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The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen by…

The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen

by Michael Ruhlman

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The Reach of a Chef is the third book Michael Ruhlman has written about chefs. In each one he has taken on one aspect of being a chef; just starting, established, and now, when a chef can no longer be in the kitchen and do the thing he loves to do most, cook.

Mostly, he writes about celebrity chefs like Thomas Keller. He also writes about the tv chefs, Emeril Legasse, Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay, etc.

Ruhlman revisits the CIA and chefs and restaurants he's written about in his earlier books to find out what's changed. He discusses not only what's changed but how, what the perception of the well-known chef is, and what it takes to go from chef to celebrity chef or tv chefs.

One of the things I like most about Ruhlman's books is that he challenges the readers to think about their ideas of what being a chef means. This is the existential question for The Reach of a Chef. If a chef can no longer physically work the line, what's the next thing? If a chef begins to own multiple restaurants and spends his time with marketing and branding people, is he still a chef? And what does that mean to the consuming public?

Of course, as with all existential questions, there are no neat answers here. What works for Emeril Legasse and has propelled him into superstar status in the cooking world doesn't work for Thomas Keller. Perhaps I should note that this isn't a question which keeps me up at night, and I understand why it needs to be asked. ( )
  AuntieClio | Oct 3, 2013 |
The author discusses the current state of --- and changes that have occurred in --- food culture in the US. He does this by observing and interacting with chefs at a variety of higher end restaurants across the country; instructors and the administrators at the Culinary Institute of American (CIA); and a few of the stars of the Food Network. I enjoyed his writing style and the fact that the author was not shy about providing his views on the subject. If you have an interest in US food culture, especially if you are interested what happens in the restaurant kitchen, I highly recommend the book. I have not previously read any other books by Mr. Ruhlman, but I definitely will read his other books.

I am a college professor, and I found the section on the CIA especially interesting. The general culture of students appears to be similar in many different types of institutions. ( )
  willyt | Jan 11, 2008 |
(I don't know if they are substantively different, but this review refers to the paperback version - The Reach of a Chef: Professional Cooks in the Age of Celebrity)

I enjoyed this book, but not as much as I expected to. As indicated by the title, the book addresses the changes in the culinary world that have taken place over the last 10 years or so - the rise of chef CEOs, chef "empires," and celebrity chefs.

Ruhlman revisits the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA) to see how culinary education has changed since he wrote his first book, The Soul of a Chef. He discusses the new kinds of people that are pursuing careers in food (lots more mid-career people who are transfers from things like investment banking), the professionalization of kitchens/culinary education, and the ways in which the school and instructors have changed due to new trends in cooking (the addition of more types of ethnic cuisines and the expectation of a deeper understanding of them, in particular) and new demands from the students.

One thing that was sort of weird in this section was his discussion of sexual harassment and appropriate behaviors in the kitchen. There are times when he seems to long for a time when it was ok to make women feel uncomfortable in the food industry. Given that women are still really under-represented amongst the culinary elite, I found this a little bit offensive. There was a really ridiculous story about a woman working in a hotel-based restaurant who sued her employer for harassment, which he interpreted as "complaining" and since it's ok to fire a kitchen employee for "complaining", he fired her. All the hotel staff went on strike to protest her firing and Ruhlman actually comments that this forced hotel guests to carry their own bags (the horror!).

He also discusses the rise of an entitlement mentality amongst students - the idea that because they are paying tuition, they deserve certain grades and are willing to complain to their parents in order to get them. I thought it was interesting to read about this trend within the context of culinary school, since I have also read about it in the context of other types of higher education.

The next section of the book focuses on two American chefs working in two distinct idioms - Grant Achatz (of Chicago's Alinea fame) and Melissa Kelly (owner and chef of Primo, in Maine). Although he does not make the analogy, Achatz represents what was recently called the "masculine" style of cooking - molecular gastronomy - while Kelly represents the "feminine" style of cooking - high-end "real food" that comes from her own garden behind the restaurant. (This is not my distinction - it was recently raised by a newspaper food writer - see http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/06/24/CMGCVQ6DAA1.DTL ) Though Kelly's food is probably what I want to eat, Achatz's food is what I want to read about. So the book really starts to drag once it gets to the Kelly chapter. However, it is really interesting to read about the challenges Kelly faces cooking out of her own garden, where she may find herself faced with a bumper crop of beans and no tomatoes. Restaurants that order all of their ingredients from suppliers can have whatever they want whenever they want - Kelly has to be creative. The Kelly section also highlights the financial difficulties involved in running even a popular, well-respected restaurant, which leads Kelly, despite her initial reservations, to eventually consent to establishing Primo outposts outside of Maine.

