The Making of a Writer/Chef: An Interview with Michael Ruhlman

by Lucian Mattison

Michael Ruhlman, freelance journalist and writer, was the ODU MFA Creative Writing Program’s fall visiting writer in residence. He has authored seven works of nonfiction including House: A Memoir, about the purchase and renovation of a century-old Cleveland Heights house. More recent works include The Soul of a Chef, The French Laundry Cookbook (with Thomas Keller), Charcuterie, and Ruhlman’s Twenty, which won both James Beard and IACP awards. He writes about food and the work of the professional chef and has been a judge on the culinary reality show “Cooking Under Fire” and “The Next Iron Chef.”

Lucian Mattison: Tell me a little about your upbringing and maybe how it geared you toward writing.

Michael Ruhlman: I was born in Shaker Heights, OH, in a traditional middle class household. My dad was an adman, looked a lot like Don Draper. He was a copywriter and a creative director. He was big into reading and writing, especially grammar. A big grammarian.

LM: Is that where you learned to put together sentences?

MR: It was where I learned the mistakes you make and how to fix them. We also cooked a lot. We were a cooking family and we’d hang out in the kitchen and cook.

LM: Were you cooking from a young age?

MR: I liked to cook. Well, my parents both worked, so I was alone and I’m an only child. I would get home and if I was hungry I’d cook. My dad taught me how to make an onion and potato frittata, and it was delicious and easy to do. So I began writing at about the same time, and I think cooking and writing are somehow linked all that way back.

LM: Your father was an obvious influence. Talk about your mentors growing up.

MR: I had a mentor in high school who  taught me how to structure stories and encouraged my fiction writing. When I got to Duke, the best-known novelist on campus was Reynolds Price. He sort of rocketed to fame in 1962, and he was the one who gave me the tools I needed to do all the rest.

He taught me that to be a writer, you need to manage your time really well. You need to know that a lot of stuff that you are generating is generated in large measure in your unconscious. The unconscious is like children or dogs, it operates well in routine and it hates surprises, therefore if you want your unconscious to work for you, let it know when you’re going to be calling on it to do work. So if you’re serious about writing, sit down at the same time of day, write the same amount of time, and generate the same amount of words, 5 days a week for the rest of your life. Routine has been fundamental to my success. I started doing this my sophomore year of college. While I wasn’t writing anything that mattered or was any good, I was developing the muscles one needs to do the work. Doing that over a decade, you get good at it. Doing anything over a decade, you get good at it.

LM: Outside of making money to live on, why did you think it was necessary to write about the food industry?

MR: Well, I didn’t think it was necessary at all. At first, I just thought it would be a good idea and I could get a book contract, but Making of a Chef changed who I actually was, and I kept writing about the industry. People kept saying, “you’re a food writer,” but I wanted to distance myself from that because I didn’t really grow up when food writing was anything. But as time went by, you realize that food is kind of important. We’re looking at a country that is food obsessed and confused because our food is making us sick. When something you need to survive starts making you sick, you become very interested in it, and it made me realize it was a little bit more important than I had originally given it credit for. I feel lucky to be writing about food in this particular time in our history. Today, many people aspire to be food writers, but before that book it never even crossed my mind.

LM: When you’re at home with your family what do you cook on a regular night?

MR: I would roast a chicken. Salt it, put it in a really hot oven, throw some baked potatoes in that oven, and go away for a half hour and do other work. Come back, boil some green beans, and if I’m feeling I have the time, I’ll make a sauce from the bones of the chicken or just the pan drippings, so we have some gravy, and that’s a meal. Some lemon and salt on the beans, some sauce on the chicken, some butter on the potatoes. There’s no meal more beautiful in my mind… or beef stew. What pisses me off is that we’re taught cooking is hard, that it is stressful. Cooking is not hard. You know, it’s just not hard to throw a chicken in the oven. It all comes back to paying attention, not just to food, but to everything.

LM: What are your thoughts on the huge public appeal of culinary subjects in contemporary media. And why have chefs become celebrities worth reporting about?

