As a frequent foil to Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations and judge on Iron Chef America, Michael Ruhlman is one of TV’s best smart-guy curmudgeons. As an author, though, Ruhlman’s put out some of the most novel cookbooks in recent years, including Ratio, Charcuterie, and his latest, Ruhlman’s Twenty, a guide to 20 essential techniques every cook should know. He’s in town now and will be curating a dinner tomorrow night at The Publican. Before that, though, Ruhlman talked to The A.V. Club about soup, brains, and, of course, bacon.
The A.V. Club: Ferran Adria spoke here the other night, and he said that one of the biggest problems is that with this whole foodie boom of the last 10-odd years, it still doesn’t seem like anyone’s really cooking at home. Do you think that’s true?
Michael Ruhlman: I think people are taught that cooking is hard and that they’re too stupid to cook. They’re taught by the people selling and advertising processed food on TV, like, “It’s so hard, so let us make it easy for you when you buy our product.” In reality, though, cooking isn’t hard. It’s easy. It can even be fun. It’s certainly more healthful and economical. It’s a great way to save money, be more healthful, and spend more time with your family.
That’s the way to do it, really—get young people cooking. You have to show them it’s not difficult. It’s basically just 20 things you need to know and then you can cook anything, as long as you have the desire.
There’s no question that it’s a lot easier to get Chipotle or have takeout delivered to your door. You just have to recognize what we give up when we want everything to be convenient.
AVC: Adria also talked a lot about how thinking is so important in cooking, and as it turns out, thinking is the first important technique in Ruhlman’s Twenty. Why?
MR: Who’s going to do it for you? You can’t just have a recipe. Cooking’s so nuanced, and there are so many details, so there’s no such thing as a perfect, no-fail recipe. No recipe can account for all the variables that anyone can encounter. You have to pay attention, remember, watch, and think. If you’re reducing a sauce, for example, what’s it supposed to look like when it’s reduced to the level you want? How big are the bubbles going to be? If it doesn’t look like that, why not? You always need to be thinking. That’s part of the fun. Thinking’s fun. Who doesn’t like to think? There’s a big, calorie-hungry organ at the top of your body, and using it is fun.
AVC: Your books have been pretty technical, albeit in a very easy-to-understand way. Why do you think you approach cooking that way?
MR: I think it’s just the way I think or the way I evaluate things. If you break something down into its component parts, understanding how those parts go together seems less complex. Like, with soup, there are either pureed or clear soups. You think of them differently. Chicken noodle soup, Scotch broth, corn tortilla soup, those are all just stock with some ingredients. Black bean, white bean, lentil, cream of broccoli, those are all pureed soups. When you break it down, it’s easier. It helps you see cooking for what it is.
AVC: In Ruhlman’s Twenty, there’s a recipe for how to make bacon, and it seems incredibly easy. What else do people not make that they should, because it’s just that easy?
MR: Everyone’s always surprised about that. It shows you how little we know about the food we eat, and how easy it truly is to make the best food. As to other things, caramel sauce is so easy and it’s delicious. People just buy that bad Smuckers caramel sauce in the jar, though.
There’s nothing hard in the book, though. The hardest is a pork belly recipe that I love because it has a lot of components. Everything else is really easy, from butter poached-shrimp to roasted chicken, scrambled eggs to pulled pork.
AVC: Everything also seems pretty basic, ingredient-wise.
MR: I like good ingredients and big flavors, simple preparations. That’s what I like to eat, like braises, fatty stuff like bacon, or stews in the winter. Braising is a real transformation of something. As cooks, we transform stuff. I like taking something tough and inexpensive and making it tender.
AVC: How did you end up curating a dinner at The Publican?
MR: The Publican came up because Paul Kahan is one of my favorite chefs, period, not just for his food, but as a human being. He’s a great guy, and he said, “Sure, let’s do something.” They’re going through the book to create a special menu from it, and so whether people have come to see me talk or just happen to be at The Publican because it’s an awesome restaurant, they’ll have the opportunity to eat from that menu.
I’ve never done it before, though. I don’t do special dinners at restaurants. This is the first one I’ve done. Paul seems to know what he’s doing, though, as always.
AVC: We talked to Andrew Knowlton last year about how it seems like the two of you are always fighting as judges on Iron Chef America. Do you think that’s true?
MR: It’s some editing, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s just fun. I like arguing. I like going back and forth with someone smart and opinionated like Andrew.
AVC: So, you don’t think Iron Chef has you on as the “curmudgeonly judge”?
MR: I think they have me on because I’m knowledgeable about food. Some guests have only been on two or three shows. I’ve been on 20 to 25. I’m just an occasional guest, though, and they know I know what I’m talking about.
AVC: You grew up in Cleveland, and you still live there. What keeps you there?
MR: It’s my home. It’s where I live. It’s part of who I am, and to leave it would diminish it. I like it here and I know who I am when I’m here. I think we’d give something up by raising our families in a series of different places. I wanted to live here. I think my wife would have something different to say, because she’s from New York, but yeah. You can’t always stay where you grew up, though. What do you do if you’re from a tiny little town in Kansas? It’s hard to stay there. Cleveland’s also very affordable, though.
AVC: What else do you want to do in Chicago while you’re in town?
MR: I want to go to Next if I can get in.