Ruhlman Revels in Cooking and Stories

by Steve Charles

October 17, 2012

“Humans do two things that no other animal does,” best-selling author and frequent judge on TV’s Iron Chef Michael Ruhlman told a Baxter Hall audience Tuesday night. “The first is cooking. The second is telling stories.”

One of the world’s leading food writers and a top chef whose most recent book, Twenty, has already sold more than 120,000 copies, Ruhlman spoke candidly, often hilariously, about the path he took become both a writer and a cook. He said he feels “lucky to make a living doing the two things that make us human,” but admitted that there was a time he eschewed the “food writer” label.

“I knew I wanted to be a writer since the fifth grade, but I wanted to be an important writer—to write novels, or to be a journalist writing about important events. For years I tried to distance myself from food.”

But with obesity and other nutrition-related ailments becoming epidemic and questions about the nation's food supply in the news, Ruhlman came to realize that cooking is important, and that writing about it is essential.

“If you doubt this, look at us now,” Ruhlman said. “When we stopped cooking food for ourselves we became sick; we’ve trashed the landscape with corporate farms; we’ve debased the animals we depend on for food.

“Now I feel lucky to be writing about food. We need to pay attention to where our food comes from. When we cook, we work together, we have to cooperate. We need to sit down together and eat—it’s what makes us human. We have to realize how important cooking is—it’s a pleasure; it’s an honor, and time to spend with those you love.”

The author of 19 books, including Ratio, The Soul of a Chef, Wooden Boats, House: A Memoir, and the recent Kindle single, The Main Dish, Ruhlman spent the day at Wabash, leading a discussion about cooking at noon and enjoying pizza made from his recipes by Bon Appetit, the College’s food service. He was interviewed by the Indianapolis Star and The Bachelor and also met with students in Professor Marc Hudson’s creative writing class, where he shared advice he received as a student of the celebrated author Reynolds Price.

Ruhlman also enjoyed an elegant dinner prepared by Bon Appetit Chef Jordan Hall, ending the day with his talk in Baxter Hall. There Ruhlman told the story of his decision to drive 25 miles through a New York blizzard in a car with bald tires to take a final exam at the Culinary Institute of America. He had been participating in the class and taking notes for the book The Making of a Chef, had left early the previous day when the snowstorm hit, then called the chef who was his teacher to explain why he couldn’t attend the test the next morning.

“When I said I couldn’t make it, he said, ‘Okay,” Ruhlman recalled. But the chef also said: “You need to understand that one thing we’re teaching here is that part of being a chef means you get there.

“But you writers have your world, and we have ours,” the chef/teacher  had told him dismissively.

Ruhlman took those words as a personal challenge ("I learned to cook, at first, out of anger"), completed the test, and in doing so realized that in order to write about being a chef, he would need to become one—a decision that set him on his current trajectory and the writing and cooking that has brought him such success and fulfillment.

“That I am here at all, doing what I get to do, would have astonished my young self,” Ruhlman said.

Announcing Ruhlman's visit, event organizer and Wabash Director of New Media Howard Hewitt had proclaimed: “Tuesday is all about food." Ruhlman made the day all about what it means to be human. 

“I love writing about cooking, because it’s such a great metaphor,” Ruhlman said. “I’m really writing about how to live.”


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