June 2008 Issue
The Elemental Kitchen
Author and chef Michael Ruhlman shares his secrets to simplicity.
Michael Ruhlman stands in his Cleveland Heights kitchen and deftly chops apart a head of cabbage with a large, sharp chef’s knife. Whack! A melon-sized wedge rocks onto his Boos cutting board. He salts and eats the cabbage, saving the rind for last, all while preparing the ingredients for fresh bread. He offers me some cabbage, his daily lunch fare, and I decline, which is wise, because by the end of my visit, I will be stuffed.
As Ruhlman nibbles on cabbage and carrots and pours bread ingredients into a KitchenAid stand mixer, he talks about the importance of simple ingredients and simple food. It’s clearly a topic he’s passionate about, because on this day — April 1 — he and his wife, Donna, a photographer, decided to enforce a “no processed foods” rule within the Ruhlman household (which also includes son James, 8, and daughter Addison, 13). What may seem like a cruel April Fool’s joke to some kids won’t be too difficult for the Ruhlmans, who have always made an effort to incorporate fresh, natural ingredients into their meals.
“Mainly it’s the snack food,” he says, citing items like microwave popcorn and pudding packs. “We’re just eating too much processed crap. It’s a little more work, a little more careful shopping, a little more discipline, especially when you have an 8-year-old who loves Cheez-Its, but there’s no reason why I can’t make chocolate pudding for the kids. Or a cake.”
Creating nutritious food in his warm, inviting and functional kitchen — complete with heavy-duty Calphalon pans and such sleek, stainless-steel appliances as a Viking range with cold-water pot filler — appears effortless, especially when cooking seems so intuitive to Ruhlman. Trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA), the 44-year-old chef has authored eight books about cooking, and he’s been featured on such popular programs as The Food Network’s “Next Iron Chef” and Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel. Within the next year alone, Ruhlman will add to his impressive résumé with two collaborative cookbooks: Symon Says: Live To Cook, a collection of recipes and stories from newly minted Iron Chef (and Cleveland resident) Michael Symon, about his lifelong journey with food; and a book with chef Thomas Keller on sous-vide cooking, which involves vacuum-packing and slow-cooking food at low temperatures.
With the easy manner in which Ruhlman moves around the room, it’s hard to imagine a time when he wasn’t an expert in the kitchen. Indeed, although he says his interest peaked in 1997 after his stint at the CIA, Ruhlman has been experimenting with food since he was a fourth grader growing up in Shaker Heights.
“I was bored after school and just in it for something to do. I was watching Julia (Child) on PBS, and she made a cake, or she made a pie, and so I said, ‘Wow, I can do that, I can make a pie.’ And I did. It was terrible. But I made a pie.”
Now working on his 13th book, which is about cooking with ratios, Ruhlman plans to make all dishes, from savory to sweet, easier for home cooks, while demonstrating that basic ingredients change recipes for the better. He describes the concept of ratios as he mixes bread for his children’s lunches. “Measuring in parts is what it’s all about. If you have a scale, you don’t need a recipe. You can make bread without a recipe if you know that it’s five parts flour and three parts water, and the rest is a little bit of salt, a little bit of yeast and flavor.”
Back to Basics
As the mixer whirrs away, I study his kitchen, which is tastefully decorated with antiques. In front of the fireplace there is an old fold-out table, salvaged by Donna. A butcher’s saw hangs above the oven and an antique cabbage slicer adorns another wall. It’s hard to imagine what it looked like before the Ruhlmans spent a couple of whirlwind months working with contractors to renovate their house, a Victorian with craftsman elements built in 1901, but it was definitely worth the effort. The kitchen was the first room finished because, as Ruhlman says, “You get sick of doing dishes in the bathroom sink.” This would be difficult for anyone, but for Ruhlman, whose kitchen is a stage of sorts, a time without it seems impossible. His motions are choreographed: In the midst of making bread, he moves to the refrigerator and pulls out a Pyrex measuring cup filled with homemade broccoli soup, heats it for our lunch and continues with the bread, never breaking his stride.
“It’s fair to say that this is my favorite room in the house,” he says. “It’s also what I do. It’s where I spend most of my time when I’m not at my desk.” For Ruhlman, the mechanical aspect of cooking is a welcome reprieve after writing all day.
Against the far wall, a fireplace anchors the room, adding warmth as well as another cooking method. This element was inspired during a trip to Vermont with Chef Eric Ripert, with whom Ruhlman co-wrote A Return to Cooking, and is mentioned in his book about renovating his home, House: A Memoir. Although it wasn’t necessarily in their budget (or an easy addition to the already-mounting home renovation plans), Michael and Donna decided — against even the advice of their contractor — to have a fireplace in their kitchen.
