Noted food writer Michael Ruhlman is the author and co-author of numerous books on cooking and the craft of the chef including The Making of a Chef, Ratio, Charcuterie (w/ Brian Polcyn), The French Laundry Cookbook (w/ Thomas Keller) and Ruhlman’s Twenty. He was in Traverse City this week for Pigstock TC and I had a chance to sit down with him to talk about cooking, writing and his Traverse City experience.
What would you say your job is?
My job is to provide for my family, and I do that by writing books. In the food world, it’s to convey information and to make what I’ve learned in cooking as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. I write about stuff that I don’t know, explore it and find out what it’s all about.
Do you still want to be a novelist?
I just started writing fiction again. I’m a writer by disposition – I just have to write. It’s a physical need and happily I’ve been able to make a living at something I enjoy.
With Ratio and Ruhlman’s Twenty, I show that when you know one ratio or one technique, you don’t know one recipe, you know a thousand recipes. All of cooking is about fundamental technique. What Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) does is not that difficult, there’s just a lot of it – a lot of components on the plate. I learned early on that it’s all about technique. I’ve always been exploring that because one of my goals is to get more people cooking. I think the world is better if we cook our own food. We stopped cooking food, and it’s made us sick. I’m trying to counter thoughtless mantras that are put before us like “Fat is bad, fat makes you fat.” Fat is not bad, stupid is bad. We need fat to live on. Too much fat is bad.
You’ve been writing about food and cooking since before the whole celebrity chef scene blew up. What is it about our modern society that has people so obsessively interested in food & cooking when our diet is so terrible?
Their interest is a growing recognition that our food is making this country sick. When you take for granted something that you need to survive, and it suddenly starts making you sick, you’re going to become very interested in it. So where do you go? Who knows about food? Chefs know about food so we turn them into celebrities – sometimes for the good, sometimes not.There’s food TV, foodie culture, food fetishism, all the people posting pictures of food – I think it’s all a result of our broken food system and people recognizing that we’ve lost something and want it back.
Is watching these chefs cook on TV changing how we cook?
Not quickly enough. I think a lot of people spend more time watching food being cooked than cooking themselves. People are realizing that cooking is not all that hard. All you need are good ingredients and the basic skills.
Is there a current food trend that you feel needs to go?
I think the meaningful trends will stick around and the rest will vanish by themselves. I don’t think we need menus that feature every single farm in the description of the dish, and all the people taking pictures of their food and spraying it all around is kind of annoying, but it doesn’t hurt anybody.
Maybe cheap food. I think it was Eisenhower who made a commitment to produce cheaper food for America. That sounds good as an idea until you see the results. Cheap food becomes shitty food. Food takes work, and you need to pay for it. We need to eat less and pay more attention to what we eat.
You have this fearlessness about food and cooking that allows you to look at any aspect of the craft and present it in a clear manner. Where does that come from?
It’s just my personality I think. My dad was a wonderful human being who valued honesty and integrity in everything and hated bullshit. It’s a learned hatred of bullshit and clouded thinking that prevents us from seeing what’s really going on. I guess I’m just mad as hell and not going to take it any more.
You’re considered one of the top food writers in the country right now, but you’re embracing the clipped format of Twitter, blogging and apps. These are things that writers traditionally run away from. Why not you?
I’m independent-minded, entrepreneurial and I’m also terrified of poverty. I knew that if I only relied on books for a living, it was going to be precarious. My wife and I went through many years of financial struggle to do what we do. In order to create some kind of stability, I knew I had to embrace the new technologies and what they offer in the way of spreading information. Social media spreads information and engages readers.
Apps are new fun ways to spread information and potential money makers. Ratio is a good app, and it’s making money. Every day I get a little money that comes in when I’m not doing anything.
My friend Mac makes stuff and said “What do you want to make?” I told him I wanted to make spoons, so we started a little kitchen tool company making things that I like to have in my kitchen. I guess it’s a combination of enjoying entrepreneurial thinking, liking action and of course the ever-present fear of not being able to pay bills and the fact that I like it.
Are there any challenges to social media?
Every once in a while I’ll make a political comment on Twitter and someone will say ‘Stick to food.” One guy I told “I’m not a TV channel – unfollow me.” But for the most part people who follow me share my own passions. That’s why they follow me and that’s why I like it. It’s a community. A lot of my time I spend by myself, so I like the connection. Twitter has been a great reporting tool for me. When I needed to find out what grades of pig they use for salumi in England, I had answer in five minutes from an English chef.
You embrace good food and its role in a healthy life. As a parent how do you try and pass along the love and respect of food to your kids?
Just by practicing it, talking about it why I’m doing this and not doing that. There’s no way around it: Kids do not listen to what you say, they do what you do. They pick up your value system by osmosis.
You’ve chosen to make your home in Cleveland, just miles from where you grew up. What is it about the Midwest that keeps you here?
It’s not the Midwest that is drawing me back. I think I’d be drawn back no matter where I was raised. It’s my home – I grew up there. I talk a lot about how humans are animals, and I guess I returned home to spawn like salmon. Also a big part of that was my father – I moved back to be near him. He allowed us to take some risks that I’d never be able to take otherwise. I knew I was never going to be out in the street.
You called Pigstock one of the most inspiring days of your life. Why?
It’s a big thing to be present at the killing of an animal that weighs more than you do. I love meat, and I love cooking, but rarely do I come in contact with the source. This put me right at the source of food, and of life. To watch a hog being slaughtered felt like part of my obligation as a human being who eats meat to know what it means to kill a big animal like that. To do this in a beautiful place with people who care similarly about where food comes from was a validation of my love of cooking and of the importance of knowing the source of my food.
What’s one thing about Traverse City’s culinary scene that impresses you?
That you’re using the land to grow the food its meant to grow, and then using it to make great food. Black Star Farms is a great example. Their eau de vies are fabulous. You grow great pears here, so you can make a great pear brandy. What’s happening everywhere is happening here – you’re getting great small restaurants. It’s also very community oriented. That’s a strength and I like that.