Archive for Michael Ruhlman

Thomas Keller and Michael Ruhlman: Under Pressure

Posted in Books and gear, Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Food in the news, General food knowledge with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2008 by restaurantouring

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I have to admit that I’ve been pretty irresponsible with my money.  What can I say?  Last week, I came to the realization that I had been alive for a whole year since my car crash, and I became overwhelmed with joy.  I was so happy, in fact, that when my date cancelled on me an hour and a half before dinner, I went out and bought a knife.

Oh God, that sounds horrible (I’m mentally stable and a very nice guy, I swear)!  What I mean is that I went out and got something for the kitchen that I’ve been eying for a very long time — a GOOD, quality, 10-inch chef’s knife — as a sort of present to myself for still, somehow, being more-or-less alive.  Cost me around 315 bucks.  Irresponsible, I tell you.  But enough of this preachy, sentimental, boring self reflection.  On with the content (more or less)!

After spending some time in the kitchen with my new knife, attempting to perfectly brunoise some onions, I went over to Michael Ruhlman’s blog and found a post on preparing and eating bone marrow (One of my many, many, many favorite foods) and a slightly older blog post about Thomas Keller’s new book, Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide.  Reading on, I found that both Ruhlman and Keller would be speaking in Manhattan, at the Astor Center, on Saturday night, November 22, 2008.  To purchase a ticket meant forking over $125, and I was pretty low on funds (especially after buying that new knife), so I (of course) bought a ticket for myself.  It was worth it!  Or at least it would be.  Like I said — irresponsible.  Worth it!

Saturday came quickly, and I spent the day with my friend, Catie (the Editor), and one of her co-workers.  We ate at Shake Shack (but that’s another blog) and sat in a Starbucks (that’s definitely not another blog) to eat and chat. Time flew by and we parted ways so that I could go to this event (Many thanks to both Catie and Cristina for figuring out subway directions for me when I wasn’t paying attention!  To think that I was just going to wander somewhat aimlessly until I found the place — HA!).

The Astor Center is up the short flight of stairs next to Astor Wines & Spirits, near the corner of Lafayette and 4th St.  Upon entering the Astor Center, I gave my name to the girl at the front entrance to confirm my ticket reservation, hung up my jacket (I really need to get a coat, man.  It was freeeeeezing outside), and was offered some wine.

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I started with the 2003 Sierra Cantabria Rioja, a Spanish red wine.  I figured that would help to warm me up a bit, after walking around all day in the bitter New York winter cold (Technically still autumn, but when it’s 28 degrees outside and windy, I don’t care what season it is — it’s cold as balls).  Then, I made my way over to the trays of hors d’oeuvres.

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I started with the miniature sandwiches, reading the sign and snapping a picture before sampling the sandwich itself:

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This was followed by  3 bites of food, each on a little crostini.  All of them were fantastic, the pate campagne and the foie gras (naturally) being my favorites:

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At that point, the two speakers walked into the room.  I introduced myself to Mr. Ruhlman and told him that I couldn’t stop reading his books, which is true.  I read The Soul of a Chef in about 3 days and I read The Reach of a Chef in less than 2 days.  I’m on the T’s or maybe the U’s in The Elements of Cooking right now, and I will curiously start to read The Making of a Chef last, after I’m done with Elements.

I also said hello to Chef Keller, but all I could really bring myself to say was just that — “Hello!”  I guess I was starstruck.  And I thought I was better than that (HA!).

The two made their way to the front, where the chairs were set up on the small stage, and the discussion was soon under way.

projection_resize1The two were projected onto a screen behind the stage so that the people sitting in the back could see the action up front.  I would have preferred if they just worked on their sound system, since it was noisy and staticky and you could not make out what they were saying at times.

Still, the discussion between the two was interesting.  Ruhlman asked a lot of questions for the chef to answer, and I took notes about a few interesting things I learned that night.  For example, Chef Keller said that the cell walls of vegetables (root vegetables such as carrots, in particular) break down at 83 degrees Centigrade.  If you tried to cook a carrot sous vide at 82.9 degrees Celsius, it would remain forever crunchy because plant cell walls would never break down at those temperatures (Plant cells, of course, are made up mostly of cellulose, which is strong, crystalline, not soluble in water, and not digestible; pectins, which ARE water soluble; and hemicellulose, which are fairly easily broken down by acids, bases, and heat).