Was it worth it? Absolutely, insists Ruhlman, who says that he cooks meat dishes in it, which takes more time, but produces flavorful results similar to grilling.
But that’s as far as he goes with unusual kitchenware. The rest of his must-haves are simple, much like his overall cooking style.
“Fancy stuff, you don’t need,” he says. “You need good heat, you need a good refrigerator to keep things cold, heavy-bottom pans — you need two of them, a big one and a little one — you need a big sauté pan and a little sauté pan, that’s all you need.”
He goes on to say that he would never have a pan that he couldn’t put in the oven, especially one with a plastic handle. “So useless,” he says with a dismissive wave.
And then there are knives. Ruhlman discusses the need for only two, really, as he brandishes the larger of his collection around to punctuate his point. “People think they need a $1,000 block of knives to cook. You need two knives, a big one and a little one.” But what people really could do without, according to Ruhlman, are gadgets. “I don’t know who made the rule, but it is a good rule: Anything that does just one thing in the kitchen, you really don’t need it — like a shrimp deveiner, a mango cutter or an apple peeler.”
Ruhlman’s education began in 1991 when he gave up freelance writing in Florida and returned to Cleveland for an editorial position at Northern Ohio Live magazine, where he wrote a column about cooking with various chefs. Most of them attended the CIA, which he had never heard of.
“Very few culinary journalists had a culinary education. And they still don’t,” he says.
At the time, Ruhlman was looking for a book idea, so — with some gentle prodding from his wife — he decided to infiltrate the CIA’s kitchens in order to write about how the school trains professional chefs, and to see how the pressures of a kitchen change people.
Now, 15 years later, he still looks surprised as he recalls the way this plan changed the course of his life. At the time, he thought he was going to attend the CIA, get a story and move on to the next subject. What followed, however, was a writing career that revolves around food, including articles in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Gourmet magazine and Food Arts.
It’s clear that years of experience are not the only thing that Ruhlman has going for him. He truly loves his renovated kitchen, a novelty in older Cleveland Heights homes, which normally have smaller, less functional spaces. But the house didn’t start out this way. When the Ruhlmans took ownership in September 2001, the home was far from move-in condition. It took months of careful planning, working with contractors and above all, patience, to turn their house into a comfortable home. By Thanksgiving of the same year, with much of the work complete, they were officially moved in. But the home is by no means finished.
“Not at all. Not. At. All,” he says, in reference to the little projects that still linger. “Life takes over. The thing you have to remember is that once you stop, it is hard to start again.”
Even though the Ruhlmans carefully planned and finished many of their projects, the house, in his mind, is a work in progress. The kitchen — which boasts a KitchenAid refrigerator, granite countertops and a built-in island sink complete with foot pedals — is a chef’s dream, yet he and Donna are always thinking of ways to expand.
“Our ultimate goal is … to make this all one big kitchen,” he says, indicating the adjoining dining room, which would be used for cooking and photography. “I’d like to have a place where you could cook and entertain and talk.”
For now, he is happy with the space, which offers plenty of room for the essentials. Ruhlman encourages purchasing the basics — things that can be built into a daily culinary routine — such as good oil, kosher salt, good sherry vinegar, flour, eggs, onions and bacon.
On this occasion, he uses bacon from Berkshire hogs, known for exquisite marbling, moisture and tenderness, to whip up a carbonara for lunch. The bacon is crisp and flavorful, and pairs well with the light cream sauce on the pasta. This is a dish that he makes all the time because of its simplicity: he uses just bacon, pasta, cream, eggs and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. The recipe also fits another Ruhlman food doctrine: don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients in it.
“Simple food, I just like simple food,” he says, and then talks about how he incorporates straightforward ingredients in his day-to-day cooking, which starts with roasting a chicken on Monday. “I will have this chicken stock all week long,” he says, indicating a pot on the stove. “It’s there if I want it. I will use it in my stir-fry sauce, and if I’m not going to use it, I’ll save it for next week and pour it over the chicken bones for Monday’s roast chicken. So that’s a way to build stock into your daily routine if you roast a chicken. It’s not hard, it’s not elaborate.”
As I leave, Ruhlman is moving on to his next recipe, a marinara that will be featured in Symon Says. I take one last look around his kitchen and ask if the stress of renovating was worth it. “I’m ecstatic with the way it turned out,” he says. “I love it. I used to sit in here and just look at it and think, ‘I don’t deserve this kitchen.’”