly understand what their work is and what it means.

Q. With our glorification of chefs and how we need to eat better, what are your thoughts on big business in being in the kitchen instead of cooking everything from scratch?

A. I’m not going to say anything that surprises you. I think that it’s proven unhealthy to give our cooking over to industrial giants that care nothing about our health. They’re not doing this for our health; they’re doing this to make money. And we’ve seen the results and it seems pretty clear. One of the best advice you can follow for your health of yourself, the health of your family, the health of your community, the health of the environment: Cook your own food, cook raw food, and share it with people you care about. I think the world would be a lot better if everyone did that, I know it would be a lot better if everyone did that.

Q. We might even be a little happier too, right?

A. We would definitely be happier. We would be less stressed, be more healthy — it would be good all around.

Q. Where do you like to eat in metro Detroit?

A. Forest Grill, of course.

Q. All of the information is on the Forest Grill website for our readers if they’re still interested in the egg dinner?

A. Absolutely as far as I know. Tickets are selling well and I encourage them to attend.

For more inforamtion on Forest Grill’s special Egg dinner with Michael Ruhlman: www.theforestgrill.com/menus/ForestSpecialEvents.html

Read more about Michael Ruhlman at his blog.

Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman posing in the classic "Polcyn pose."

Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman posing in the classic “Polcyn pose.”

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