OK, All You Bourdain Fans…

Some video is up on YouTube from the recent South Beach Food & Wine Festival. It’s a bit shaky in places — and please note that the audio track is NSFW due to a few F-bombs — but in this video, Tony (ably seconded by guest-star Michael Ruhlman) discusses the Golden Clog Awards, his perennial punching bag Rachael Ray, and some other Food Network personalities.

Bourdain and Ruhlman at B&N/Union Square (12/03/07)

Originally, I wasn’t going to take any notes because B&N said they’d be taping this for posterity. However, they then qualified it by saying they would stream it live and then archive it by today. Since some people never got to see it live, it still isn’t up on B&N yet and others are having problems opening it, this a rough version of what transpired last night at B&N Union Square, before people were beaten by B&N security and taken away in cuffs. Okay, so that didn’t happen. But it could’ve.

The first sign of impending trouble at Anthony Bourdain: A Conversation with Michael Ruhlman was . . . well, right there. The signage. A “conversation”? Oh, we think NOT. More like, as promised in the introduction, incendiary remarks, acerbic rebuttals and collateral damage involving Ruhlman’s hair (which, for the record, is Prell perfect and does not need a trim, all right? It was the only think on stage last night that was bouncing and behaving.) The hair held up better than Ruhlman as Bourdain was introduced (a sotto voce sneer from Ruhlman)


as the author of No Reservations – “an impassioned and rare recollection” (eh – so-so)of Tony’s travels around the world while shooting the series of the same name. Ruhlman quickly seized the high ground by presenting Tony with a can of Skyline Chili (“Fresh from Cincinnati!”) and making sure it was displayed conspicuously, glinting viciously on the table between the throughout the rest of the talk.


Tony, in the James Lipton role, began by saying he was always asked what was the worse thing he ever ate? Did he ever get sick? Has he ever seen Emeril in a Speedo? But what Tony himself really wanted to know was – The Symon/Ruhlman Next Iron Chef Issue:

Bourdain: Just how long HAVE you known Symon?!

Ruhlman: I’ve known Symon –

Bourdain: Your kids call him Unky Mike!

Ruhlman: The Food Network knew –

Bourdain: Do you think it really passes the smell test? I mean, it’s like Dick Cheney and Halliburton!

Ruhlman: I actually think I was putting on the Food Network. I’m not sure they even read my books.

Bourdain: And then I got an e-mail from Bruce Seidel (head of programming for FN), so now I’m really paranoid. I predicted a year ago that they’d get rid of Emeril and Batali . . . so now all the old Bolsheviks are taking these guys down to the cellar to be shot. They’re eliminating anyone on FN who can cook. And now they tell me they’ll be re-running A Cook’s Tour – in its entirety – beginning January 2008! How did Bruce get MY e-mail?

Ruhlman: I gave it to him.

Bourdain: [Betrayed!]

Ruhlman: They want you back!

Bourdain: They can’t buy me! F_____ them! And just what IS your relationship with FN?

Ruhlman: I have no relationship with the Food Network. I have no deal with them, no show –

Bourdain: No deal, no show – and no hair and make-up [in your contract] -speaking of which, how about that Gallery of Hair? And Knowlton! Didn’t you REALLY want to beat him up? Come on! [To audience:] And did the best chef really win? Hands?

[Audience mostly indicates Symon]

Ruhlman: It was clear after the second episode that those two were never anything but the top two.

Bourdain: And was the FN rooting for the Hero of New Orleans or the freaking bald guy from Cleveland?

Ruhlman: Truth and justice. You know that, right, Tony?

Bourdain: No! The Food Network needs to be taking chances, and to lead [when it comes to food programming.] About their TV chefs –

There ensues a very lively, rapid-fire discussion of who the audience thinks should be whacked from the FN roster of food celebs.]

Ruhlman: Guy Fieri – is incredibly popular –

Bourdain: So’s Chlamydia! And on Top Chef [to audience] – Hung or Casey?

[Audience is 50-50 on that.]

Bourdain: Hung, easily! So what if he knocked over the truffle oil and [wasn’t a team player]?!

Now, your book The Elements of Cooking – it’s doing really well, isn’t it?

Ruhlman: It’s outselling yours.

Bourdain: It took you – what? – Six weeks to write it?

