The inherent advantage of such an intimate space as Degustibus’ cooking school is that it immediately transformed Michael Ruhlman’s cooking demonstration from a sprawling classroom exercise into a warm, little cocktail party – albeit one in which the food, not the guests, circulated – or, more aptly, into a small dinner party in a large home kitchen, with Michael as one’s ever-genial and profoundly laid-back host.

Michael noted that, as a latch-key child growing up in 1970s Cleveland, “there was nothing fresh in the house!” and that his first culinary excursion involved a pear gallette made with a can of pears in syrup (“a total disaster”), but that the curiosity about and hunger for good food remained with him: through his journalism career, through his writing career (“I wrote a novel. I got an agent. I wrote another novel – I got nothing!”), and through the magazine article he was assigned to write on cooks – “It was then I realized chefs knew something I didn’t.”

That article led to Michael thinking about writing a book about chefs, which, in turn, prompted him to do research at the CIA {“who, naturally, thought I was just trying to scam a free culinary education – which, of course, I was”), eventually evolving into his seminal work, The Making of Chef -the rest, being, as they say, food lit history.

While being spoiled not only with the pack of recipes for the dishes Michael was preparing for the evening, fistfuls of Macy’s discount cards and the sage advice from Arlene Sailhac, head of the Degustibus program (“Don’t try to go down and use them tonight! The main floor is packed with tourists!”), not only did flutes of Champagne start arriving (Taittinger, Brut La Française, a delicate, pale gold bubbly with a nice toasty finish), but so did the added surprise of a little salumi on crostini, courtesy of Chris Cosentino at Incanto – and, yes, he ships:

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(The particular salami in question, by the way, was very subtle and nutty – redolent of acorn-fed pigs very happily snuffling their way through the great oak forests of – . . . of . . . l’entroterra fiorentina? suburban Oakland? Truly lovely. Looked like Cosentino’s salame pepato, but tasted like a fine jamon iberico. Props, Chris. But enough ProPIGanda for now.)

Fortified by the crostini, Michael happily threw himself into the preparations for his first dish, lardon salad with spinach and arugula, beginning with cooking chunks of his Traveling Pork Belly cooked with a little water in the pan to render it. (Question: “Is that the pork belly that rode with you from the CIA this morning?” “No, it’s the pork belly that’s been hanging out in my hotel room this morning!” Touché, Michael.)

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[I must apologize here for the food pics being out of focus. Of course I have a macro function on my camera. Of course I know how to use it. Of course, overwhelmed by lardons and Champagne and discount coupons, I forgot to use it. All night. My apologies, Michael. Your dishes deserved much better.]

Lardons and salumi notwithstanding, at all times, Michael stressed what impact becoming a cook – and being a cook – had on him, not just in terms of thinking about and managing time, but preparation and economy of motion – “I could not be a cook unless I changed who I was” – but, more importantly, about care and watching the details: “What makes a great cook is paying attention,” before – oops! – slightly burning his shallots. (“This has happened at every demo!”) Great cooks have bad days, Michael – great cooks have bad days . . .

(Michael never moves – but his hands never stop:)

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Great cooks also have Arlene Sailhac, one hopes, who, will not merrily topping off the Champagne flutes or generously pouring the Chablis for the scallop-asparagus dish (Chablis Louis Jadot-Burgundy, very elegant), smoothly fulfilled her duties as MC by peppering Michael with a slew of questions and encouraging same from the unnaturally (for New York) quiet back of the house. (The same could not be said of the front of the house. Oh, no. The front was another matter entirely. But I digress.) Warm, effusive and bustling, Arlene nonetheless took Michael a bit aback with her intensity, until it was correctly pointed out that Mme. Sailhac was not, in fact, a juggernaut, but a typical Jewish mother, in the best possible sense:

Michael: “You’re right – that’s my New York mother!”
Arlene: “And least he didn’t say grandmother! How old are you, anyway?”
Michael: “25!”
Arlene: “You’re adopted!”