This transitions nicely into the chapters on chef CEOs, chef "empires", and celebrity chefs, which I found to be the most interesting part of the book. (Strangely, I have the least to say about that portion!) I really enjoyed the section on Food TV, Rachel Ray and Emeril Lagasse. In this section, Ruhlman accomplishes the seemingly impossible - he actually increases my respect for Rachel Ray. Although I cannot stand her show and I find her ubiquity annoying, his anecdote about anchovies and her osso buco soup is hilarious. Her producers are discussing how to deal with the anchovies, which they feel might scare her core audience. During an off-camera discussion of the issue, Ray says "You can leave the anchovies out, but you'd be a dumb ass to do that." Later, while filming the show, she modifies her comment to something more perky and Rachel Ray-like. This cracked me up! Rachel Ray said "dumb ass!" Clearly my bar for respect is quite low-brow.

Ruhlman's book concludes with a couple short pieces on two very high-end restaurants in NYC's Time Warner Center - Thomas Keller's Per Se and Masa Takayama's Masa - and then a general wrap-up of the current culinary scene.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It is a quick, light read - I should have stuck to my resolution to borrow it from the library because it is probably not a keeper. Although it focused a lot on high-end establishments, the sections on branding and FoodTV shows were the kind of thing that I was hoping to find in The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, but that was sadly missing. Whether you love them or hate them, I think it's undeniable that TV chefs like Rachel Ray and Emeril have really helped to bring new ingredients and a new standard of cooking (perhaps not a great one) to more Americans than high-end coastal restaurants. So I think it is very important to include their ilk in a study of contemporary American food culture. Oh, and the continual appearance of Anthony Bourdain throughout the book is hilarious!

Wow, I apologize for the length of this review. I really got going here. ( )
1 vote fannyprice | Jun 28, 2007 |
Showing 4 of 4
No matter his faults, Ruhlman serves his readers. The "cooking-struck, chef-adoring, restaurant-crazy consumers" get a behind-the-curtain pass to what may prove to be America's theatrum mundi. And culinary professionals get a portrait of life on and off the line at a time when the "frontier for the modern American chef was largely uncharted territory. And the chef was out of balance."
added by stephmo | editNew York Times, John T. Edge (May 28, 2006)
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I entered the Per Se kitchen through the back door at seven P.M., more than an hour after service had begun on what ought to have been a normal Thursday night, to find chaos.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 067003763X, Hardcover)

The acclaimed author of The Soul of a Chef explores the allure of the celebrity chef in modern America

Michael Ruhlman has enjoyed a long love affair with cooking and food. His explorations of kitchens and the professionals who call them home led Anthony Bourdain to call him "the greatest living writer on the subject of chefs—and on the business of preparing food." But even his vast experience couldn’t have prepared him for the profound shift that has occurred in the chef’s place in society.

Beginning at Per Se, the newest and most expensive of Manhattan’s four-star restaurants, Ruhlman takes readers into some of America’s most illustrious—and most innovative—kitchens. Throughout his travels, he seeks new trends and phenomena, like Las Vegas’s recent elevation to the country’s food Gomorrah with the addition of Picasso and Aureole to the Strip’s already formidable selection, and returns to legendary haunts like The French Laundry, Le Bernardin, and Café Gray to see what’s changed. A dispatch from a new world where chefs are celebrities and culinary school classes are burgeoning, The Reach of a Chef looks at the state of professional cooking in the post-Child, Food Network era. In the end, an audience who loves to talk about, read about, and dine in the finest restaurants in America gets an in-the-trenches look at the professionals whose very life’s work is to feed us.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:42 -0400)

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