Ruhlman: About a year. It’s everything I learned about cooking over the last ten years, everything I learned from our friend Eric [Ripert] . . . Thomas Keller . . . but what I want to know is – how do you live with yourself?

Bourdain: How do I live with MYSELF?

Ruhlman: Yeah. You push yourself out there as a cook, but you don’t cook anymore –

Bourdain: Wait a minute, dude -!

Ruhlman: But you still make the best damn cassoulet.

Bourdain: Not the Martha Stewart recipe. But, look, I still have 28 years behind a stove. 28 years of smelling like fryer oil –

Ruhlman: Which you don’t, NOW –

Bourdain: Which, by the way (squints at Ruhlman’s head), is good for the hair. OK, now we’ll take questions from the audience.

Q: Speaking of cassoulet, Michael, have your children recovered yet from the horror of Evil Uncle Tony’s cassoulet? Has your son James pulled his head out of his sweatshirt yet?

Ruhlman: No. They’re still traumatized. [Tony looks wounded.] We keep playing them little bits of the episode, little by little, to lessen the damage . . .

Q: Is there any one place fans bug you to visit?

Bourdain: Yes, The Philippines. “Why not the Philippines?!” And, “Hey, dude – why not MY city?” “Do you have any good food there?” “No.” “Well . . .? It’s TV!” The second most asked-after city is one here in the States, but I’ve completely forgot which one.

Q: Which show changed you the most?

Bourdain: Cleveland. [Audience cracks up.] No, really. For each episode, we try to plan ahead, what to rip off [from movies, books, etc.], what scenes to do . . . in Cleveland, everything went right.

Ruhlman: No. Tony called me. “Cuba’s a no-go. Here. We’re throwing you a bone.” [To Tony]: You’ve done few shows well, but Cleveland was one of them.

[The two discuss the shooting briefly – the brown Lake with the syringes on the beach, etc., and remark about Ruhlman’s “reputation”, which has been totally destroyed by appearing on two episodes of No Reservations.]

Ruhlman: You told people I was drinking lighter fluid! My wife was in tears!

Bourdain: [Really surprised]. Really?!

Ruhlman: Really! People in my neighborhood thought I had a drug problem! They were coming up to Donna [Ruhlman’s wife], and saying stuff like, “I didn’t know Michael had a drinking and drug problem!”

Bourdain: [To audience]: I don’t know whether to feel guilty – or proud!

Ruhlman: Oh, right, like when we went to Masa – who was THAT throwing up into the Hudson?!

Bourdain: The river, dude – not at the bar!

Q: Where’s the best bar for a college student budget?

Bourdain: I don’t know . . . ever since the Siberia bar closed . . . ?

Q: And you quit smoking?

Bourdain: Totally. Having a 7 ½ month old will do that to you.

Ruhlman: You have SOME redeeming qualities.

Q: Let’s talk about near-death –

Bourdain: For Ruhlman, it was Skyline Chili.

[Tony then went on to talk about a recent shoot in Jamaica, where he went spelunking in caves with some “guano nerds”]:

Bourdain: So then the guano nerds say to me, “Dude, do you feel it getting warmer in here?” “Yeah!” “Well, that’s the body heat of 2 million bats!”

Ruhlman: That’s a perfect metaphor for your life.

Bourdain: Hey, that’s why I’m not gonna play with the Food Network! Talk about dropping out of a poop-filled chute!

Q: Is chef celebrity good for food, or bad?

Bourdain: I’m going to say good. People like Batali have the juice and the power to change things [for the good.] He’s got people eating brains and hooves at Babbo. He’s got people to eat out of their comfort zone, because of loveable, orange-clogged Mario. Chefs can now do more, have more on their menus than a meat, a salad, a pasta. [Celebrity chefdom] may be annoying, [it may make stars out of] knucklehead chefs –

Ruhlman: As long as they get famous for what they’re GOOD at –

Bourdain: think it’s increased the prestige of the line cook. People expect more. What I don’t like about it is the celebrity cult thing, where everyone goes along with a lie. You read [in some article]. “Jean Georges [Vongrichten] has a sure hand with herbs and spices” – he’s NOT BACK THERE! He’s flying first class to Beijing right now!