- which she promptly did, before asking us all about the lardon salad. (“How is it? Is it good?”) Are you kidding, Arlene? Is it good? It’s bacon! (5 pounds of pork belly, spices (see Charcuterie), and seven days in a Ziplock baggy. Favoloso. So, a little nosh, a little noodging – it was all good. The only thing better? The bacon with a maple ice cream, of course.

Michael and his New York Jewish “mom”:

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and the dish he was most proud of: seared sea scallops in asparagus sauce:

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Moving smoothly, Michael then tackled seared scallops with asparagus in its own asparagus sauce, made brighter with a squeezing of lemon (“Reminds me of something Eric Ripert always says: ‘Lemon saves the ass of so many dishes’”), while simultaneously breaking down a chicken for blanquette de poulet and the stock used for it. The mirrored façade above the demo kitchen really came into its own at this point, enabling the audience to see, in visible realization, not just a cook’s time line but also his or her time management of several dishes – from the “stunt” stock barely simmering on the far right, the chicken coming to a boil next to it, the beginnings of the roux next to that (all on one fine German-engineered range), a cutting board with gremolata working, followed by a second fine, German-engineered stovetop with the remains of the seared scallop and sassily bright asparagus sauce. (By the way, when the red lights on a fine, German-engineered range are on, it means the burners are off. Go figure.)

The mirrored façade:

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By now, happily sated with Champagne, Chablis and a robust red (St. Francis Red, Sonoma Valley) of vague provenance but reminiscent of a well-mannered Shiraz (who cared, at this point? Who knew?), Michael serenely answered questions while demonstrating his one-handed pasta-kneading technique, prompting a brief rumination on mixing pasta dough by hand (the way God intended, as any Italian will tell you) as opposed to by food processor (sacrilege, since you asked). (Why is it sacrilege? Because Italians cook and make food fatto mano – by hand, capisce? – because we can feel the texture of pasta or a meatball, as much as you see or smell or “hear” the doneness of your food. Why? Because even though we buy dried pasta most of the time, we are still a tactile, sensuous people with tiny, fierce, big wooden spoon-wielding nonne in our pasts, and we were raised right. So, when we make it fresh, no machina automatica for mixing, just for rolling out. Is why. Ma va!)

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One-handed or otherwise (Michael: “Leaves one hand free to answer the phone.” Audience: “No, it leaves one hand free to drink the wine!”), kneading the pasta left Michael free to think aloud about the essence of food itself, as both sustenance and nurture. Asked if his wife, Donna, cooks, Michael replied, “No, and as I can be something of an asshole in the kitchen [she won’t”], or if his children are turning into cooks themselves (“No, they eat hot dogs and white rice. It’s very frustrating!”), but spoke longingly of loving those moments, mid-afternoon, with his wife in the kitchen, just talking, discussing their kids, and asking if there was anything he could cook for her. Of the importance, to him, of “rootedness” of being rooted, of going back home to Cleveland after college and staying there (“We are losing our culture by raising our kids in a series of disconnected homes”) with the acuity only a single, latch-key child could have. Of care, of paying attention – equally as important in the home cook as the professional chef.

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And what says caring but – dessert? Cinnamon-Sugar Choux Doughnuts with Ice Cream and Rum-Caramel Sauce. Oh, yesssss. Flushed with success from his blanquette and its ethereal noodles (fatto mano by Ameril, the Degustibus sous chef), Michael not only started the pate choux, but cavalierly decided to make the caramel sauce à la minute, despite warnings from his sous, Wes (“He’s been telling me all day it’s going to take too long”), and a standby bottle of chocolate sauce. It didn’t. With 10 minutes still on the clock, Wes on the Fryolator and a rather indiscreet infusion of rum, the choux went flying out of the kitchen and down the gullets of the appreciative horde so rapidly that mine was the only one left even vaguely intact for photographic purposes:

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So, no, there were no unscheduled appearances of cauliflower or irate Cosentinos at this particular demo. No alarming drop-bys of a darkly snarking Bourdain lurking behind the coat racks. Just a man and his craft, demonstrating the care that goes into that craft – and perhaps making us all think a little of pate choux doughnuts with rum-caramel sauce, and MAPLE ice cream. With bacon, please.

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