Additionally, I learned that despite being able to hold food at a certain temperature indefinitely (short ribs at 134 degrees Fahrenheit for 3 days, for example), you could still overcook food.  The wonder of sous vide cooking is that meat can still look rare or raw, have the texture of cooked meat, and be overcooked like a well done steak.

Attention was also given to the vacuum sealer machines that they use in the French Laundry and per se kitchens.  The kitchen staff discovered that you could compress foods such as spinach and watermelon inside one of these machines.  These discoveries have led to inspired new dishes, such as the vegetarian version of beef carpaccio:  compressed watermelon topped with a gelled mango puree “yolk” (When I saw a picture of this dish, I was disheartened to see the mango yolk idea being used here, since I originally wanted to use a mango puree “yolk” for my bacon and eggs dessert idea.  I should probably just make it, take pictures, and blog about it instead of talking so much about it.  I know gelling fruit purees with compounds like sodium alginate and calcium chloride isn’t original — Ferran Adrià’s been doing it for at least 7 years — but I was still disheartened).

Keller answered a few more questions by Ruhlman, and then the floor was opened up for questions and discussion.  There were only a handful of professional chefs in the audience, and almost everybody in the audience knew what sous vide cooking was.  I was quite impressed with that response, although I guess it’s not a surprise, since we’ve been seeing a lot of sous vide cooking on, for example, the Food Network.

Then, as quickly as it started, the discussion was over, and it was time to line up to get free, personalized copies of the book.  I hung around for a bit first, enjoying a glass of the sparkling white wine that was also offered at the event:

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The two [Ruhlman and Keller] were very nice, and Thomas deviated from his usual message when signing books (“It’s all about finesse!”) to a more appropriate, “It’s all about time and temperature!”  I also managed to get my copy of The Elements of Cooking signed by Michael Ruhlman, although I felt embarrassed to have that book signed at this particular event, since I did not want to insult Chef Keller in anyway (it’s Thomas freaking Keller, after all).

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All guests received a parting gift as well.  I believe it is a brownie or similar chocolate cake type treat.  I have not opened mine yet.  I will do so as soon as I take a picture of it in good lighting, and I will post up pictures of that as well.

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Comments from the Chautauqua Institute Lecture on Food

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Food in the news with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2008 by restaurantouring

A reader on Michael Ruhlman’s blog left some interesting questions and comments in response to the previously posted lecture from the Chautauqua Institute, which you can also view here.  I thought I would post the conversation here, as well, because I think where our food comes from and how it is grown or raised is a very good and important question to ask.  It is a complicated issue, to be sure, and food has a greater impact in this world than I think most people give it credit for.  For example, food has an impact not only on our health and our bodies, but it has political, ecological, environmental, and economical implications as well — and more.  I joined in this conversation fairly late in the game, so I actually refer to a much earlier post.  Apologies!  Anyway, without further ado, here’s part of the conversation so far:

Despite Chef Barber’s misanthropic idealism I agree that the most ecological and ethical choice is also the most delicious, but it is also the most expensive. And while we may not have “an inalienable right to protein” many of us most certainly do not have the luxury of being self-righteous about our food origins, owning multiple successful businesses (restaurants in his case), or befriending Spanish foie gras farmers either. How is making food more expensive (albeit much tastier) going to help feed the hungry? Just curious.

JBL

I think the argument for making food more expensive in the hope that there will be more food for the hungry is pretty shakey no matter which way you look at it as it assumes that poor people are somehow going to have more money to pay for food.

Honestly, I think that the biggest reason for poor nutrition is not lack of access to good food, but a lack of money and the access to high quality education and housing and information that money provides. And the reason there is not enough money among the underclasses is that our lovely global economic system is set up so that wealth trickles up not down.

Moreover, super fresh food like the kind used by the the Dan Barbers and the Kellers of this world will be available cheaply and on a massive scale unless it is grown much closer to where people actually live -And with over 80% of the population of the US living in cities and increasingly urbanized suburbs that seems like an impossible task.

