by Rock ‘n Roll Ghost
Michael Ruhlman is a respected author, father and food afficianado. An impassioned defender of what is right in the culinary world, as well as a voice of sanity in that same world’s attempts to “dumb down” and attract “Joe and Jane Minivan” from “Bumfuck, Suburbia”.
But Anthony Bourdain will often tell the world a different tale, one that characterizes Ruhlman as either a manic-depressive, completely unhinged, a wanton gambler, a modern-day “Snidely Whiplash” or some amalgamation of all of the above. Granted, Bourdain does this all with his tongue firmly planted into his cheek. He and Ruhlman, a strapping Midwestern guy (born, raised and still living in Cleveland, OH), are very close friends in actuality.
The roots of their “battle” go back to the morning after an evening of sushi and drinking in New York City with fellow friend Chef Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin). Bourdain decided to jump on eGullet and leave a post about how “nefarious” Ruhlman, in fact, was. The author answered back, sparking an online tennis match of jabs that many took to be dead serious.
To get away from Bourdain and back to the main subject at hand, Michael Ruhlman, one could argue with a great chance of winning, that he is at the top of his field. Like his NY friend, Ruhlman can be acerbic, sarcastic, informative, poetic and incredibly entertaining. But he’s not quite the bridge burner that Bourdain can be. Whether that’s due to his Midwestern roots, where people, more often than not, will hold their tongues out of politeness, or something else, I don’t know. I’m only beginning to get to know Ruhlman as an author, having just started poking my schnoz into The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef’s Craft for Every Kitchen (available now on paperback). I know Ruhlman from such shows as Bourdain’s No Reservations on cable’s Travel Channel and Food Network’s Iron Chef America (where he has served as a judge on numerous occasions).
His website, Ruhlman.com, is informative, funny and full of insight into his culinary passion. The site’s most recent post’s subject concerns trussing a chicken and is indicative of Ruhlman’s style. Brian Polcyn, of the Detroit, MI area restaurants Forest Grill and Cinco Lagos, demonstrates how to properly truss the bird to ensure that the breast stays good and juicy.
Polcyn, who Ruhlman worked with on 2005’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing , appears on this week’s “Heartland” episode of No Reservations (Monday, July 12th, 10 PM ET/9 PM CT with repeats throughout the week – see listings). Ruhlman helped the show’s producers with restaurant and chef contacts (something he has done in the past, going back to Bourdain’s time on the Food Network program A Cook’s Tour) and appears himself during the shoot’s time in Columbus, OH.
The always-on-the-go author, whose Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking will be released September 7th on paperback, and I managed to work out a sliver of time to speak this past Friday to talk. Despite a rather crappy connection and my tongue-tied, ham-strung ways, I consider the results a success. To judge for yourself, keep reading. And for a sneak peek at the show, click on this link for video where Bourdain samples one of Wisconsin’s famous Buttery Burgers.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: How did you get involved with this particular episode of No Reservations?
Michael Ruhlman: Tony’s team needed help connecting with various folks in various cities. Tony’s got such a busy travel schedule and they’ve got so many shows they’re contracted to do, they try to figure out ways to make use of his speaking engagements and they thought, why not explore various towns he’s speaking in and put together a “Heartland” episode. So they called me to help get contacts and find chefs.
You’re on the show this week, correct?
Michael Ruhlman: I’m on the Columbus part of the show where we got to a really awesome Japanese restaurant.
How have you found being in front of the camera over the years?
Michael Ruhlman: It’s really great when you’re doing it for a Bourdain show, because it’s really easy and natural. It’s basically unscripted and impromptu – there’s no makeup. It’s just easy, off the cuff and fun. I just got back from New York where we shot another one.
What’s the idea behind that one? They’ve done a lot of New York shows.
Michael Ruhlman: It’s a generic holiday show that goes disastrously wrong. It’s a non-denominational holiday.
How did you first come to meet Bourdain and how did that translate into this relationship where you work together?
Michael Ruhlman: It started out, he reviewed my book, Soul of the Chef, for the New York Times. And he gave it a very favorable review and I sent him an e-mail saying thanks and he said we should get together some time. Down the road we did. He needed to get into the French Laundry to do a show there. He wanted to do that but he didn’t think that (Thomas) Keller would let him considering the reputation he has for being a scoundrel. So I helped out with that.
But the real time it began was when we went to Masa – I had to do an article on Masa, the sushi bar in New York City that’s very, very pricey. I said I really wanted to go. He brought me along, he and Eric Ripert and I went to Masa. And after a really good dinner at Masa, we just got hammered at one of Eric’s Upper East side places. The next morning, still reeling from the alcohol, Tony puts up this scandalous post on eGullet about what a nefarious creature I was – Sonny Barger in khaki pants and Oxford cloth – I gradually started answering back and that’s how our sort of antagonistic public personas evolved.
Were there any difficulties in arranging the show for the producers?
Michael Ruhlman: No, because of my blog and Twitter and Facebook, I’ve got a pretty big network to reach out to for questions. So Bourdain’s people use me for my social networks that I can reach out to.
Was there any place that you wanted to get to that didn’t end up making the cut?
Michael Ruhlman: Probably, but Tony’s very specific and definitive on what he wants to shoot and what he doesn’t want to shoot. So it’s all his call. It’s his show.
What’s your take on how the show has transformed since the early days?
Michael Ruhlman: I think the show sucks, don’t you?
(laughing) I actually enjoy it.
Michael Ruhlman: Wow. Why?
It’s a lot of fun and it takes me to places I may never go to.
Michael Ruhlman: (long pause) I’m totally kidding. I think the show has only gotten better. I’ve been really impressed that he and his production company, Zero Point Zero…what they’ve done. Very creative, interesting, aggressive. Aggressively creative. They’ve got a great season coming up. They’ve got a really cool, sort of Italian film show coming up…
…right, the Fellini, black and white letterboxed homage.
Michael Ruhlman: ….yeah, that’s really cool. I’ve been amazed at after this long it’s continued to get better.
Michael Ruhlman: I’m working on a couple of cookbooks now that will be out in the fall of 2011. Just finished up one and I’ll be working on two more books and then I gotta figure out what I’m going to do next.
What about doing your own blog spoke to you as something that you wanted to do?
Michael Ruhlman: I first started my site because I wanted to promote my work. I was very frustrated because publishers weren’t great about getting the word out. I just wanted an outlet. I wanted a voice. It turned out to be surprisingly fun and it’s productive and interesting and I’ve got a big community of commenters who are smart about food. It’s got a little life of its own that’s surprised and delighted me.
Who would you say has been the most difficult subject you’ve had to work with?
Michael Ruhlman: Charlie Trotter.
I hear that a lot.
Michael Ruhlman: He’s quirky. He’s really great and he’s done a lot. He’s an amazing innovator in the restaurant world, but it was so difficult to get him…Gourmet sent me to do a portrait on him, but we couldn’t come to terms on what that should be. It’s the only time I’ve written a story that wasn’t published. He’s not well understood. I was hoping to get at that a little better than I was able to. He’s known as temperamental, but he’s much more complex than that. I had hoped to show some of the complexities there.
Was it that he was guarded or that he wasn’t agreeable to answering questions?
Michael Ruhlman: He was both very guarded and very demanding at the same time. He was overly generous on certain things but very stingy on other things. Very controlling. Which is what Chefs sort of need to be in order to run a business. But they don’t always make for great subjects for articles.