MR: I think my goal in the food world, outside of writing and my profession, is to get more people to cook their own food. I sincerely believe when we cook our own food that our families are healthier, our bodies are healthier, our communities are healthier, and the environment is healthier. We stopped cooking 50 years ago, shortly after WWII and we’ve become very sick. We’ve been sold a bill of goods by the cereal company and by producers of processed food. They say they are making our lives easier and better. Well have they? No, we’re sicker. Are our lives less stressed? No, they’re more stressed. So it was all a big lie and we’re just starting to realize that.

LM: What best motivates you?

MR: Fear. Fear is the best motivator. You should know this as a poet trying to make a living. Fear will motivate you. If someone offers you money for a poem and they say I need it by tomorrow, you aren’t going to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration doesn’t motivate. Fear of poverty motivates.  I learned to write fast because I didn’t have a choice. Most people would be surprised at what they can accomplish if they don’t have a choice.

LM: What do you think that says about you as a person?

MR: I didn’t have a choice to be a writer. I had to be a writer. Because if I didn’t become a writer, I would have to get a job, and if I had to get a job I’d have to cut my throat. I failed until I started succeeding, so that was 20 years where I was faced with failure. The first ten I was a terrible writer, the second ten I was learning to write and I was having little success. I wrote two novels and that’s not easy. Both are stillborn, I don’t even have copies of them anymore. One student asked me, “How did you keep going?” facing continuous failure, and a father saying, “Please, just get a fucking job. Grow up, Be responsible.” I had financial pressures. I got married, so pressure there. So how did I keep going? I wanted it really, really bad. I wanted it badder than I wanted anything else, and I think that’s what it comes down to. Once I got my first book, I got into The Culinary Institute of America; my wife sat me down at my kitchen table and said, “Michael, you really have to write this book in four months.” Before I’d gone to cooking school, I would have said you can’t write a book in four months. But she said, “Michael we’re going to be broke in four months. You got us into this shit, so write this fucking book in four months…” and she’s the chef of the house. Chef doesn’t mean ‘cook,’ it means ‘leader,’ ‘head,’ and you don’t say “No, Chef.” So I did write a book in four months because I had to, because we were going to be broke in four months, and it turned out to be pretty good. I spent twenty years developing the muscles I that I really needed to sit down and write books that mattered. I was directed by something other than myself into the world of food because I never sought the world of food. My something to young writers is, do what you’re good at. Do what matters to you. Doing something that doesn’t matter to you is a death sentence.

LM: Talk a little about the making of the French Laundry Cookbook. What was the place like? Also, what responsibility did you feel you had to Thomas Keller in these anecdotes?

MR: Among cooks and chefs, he was an almost saint-like figure, a monk. Everyone wanted to know what he was doing. The New York Times called The French Laundry the most exciting restaurant in America. In Soul of a Chef I write about the magical impact my first meal there had on me. They brought course after course, a whole foie gras poached in truffle juice. I was jetlagged, drunk from the wine, drunk from the food, seduced by the food, by the whole atmosphere. It was at that moment that I realized I had penetrated to the very heart of the profession.

I was a nonfiction writer, so I interviewed purveyors, the cooks. I bussed tables to learn about the restaurant. It was originally written in the third person, but the publisher made me change it to the first person, to Thomas’s point of view. And it has become, certainly among cooks and chefs, one of the most highly regarded cookbooks that you can’t really cook from. I am very proud to have done it. It gave me entrance into any kitchen in America, as well as all kinds of stories that I used in Soul of a Chef.

LM: You’re a storyteller. Are you still a fiction writer at heart?

MR: I don’t consider myself a fiction writer. I consider myself a writer.

LM: What do you think this suggests about you as an artist?

MR: I’ve always gone back to Conrad’s definition of an artist: “The purpose of art is to make us see.” I think nonfiction can do that, poetry can do that, and in very rare cases cooking can do that. If I change the way people see the world, then I think there has been some art to my work.

LM: I know you are friends with Blake Bailey, but tell me, when did you meet him?

