By Nicole Hennessy
Michel Ruhlman sets an alarm for 30 minutes, puts his phone in his pocket and begins.
“I want to tell you what an accident it is that I’m here,” he says. Being a food writer is “something I never planned on, never wanted, never sought,” he says.
Aspiring to become a serious novelist, Ruhlman romanticized authors like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Orwell.
Early on he learned discipline. For 10 years he sat down at the same time each day for the same amount of time and produced about the same amount of words. For him, writing is a compulsion, something he needs to do in order to survive.
Luckily, Ruhlman married a photographer, and the two agreed they would pursue what they cared about regardless of the “financial perils that we were sure to endure,” he tells the eagerly listening audience.
Though his first two novels went unsold and unpublished, they got him an agent, to whom he pitched an idea for a book about the culture of single-sex schools “at a time when anything all male was considered to be toxic and anything all female was good for the girls.”
Returning to University School, from which he graduated in 1985, Rulman spent a year there producing the book “Boys Themselves: A Return to Single-Sex Education.”
After it was published, he went through a few new ideas, none of which worked out.
Since he was a child cooking for himself after school, food always snuck into his life. But it would be years before he connected the two — literature and food
Though, searching for a story, he started thinking about how little one learns following recipes. “Chefs know how to cook, and they don’t follow recipes,” he realized, “so why don’t I go cook with them and understand what they know?” So he began interviewing chefs, realizing soon after that a great book might be to go to the most prominent cooking school in the country – the Culinary Institute of America – and write about what it takes to become a chef.
This was in 1995, right on the cusp of “this food revolution,” and his agent loved the idea. Now he just had to get into the school.
With half of a $45,000 advance that was whittled down to $16,000 after the agent’s cut and taxes, he and his wife rented out their home and moved to New York with their infant daughter.
It was risky, but they figured, “If you really want to do something, do it.”
It ended up taking Ruhlman six months to gain access to the school. A professor later told him they suspected he was trying to scam a free education, which he eventually realized he did.
His book, “The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America,” was not the result of lingering around a few kitchens. It was the result of earning the characteristics chefs strive to maintain. It was the result of driving through a snow storm on bald tires and lingering near the poverty line.
After gathering all the material, Ruhlman wrote 1,400 words a day, five days a week and revised on Saturdays. Avoiding complete financial ruin, he completed in four months.
At first, when he realized his 4-month time frame, he thought, “That’s impossible.” But because he learned to cook, he knew that “you didn’t say no, chef. You said yes, chef.” You made the impossible possible.
In total Ruhlman has written 12 books, mostly about food, though he’s managed to sneak in some wooden boats.
He tells the audience that it was just recently that he came to terms with being a food writer … that he’s tried to distance himself from it, that he wanted to write about things that mattered. His 30 minutes having audibly elapsed, he continues to talk.
“It’s only recently become clear to me,” he says, “how important food is.”
Encouraging people to cook at home more to avoid the diseases and pollution resulting from all the processed foods they’ve grown so accustomed to, and explaining that cooking food is one of the things that makes us human, he says, “I’m really proud to be a food writer,” and he thanks the audience, clasps his microphone in both hands and bows his head.