Michael Ruhlman, the author of The Making of a Chef, The Soul of a Chef, and The Reach of a Chef, has a new book out, The Elements of Cooking, a glossary of terms from “acid” to “zester,” with many more exotic entries in between (such as “myoglobin”). He’s also the co-author of The French Laundry Cookbook, among others.
What’s this all about?
I ask you what your last meal would be, and then you talk about that. It’s a very easy thing to answer. I’d have an enormous steak frites dinner with a big, fat, juicy Zinfandel, because that’s my favorite thing to eat. No one knows when the inevitable catastrophe of death is going to come, so it’s best to have your favorite meal all the time. If you’re not doing what you love, what’s the point? What are you waiting for? Why not just end it now? I eat this meal as often as possible, and it never ceases to please me. Am I making any sense?
Yes. It’s inspiring. Really? That’s the best thing you can say. If you were going to put a gun to my head at midnight, I’d start around seven, with a martini, some wonderful music, wonderful people, and maybe a foie gras torchon, which is in French Laundry. That’s one of my favorite things—lots of fat, but I’m not gonna suffer tomorrow—and a brioche I make.
Would you do all the cooking yourself? No! I’m not gonna be working my final hours. I would have my friends cook—colleagues who have given me so much: Thomas [Keller], Eric [Ripert], Brian [Polcyn], Michael Symon. I’d make them give me one last thing! Wouldn’t it be great to cook a last meal for someone else? Imagine how good we’d get, if we just pretended.
That’s a lot of pressure. But the great thing about food is that it’s not really about food. That’s why people are so food-obsessed. Food and sex are the two things we all do. Well, I guess some people don’t have sex, but everyone eats. And we tell stories. Almost no one exists without story. And those two things are inseparable—fundamentally linked! I hope you can intuit some meaning from my inarticulateness. I’ve never thought about this before.
Really? Well, I have. But I haven’t tried to put it into words.
I’m following, although surely there’s more to this philosophy. Oh, there is. Basically it’s all about fundamentals. Just think of a hollandaise—take away the shallots, the vinegar, the salt, and the pepper, and you still have an egg-butter emulsion. I’ve devoted my life to fundamentals, to knowing and understanding the yolk and the butter. In fact, I’d like a tarragon and shallot béarnaise with my steak—to dip my fries into. And a single-malt whiskey to finish it off. Oh, the kids are coming in the door from school now; we have to finish up.