When I finished the manuscript of the Making of a Chef, I couldn't stop cooking or thinking about cooking and the work of the professional chef. There was so much more to know. Learning to cook, then writing a book with the same urgency and speed of a kitchen crew slammed on Saturday night, left me famished for real work and real kitchens, not the ideal world of teaching kitchens.
My first step was to finagle a magazine assignment to return to the CIA to watch a very difficult, at times bizarre, cooking test, called the Certified Master Chef exam, where seven chefs cooked in various styles for 10 days under intense scrutiny and evaluation. I thought the article would be a stopgap between finishing one book and starting the next. In fact, this was the start of the next, because I discovered that the test was based on a provocative, perhaps presumptuous, claim: that there is an objective truth to great cooking, that the greatness or lack thereof could be measured and translated into a numerical score, as certain as the temperature on a meat thermometer.
This single claim provoked a million questions, but ultimately it led me to seek the ultimate reason for the importance of great cooking. What is great cooking? Why is it so important? Why has cooking become so important in American culture that in the span of a decade, chefs had been turned in the public's eye from blue-collar wretches to glittering celebrities accorded almost shamanistic knowledge?
The book is divided into three parts, each describing one chef: Brian Polcyn, chef-owner of Five Lakes Grill outside Detroit taking the CMC exam; Michael Symon, chef-owner of Lola Bistro and Wine Bar in Cleveland, at his restaurant; and Thomas Keller, chef-owner of The French Laundry, among the most celebrated chefs in the world, at work in his restaurant.
What I eventually came to understand is that great food and great cooking isn't really about either of those things, though that's where it begins. Great cooking, in the end, has such power because it allows us to connect with our past, our future, and all of humanity, if we let. I believe that America's insatiable appetite for food and cooking know-how is really the beginning of a spiritual quest for the bigger things: a search for meaning, order and beauty in an apparently chaotic and alienating universe. I'm completely serious.
In the book, I scrutinize three professional cooking situations, and in writing about them, came to these conclusions. The final step of the journey was given to me when Thomas Keller, chef of the French Laundry, invited me out to his restaurant in the Napa Valley and asked me to hang around, ask questions, observe, and then write stories about the French Laundry. Keller gave me the key to understanding what this whole phenomenon is all about, and why it is so important.