Mr. delGrosso, Am I to understand, given your second paragraph, that poor people are too stupid and ill-informed (and obviously too broke)to make better nutritional assessments and that somehow the global economy is to blame?

@JBL:

Not sure how it can be argued that if you have less money, you are going to have fewer opportunities at an education. And if you are less likely to have a good education, you are more likely to make ill-informed decisions. Of course, it’s a generalization. But I didn’t see anyone call anyone else stupid.

I really wish Barber expanded on the inalienable right to protein.

Mr. Escobar,
You are correct, not stupid per se, just ill-informed (or ignorant or unlearned, or you say tomato I say tomato). But we don’t need a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree to hear about saturated fats, high cholesterol, high calories, evil carbs, artery-clogging fats, etc…we just need a television.

And Mr. Escobar,
I will argue that one indeed CAN get educated in this country if they’re broke; in the form of grants, loans, scholarships, etc..I speak from experience! Unless of course you happen to be a white male/female which opens up a different can of worms.

JBL:

I was pretty careful to avoid saying that one couldn’t get educated. Lots of people do. I said fewer opportunities :). Strong disagree that TV teaches you anything about nutrition, or how to eat healthy. If anything, it is a continuous swirl of contradictory messages.

Pablo Escolar,

Point taken with respect to your egg shell walk; and if you think TV is a “continuous swirl of contradictory messages” try college! (kidding…sorta’)

While it is debatable that even the “news” objectively informs (teaches anything), free information is available, via various media, for anyone who cares or chooses it to actively pursue.

@Pablo Escolar,
Also seems like you’re “paisa”! 🙂

Oh no! Knowlton is a judge?! Kill me now!

JBL

It’s axiomatic that lack of access to money, results in a reduction of access to high quality education or, more to the point, the didactic experiences that enhance critical thinking skills and that help people make wiser eating and other life-style choices.

Also, being poor kind of limits what one can afford to eat to what they can afford.

How you read that I was suggesting that the poor are too stupid to make wise choices is not at all clear to me. I’m pretty sure that IQ scores follow a more or less normal distribution throughout the global population. Of course, the same thing cannot be said of money spent on education.

As for the global economy being to blame for limiting the choices of the poor, well, I’m not willing to go so far as to suggest that an abstract concept can cause anyone to do anything. However, I am sure that the global economic system is not the result of a unanimous decision by a myriad of businessmen and government officials that the end product should be the intellectual, physical and monetary enrichment of the poor.

Mr. delGrosso,

“It’s axiomatic that lack of access to money, results in a reduction of access to high quality education…”

We just have to agree to disagree with respect to this point. Where you see axioms I see non-sequiturs; in fact, I’ve already provided a counterexample.

“Also, being poor kind of limits what one can afford to eat to what they can afford. “

That’s also true for the non-poor (credit not withstanding).

Pertaining to your statement regarding the IQ of the entire world’s population I hasten to say: “I don’t know”.

I also do not think that the global economic system is the result of any unanimous decision period (wacko conspiracy theories not withstanding).


JBL,

Not to dismiss anything that has been discussed already (about education, socio-economic status, etc.), but this response is about your original post, which asked “How is making food more expensive (albeit much tastier) going to help feed the hungry?”

The point of all this is NOT to make food more expensive. Rather, it is about becoming conscious of where our food comes from and understanding what it does to our body, what it does to our environment, and how our environment impacts us in turn. It’s a cycle. It’s about appreciation of that food. Only then can we hope to affect and justify [massive] change. Hopefully, once we better understand food in and of itself, we can not only make food healthier, but stop wasting so much of it so that the poor and hungry can have something to eat as well.

Initially, you’re right. Locally growned, “natural” foods WILL be more expensive than conventionally grown produce and factory-farmed meat, but there is a massive ecological cost to those methods that is difficult to quantify, yet it is catching up to us today in the form of polluted air and waters, obesity, and sickness and disease from food-borne illnesses. Salmonella and E. Coli occur today in far more resilient forms, and are also present in greater quantities of our food. Thousands upon thousands of people get sick every year from contaminated batches of meat and even vegetables (spinach salad, anyone?).

