Michael Ruhlman is The New York Times best-selling author of more than a dozen books of his own, and collaborations with the superstars of the culinary world (including Eric Ripert and Thomas Keller). He is known for breaking down complicated ideas into bite-sized pieces, as in his book Ratio, which focuses on the proportions of ingredients that go well together in any recipe, and The Elements of Cooking, which is a strong cooking school education distilled into a single, approachable book that is as engaging to read as it is educational.
What is your earliest memory of cooking?
There are two, and I no longer know which came first, though I think it was the pear pie. I was in fourth grade, home alone, a latchkey child, Cleveland in February, 1972, and I watched an episode of Julia where she made an apple pie. She made it look so easy and accessible, her personal genius, that I figured I could, too. Again, Cleveland in February 1972, the freshest thing in the house was canned pears. So there it was, a pear tart, I made. It was awful, but my dad, when he got home that night, was so astonished and proud, I just kept going. Next was the potato and onion frittata that’s in my new book, Egg. One, I made it myself, which was its own kind of cool (to myself, home alone). But that it tasted so good and I felt so good after eating it, I think I just sensed, how can you not cook food?
Of all the fine recipes in your new book, is there one that you would highlight as a personal favorite?
The soft-cooked egg on an artichoke heart with lemon-shallot vinaigrette.
What is the strangest dish that you’ve ever tasted featuring eggs that you still enjoyed?
There’s no such thing as a strange egg dish. All egg dishes, if prepared properly, are ipso facto wonderful. I suppose you could choose some Modernist concoction like Wylie Dufresne’s reconstructed eggs benedict with its fried Hollandaise as “strange,” in that it’s completely unique.
Your wife is the photographer for your books and blog. Please walk us through the logistics of preparing a dish that will be photographed. Is it different from preparing a dish that you’re just meant to eat? Does “food styling” come into play, and what does it entail?
Most of us don’t know what goes into taking a picture of food for publication. We’re a little less orthodox, on purpose, in that we don’t heavily style photographs. Our goals is to show readers what their food can look like, rather than some super-refined, heavily worked over magazine photograph. I think those photos make home cooks feel like failures when their dish doesn’t look as good as the one in the magazine (which had many people laboring for hours to make it just so; who has that kind of time at home?).
I tell Donna the dish and the process, and the key points of every dish. I cook the food as carefully as I can and Donna shoots it. We do our best as stylists, but it’s an uphill struggle. We try to shoot all steps of making a dish because with digital we can, and people like to see the process of a dish coming together; what it’s supposed to look like at any given stage. And thanks to digital images, we can do this. The hard part is keeping all the images organized and findable when we need them.
We almost always eat the food after its shot. I hate waste. For process cooking shots, if I have to shoot omelet making or searing something involving a burner, we use a portable an induction burner. Like just about everything, process shots are done in our dining room, where lights are always set up. I’m usually pretty good on the first go round, but I did have to make four omelets before I got one I liked, the one featured in the Egg book.
Which cooking tools could you not live without?
A flat edged wooden spoon is so important I asked my partner in tools to make one, now we make three different sizes. A really heavy large cutting board. A really sharp knife (mine are Wusthof). And a cast iron a skillet. Nothing you can’t do if you have those four items.
You describe how much more important technique is, over recipes, and yet the majority of non-professional cooks lack even the most basic techniques—for instance, I’m sure I hold a knife the wrong way. Does it strike you as funny that most of the world cooks well-enough, but with incorrect technique?
Not at all. I think your question is funny. Because what it’s really suggesting is that cooking is hard, which is what we’re taught—by the people selling you processed food. Cooking is so hard, we’re going to make your life so much better, so much easier, so stress free, if you just buy our precooked food. Well, has it? No, we’re more stressed than ever, our country is sicker. We’re taught that cooking is hard. It’s not. Which means you can hold a knife however you want and your food will be fine. I’d probably take issue with your knife only if it weren’t sharp. Dull knives are part of the reason people think cooking is difficult. Dull knives are the single biggest problem in the American kitchen.