Ruhlman: But great chefs do not need to be in their kitchen to lead it. Only at Masa, where, because HE is the food, and if he catches a cold, the kitchen closes –

Bourdain: The very structure of kitchens is designed so the chef can take a night off. And the very fact that you know the name of a restaurant’s chef means that they can leave their kitchen without the quality [of the food] going down.

[The questioning returned to TV food personalities, and who, again, should be made to walk the plank.]

Bourdain: Ina Gartner – she can cook. Look, she rices mashed potatoes in a ricer! She adds in heated cream! She mounts it with pats of butter! I may not want to spend a weekend in her home – that would be kinda creepy – but she can COOK.

Ruhlman: And Alton Brown. He’s just like his show, but more devious. More mischievous. And he keeps himself pretty separate from the Food Network, too.

Bourdain: Sandra Lee?

Ruhlman: She’s evil. And she needs to be stopped.

Bourdain: Giada?

Audience: She’s got a big head!

Bourdain: She’s got a big head, but she can cook. How about that Iron Chef Sugar Battle? Paula Deen, and that Dinner: Slightly Difficult Guy?

[Slight audience uproar.]

Bourdain: Ace of Cakes Guy? Does he suck?

Audience: No, there is some real craft there, Tony.

Bourdain: I think I like him. And Bobby Flay? He has a career like William Shatner. He’s pissed on the first half of his career, with all those web-footed, web-headed hicks getting to kick his ass – “Hey! Ah beat Bobby Flay at barbecue!” He deserves more respect.

At which point, Tony and Michael abandoned the stage to perform the time-honored tradition of Moving Some Units.

Michael Ruhlman at Degustibus/Macy’s (11/29/07)

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:


(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.)


[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:)


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”:


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


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:


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!)


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.


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:


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.


Meeting Michael Ruhlman

One of the nice things about living in a major urban area is that authors generally include San Francisco on the itinerary when they’re doing book tours. Michael Ruhlman has a new book out, The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef’s Craft for Every Kitchen, and luckily for us, SF was an early stop on his itinerary.

Book Passage in the Ferry Building is a small shop, and they had their hands full making space for the full-house turnout. We got there a few minutes before the event was schedule to start, and practically walked right into Ruhlman as he stood there chatting with a few folks by the door. He was gracious to all and was kind enough to pose for a photo with Scott and I.

United in a love of cooking

Eventually the event got underway, including Ruhlman doing a short reading from the essay on finesse (pp.47-49, if you’ve got a copy already) and taking some questions, then the signing.

Michael Ruhlman

I didn’t take notes during the Q&A session, so I can’t give an in-depth report on the questions asked, but they ranged from questions about judging Michael Symon and where he’d be eating dinner tonight (sadly, the answer to that was “In an airport”) to my own somewhat ineptly-phrased question about the discipline of writing. I mentioned Tennessee Williams in the question, so Ruhlman went off on the dangers inherent in writing and the high number of alcoholics & drug addicts who wrote, which although interesting wasn’t what I was asking about. The error was mine in not being more clear, though.

At any rate, it was all a pretty standard book signing event until something unexpected happened. As we were slowly moving through the signing line, all of a sudden, we hear someone yelling “I’m coming for you, Ruhlman!” and who should we see but Chris Cosentino, would-be Iron Chef and SF resident, waving a cauliflower and smiling broadly. (If you didn’t watch “The Next Iron Chef” the cauliflower won’t make much sense, but if you did, you’ll know exactly why he brought it.)

Ruhlman looked just as surprised as everyone else, and greeted Cosentino warmly. I tried to get a photo of them saying hello, but some schmo with a smartphone was standing in my line of sight. They were nice enough to pose with the cauliflower afterwards, though.

Ruhlman, Cosentino, and a cauliflower

We got to chat with Cosentino after we’d gotten our book (and Scott’s personal recipe book) autographed. Nice guy. if he was unhappy with how things turned out for him on “The Next Iron Chef” he’s gotten over it, or at least can put a good game face. I assume that he and Ruhlman went off to spend a little time chatting before Ruhlman had to get back on an airplane.

So that was our food adventure for the day. We’ve got roasted tomatoes cooling off right now, and dinner prep will start soon. I’m looking forward to reading Ruhlman’s book this week.

UPDATE 11/17: Another report on the day can be found over at Justinsomnia. And at Scott’s place, of course.