The alternative (one of the alternatives, anyway) is to buy locally. Not only does this help local farmers and local economies, but because small scale farms are better able to control quality and the conditions under which their animals and plants grow, the potential for sickness and disease is greatly diminished. The shorter the distance that food has to travel from farm to plate, the less time there is for food to spoil. Additionally, there are fewer hands involved in the exchange of raw foods, which may result in less of a chance for cross-contamination as a result of long-distance shipping. Finally, if the food DOES happen to be contaminated, the pathogen(s) has less time to reproduce to significantly harmful levels (bacteria need time to multiply) AND the contamination should be limited to a relatively small quantity of food produced in a specific region, unlike the massive recalls of millions of pounds of hamburgers that have occurred over the past few years.

Thus, a better question might be, “How much money is spent on medical care as a result of food-borne illnesses caused by commercially grown food?” Or, perhaps, “How much money is lost through a lack of productivity as a result of people being sick from these food-borne illnesses?” If we knew the answer to those questions, the answer should be clearer.

My personal answer to this problem is a combination of Michael Pollan’s first three sentences in “In Defense of Food,” and of one of Chef Barber’s responses during the Q&A session, “Vote with [my] forks.”
1) I will eat food: not that expensive, unsatisfying, processed crap that harms both my body and the environment, AND benefits big companies that thrive off of carelessly grown produce and livestock.
2) I will eat mostly plants: Meat’s more expensive and I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables anyway. It’s healthier to boot. Plus, if everyone eats less meat, there’s more of it to go around. A part of the law of supply and demand is that, with a given supply of something (we’ll use meat as an example), decreases in demand result in a concomitant decrease in cost. Since meat is highly perishable, the meat will need to be sold quickly, even if it is at a lower cost. This example (admittedly, none of what I’ve said) isn’t foolproof, I know, but it is a suggestion. I am not claiming to be infallible.
3) I will not eat too much: See above, but apply that to food as a whole.
4) I will vote with my fork: (Also, see number 1) I personally would trust a local farmer more with making sure that deer (which, btw, also carry E. Coli! Imagine that!) don’t go prancing all over his or her farm, shitting all over the leafy greens that I eat (spinach salad, anyone?), than a factory farm of epic proportions which may not be able to do this — may not even care– in an effective way at all. If I have a significantly more expensive cut of locally raised meat, it will probably be tastier and healthier, and I will be damn sure to eat all of it, and probably also to stretch it out so that I can keep my food budget down. It’d be too much of a shame to let that beautiful food go to waste otherwise, unlike the tons and tons of food waste produced by restaurants and home kitchens in our throw-away culture.

To further lower the cost of food, I personally grow some of it. Hell, I just watered my basil plant while reviewing this ridiculously long response. With technology, home gardens of even miniscule scales are possible with little mess or effort. For example, Michael Pollan gave a lecture in New York’s Public Farm 1, where I met Dr. Paul S. Mankiewicz, Ph.D while standing in line for book signings. Paul — and I apologize profusely if I am mistaken or if I am forgetting anyone — is the inventor of Gaia Soil ( http://www.GaiaSoil.com and http://www.GaiaInstituteNY.org ). With Gaia Soil, easy, lightweight, convenient gardens can be created in almost any environment with access to light (it’s nighttime now, but my baby basil seems to be doing just fine photosynthesizing with the ambient light from the various fixtures in the room).

My point is this: I believe that even with these proposed, dramatic changes, food will not become significantly more expensive to obtain. Additionally, any increased costs in obtaining food may very well be offset by the lower incidence of illness as a result from food poisoning. Health of both body and planet will improve, local farmers and economies will benefit, and the only losers will be big agri-business (which is a GOOD thing). Hopefully, others will think the same way I do in terms of not letting more expensive food go to waste. That way, less food overall is eaten (a potential solution to obesity!), and less food will be wasted or go bad and spoil overall. With decreased demand for more expensive foods (meat), costs will likewise decrease (farmers tend to produce more to break even with production costs, rather than produce less to artificially increase prices for profit), enabling the poor to afford food as well.

I look forward to your response. Also, sorry for the wordiness. I’m REALLY good at that.

I forgot to mention the costs of fossil fuels required to grow, fertilize, harvest, refrigerate, and transport the goods, but you knew that already anyway.