MR: We share a mutual friend who put us in contact. I was working in New York at the Times and Blake sent me this comically ornate letter, as if he was he was writing in purple spats and a bow tie, and we made plans to get a drink at a bar after work. We went to an Irish pub called Henry Joy’s on 38th and 2nd in Manhattan. It was not joyful, this bar; the irony was thick. We got absolutely shitfaced, forged a bond that remains to this day, and talked about our dreams as writers. I will confess to you that Blake was instrumental in teaching me how to read. I really hadn’t learned how to read well and aggressively and thoughtfully, until we lived together, until I heard this phenomenal, articulate voice talk about literature. He really became my intellectual conscience and in no small measure in how I critique my own work.

LM: Who is your model author and a model chef?

MR: My model author is Reynolds Price. I love the virtuoso prose of John Updike, the brutal austerity of Richard Yates, and I love Raymond Carver.

Chef, Thomas Keller, again, not because I’ve written about him, but because of his awareness. He taught me how to see in the kitchen. There are different levels of awareness we have as people. For example, there are some people who, when driving, have no idea who is even in front of them, but there are some people who, by instinct, know where every car is around them, even the ones in their blind spot. They are on a different, more elevated level of awareness. That’s how you have to see in the kitchen.

LM: Do you think part of your development as a writer was being trained as a chef?

MR: No, but being a chef made me a better writer. When you’re a chef, you respond differently to challenges, therefore I responded differently to writing challenges after I became a cook. It changed who I was for the better.

LM: Okay to wrap this up, let’s play a little game called “Would you rather?” Would you rather make a lot of money as a ghostwriter or be a well-known writer that makes not so much money?

MR: What do you think? The latter. Money is important, but it’s not really the reason I’ve done anything.

LM: How important is recognition?

MR: Recognition is a form of success. If you are recognized, people are paying attention to what you’ve done. But recognition alone isn’t necessarily good. I have no desire to be Kim Kardashian—people recognized for being recognizable. I’ll go back to Blake, back when we were young writers, he told me, “You know, I have no desire to be famous. What I want most to be esteemed by my colleagues.” That’s very good advice. That’s really the recognition you want. If I write fiction, I want to be admired by the people’s work I admire. If I am cook, I want to be admired by the cooks I admire. Fame is not important.

LM: Would you rather always write in the passive voice or always have your meat overcooked?

MR: (laughs) That’s unfair!

LM: You have to choose one.

MR: I’d have to eat shitty food. That’s the worst.

LM: Would you rather read nonfiction or fiction for the rest of your life?

MR: Fiction. It’s what I read when I read what I want. When I read for my work it’s almost always nonfiction.

LM: Would you rather live with your family in exile from the US or never be allowed to leave the US again?

MR: I love Spain, Italy, and France and their food cultures, but the US in itself is inexhaustible, so I’d be happy if I never left this country again.

LM: Would you rather be restricted to raw veganism or just eat only meat.

MR: Meat. I would die! No culture, no society, no group has ever survived on a solely raw diet. I think it’s a dangerous way to eat. It’s very hard to get enough nutrition on a vegan diet. It takes a lot of work, but it helps if you cook the food. I have nothing wrong with vegetarianism. I think that’s fine.

LM: Would you rather have eaten human flesh and have nobody ever know that you did so or would rather have everyone think you’ve eaten human flesh even though you never did?

MR: That’s a question for Tony Bourdain.

LM: (laughs) What do you mean?

MR: I mean that he would like people to believe that he’s eaten human flesh when he actually hasn’t. For me, it depends… How did this person die?

LM: It’s up to you.

MR: You know, I’ll try anything once… I hear we taste like pork. According to some cannibals in Borneo, white people are called “long pig” and I’m good with that. Pigs are such noble creatures. It is the king of meats.

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Argentinean American poet Lucian Mattison was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1987. He is the author of Peregrine Nation (The Broadkill River Press, 2014) which won the 2014 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize, judged by Larry Woiwode, Gerry LaFemina, and Diane Lockward. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bodega, The Boiler, Digital Americana, Everyday Genius, Hobart, Muzzle Magazine, Spork, and other journals.